Siasia, finally!

It didn't take me long after arriving in Nigeria as a schoolboy to learn the legend of Samson Siasia.  One of the best footballers among my classmates was immediately given "Siasia" as a nickname, and when I asked why, I would be regaled of the eponymous player's energetic style in the colors of Nigerian clubs Julius Berger and Flash Flamingoes, bombing forward to goal with pace and power.  I watched him in the Nigerian 1994 African Nations Cup winning side, and playing in the USA '94 World Cup, that exciting, raw team that entertained everybody, and only lost in that extra time heart-breaker against Italy.

I've also watched his stewardship of Nigerian youth national teams, and his great exploits managing some of the promising talent that's become the backbone of our current side.  For me, it should have been a no-brainer for Siasia to be promoted to national team coach, and I've said so again and again.


Well hallelujah! Finally it's come to pass.  SIasia was appointed head coach of the Super Eagles last month.  The heartwarming stuff started straightaway, with his celebrating with genune emotion, and singing Yoruba praise songs.  This is an institution that means to almost 200 million people so much more than just a bunch of footballers ("41. They aren't kidding when they talk about football as a unifying force.")  It's only proper for someone granted its custodianship to demonstrate what it really means to him, especially when that demonstration includes a bit of native Yoruba to reinforce the fact that we're keeping this business properly in the family.  Yes, yes Shaibu Amodu (National team coach in several stints between foreign coaches) before him was also Nigerian, but he always seemed as much bureaucrat as trainer, and rarely showed the passion and fire I think our boys need to show what they're capable of doing in that green strip.  In the past we've had great leaders in the field such as Yekini, Okocha, Olise, Amokachi and even Siasia.  Unfortunately we don't really have that any more, so we need a spark from the sidelines.  If Siasia can't provide that, no one can.

And now that the seemingly irredeemable NFF have astonished us by making the obvious move, I hope they have the good sense to be patient with Siasia.  He is already making the noises that the national side needs a complete change in mindset.  He is right, but it will not happen overnight.  The once exciting John Mikel Obi, for example, has been turned into a lumbering apparatchik of the ruthlessly efficient Chelsea juggernaut.  He has lost his soul.  We'll need to figure out how to deal with Obi and other players who've undergone reprogramming by their clubs, who do after all pay their wages, fair enough.  When they put on the green and white strip they need to rediscover the soul of Nigerian football, and there will be some trial and error while Siasia sets about leading them to that rediscovery.  Let's not go running back to some European coach the first time the Eagles make a tournament misstep.

Much is made of the need for an Englishman in the England manager job.  The same logic applies to African nations.  It's not that African coaches would necessarily be better right away, but how can we eventually groom a cadre of African coaches if we don't put our faith in our present, brightest prospects?  European coaches don't make it their business to build the local academies of coaches and players.  They don't care.  They just want their multi-million wages and matchday bonuses.  We need someone who will shed a few tears and show that his connection to the job runs deeper than the paycheck.  Enter Samson Siasia.  And It's about time.  "Oṣe oṣe ooh! Oṣe oooh! Oṣe baba!" Up Super Eagles!

Colorado are MLS East champs. I know, 'cause I was THERE!

I tried very hard to be a Colorado Rapids fan for a long time.  My family used to be season's ticket holders, we definitely had some good times, and I was ecstatic when the Rapids partnered with my beloved Arsenal (Kroenke is owner of The Rapids, and now owns a big chunk of the London club).  I had dreams of coaching and academy exchanges, raising the quality of the Rapids' game.

It's nice to have a local team to support, and many of my good friends with whom I play amateur football follow them; Marcelo Balboa, Rapids and US National team legend (to the extent that you can say "legend" in such modest context) is a stalwart of little Superior, where I live, and my oldest son has been a regular at his skills camps.  But the tickets became more and more expensive as the family grew and as they raised rates, and frankly the football on the pitch was just getting worse and worse, so we gave up a few years ago.  I've barely followed them since, though I do still go to games when one of my friends has a good deal on tickets, largely for the tailgating.

Well last night, for the first time in ages I was actually eager to go (I started out looking forward to the arrival of Thierry Henry's New York, but then I saw how Henry was looking a shadow of himself in MLS).  Rapids have had a rare good run in the playoffs, and last night was the Eastern conference championship against the San Jose Earthquake.  The fact that Colorado and San Jose can play an Eastern conference anything is just another marker of the MLS's penchant for silliness, but hey, they play the games they're assigned and I figured it was an experience not to be missed.

My friend Ariel got me a good deal on a ticket, and I bundled up for the cold night (right around 0°C all the while).  The game was dire.  If that is MLS quality with a trip to the cup final on the line, the league still has miles to go.  Everyone was static, and making half-hearted runs off the ball on both teams, and there was no dynamism of build-up.  But what matters is that Rapids scored the one goal that made the difference.  Here is the victorious home team's procession around the ground with the conference cup.

In the following video they make their way past me.  I was in a great seat: row 5 right about the half-way line in a full stadium; we we piled down to pitch-side for the victory procession.

Regardless of how lifeless the game had been, and my recent absence from the Rapids scene, I was yelling like crazy and thoroughly enjoying the moment.  I guess it's some sort of recompense for those years as a season's ticket holder when the product on the field was just as ugly (well I do remember fondly a 4-0 demolition of LA while Beckam was playing under coach Gullit) but the Rapids weren't winning anything.  Colorado went to the MLS Cup final in the inaugural MLS season, and it's about time we got back there.  I'll be sure to head to a bar with good atmosphere and a bunch of friends to watch the final broadcast from Toronto, and once again, I'll tolerate a dire game, as long as the boys bring the cup back to the Rockies.  In the words of the unimaginative fan chant, Let's go Rapids!  Let's go! CLAP! CLAP!

Right now, though, I'm turning my attention to the Gunners.  Win required from a tough fixture away at Everton.  Come on Captain Jesus!

Counter-intuitive Nature of Overlapping Fullbacks

I've been watching a whole lot of World Cup soccer. Usually when I watch a sport at its highest levels for long enough I start to begin to see it through the eyes of a coach. One of the strategies of contemporary soccer that still puzzles me, however, is that of the overlapping fullback. The general idea is to have a fullback (such as  Danny Alvez, Maicon, Ashley Cole, Sergio Ramos, or Roberto Carlos - the classic overlapping fullback) that comes up the side often enough to be essentially be considered a wing player while on offense.

They make runs down the sidelines as attacking midfield players bring the ball up slowly, drawing the opposing backs to pickup their runs. Usually, this leaves them open to recieve the ball from the midfield, take the ball to the corner, and cross or opens up the space in front of the attacking midfield for a pass down the middle or provides an opportunity to wind up for a shot.

Usually, overlapping fullbacks have to be in incredible shape. One thing, fans of other sports simply do not realize is the incredible amount of distance soccer players cover and the overlapping fullback is probably the most extreme case since they have to essentially run the full length of the field to the opposing corner and then sprint back to the last quarter of their half that they are responsible for. I used to be left back when I wasn't a goalie, so I can appreciate how vulnerable a defense with a winded fullback can be and this is one of the things about this strategy that puzzles me.

Also, such fullbacks need to have good ball control and passing ability in order to effectively play the roll of a wide player. Sergio Ramos, an excellent fullback in his own right, is also an excellent crosser of the ball. So, such fullbacks are usually fairly valuable to their teams.

Regardless of whether or not a back is in excellent shape, eventually if he has to make such runs (as often as the best of them do) he will inevitably become winded and it will effect his ability to close down crosses from wingers who have less work to do over the length of the game. This vulnerability is significant for opposing offenses that either rely on play from the wing or are just lucky enough to have wide player with pace and the ability to provide excellent service from the wide areas.

So that said, it would seem good strategy for offenses to counteract repeatedly overlapping, attacking fullbacks by emphasizing the wide play of an equally aggressive, speedy winger such as Jesus Navas of Sevia (in the Spanish Primera League) on the other end to keep them honest. Yet, I rarely notice this explicit strategy.

It would be the equivalent of what is often done in basketball.  Consider the NBA finals. Paul Pierce is a significant contribution to the firepower of the Boston Celtics. A typical basketball strategy to neutralize an offensive threat is to force them to play defense through as much of the game as possible by - for instance - having the player they cover be more aggressive than usual. So, in the case of the NBA finals this year, Ron Artest (better known for his defensive
prowess than his offensive capabilities) took a significantly large number of shots and drove to the basketball quite often.  As a result, in the latter part of the series, Paul Pierce was much less effective as he usually is.

Maybe the open-ended nature of soccer makes it difficult to be able to sustain such a strategy, but it just seems to be to be something I would do if I was a soccer coach who was up against a perpetually aggressive, overlapping fullback and had a speedy wide player at my disposal to use to neutralize him.

England fans today should remember the Ramsey/Shawcross incident

I'll start this out by admitting I'm an Arsenal fan.  Clearly I'm biased, but it's extraordinary the extent to which my predictions mirrored the eventual reality, and that is the foundation for the point I'm about to make.

Remember, remember the 27th of February.  Ryan Shawcross breaks Aaron Ramsey's leg with a horrendous tackle.  What happens next?  Wenger responds angrily, of course.  And then, on cue, the "proper English" get emphatically behind Shawcross.  More importantly, many people in the England national team camp get behind Shawcross.  Within hours he's not talking about his contrition, but rather how wonderful it is to have received so much support from England players.  He actually gets a call-up for England soon thereafter, even though he doesn't ever actually get on the field.

Ryan Shawcross manhandling Wayne Rooney in England training

In the aftermath of all that I posted the following on a forum:

I have no malice towards Shawcross. You can't compare this situation to the Matt Taylor challenge. Shawcross really thought he could get the ball. Taylor knew that he was going to get every inch of Eduardo's ankle. I'm not saying Taylor meant to cripple Eduardo, but he definitely meant to give him a good thump.

I do blame Pulis, and the stupid English mentality of agricultural football. "That Arsenal. They play football, eh? Well keep on kicking them until they stop playing football." Well guess what? England is about to get their arses handed to them at the WC. Teams such as Spain, Argentina and Brazil play football, not Ploughman kickboxing. England can't kick their way into winning because that's not allowed outside England.

English fans keep on moaning about their country's serial failures on the international stage, but they need look no further than their own FA for blame, and the sort of so-called football that's endorsed in the country's highest league.

Shawcross was probably told every day of the past week that if he catches sight of the ball, he should hurl every limb at it. He did exactly that, the poor, untalented lump, and this time he got very unlucky with the result. But even more unlucky is Ramsey. I do hope they both recover, but I hope, somehow, improbably, Ramsey recovers first.

By the Way Arseblogger put the same point brilliantly in "He's not that kind of player."

So you know what?  I dedicate the England loss today to Stan Collymore, to Lou Macari, to Sam Wallace (even though Wallace is not a contemptible than the others) who insisted, to the craven extent of upbraiding Wenger, that players such as Shawcross, and the style (using that term very loosely) they embody represent the admirable qualities of English football.  I hope you idiots admired your slow, lumbering, unimaginative, and frankly cowardly boys today.  You deserve every moment of your present misery.  And if you do not reform your own mentality, and also work to reform British football, you will have many more days of such misery to come.


And I do mean "British" there.  Scotland has the same problem, and thus never looks likely to enjoy a Slovenia-like run.  Ireland is of course not British, but there is much cultural commerce between the two islands, especially in football.  The Irish have focused their attention on the Henry handball, and not the fact that if they had taken France's place in that group they would have suffered even more woeful result.  Ireland has nothing to challenge the dynamic movement and football skills that dominate successful teams in this age, whether footballing power nations, or small interlopers.

The British/Irish mentality is a relic, and the Italian team has demonstrated the value of relics in football.  Look at Germany today.  I've heard a lot of nonsense from England players and fans today (on 606/Five Live, of course, not Talk Sport Radio who are symbolized by their loudmouth Collymore) that the 4-1 scoreline doesn't represent the game.  They're right.  It felt more like a 6-2 game.  The pace, the movement, the creativity, the quickness of thought, the crisp passing from the Germans made the English look like a pub team.

If this game were in the premiereship the English would have wasted no time giving the Germans a good, early kicking, to settle down all that fancy stuff.  But this is not the premiereship.  This is a FIFA event.  Guess what?  In a FIFA event you're not going to get a British referee.  You're going to get a referee who has no idea what the term "get stuck in" means, but who does have colorful cards in his pocket, and is very willing to use them.  And rightly so.  FIFA has emphasized their desire to protect creative and dynamic players.  The English mentality comes from days when The Battle of Highbury and The Battle of Santiago were just standard fare for International football.  And the FA and its officials are English mentality from wingtips to bowler hats.  Yes, Shawcross did get sent off, but he also got no more retrospective punishment than players get from a handbags push above the chest.


Look at Germany again.  Klinsmann had to come in and break an antiquated system.  He rebuilt the Mannschaft around dynamic movement of the men and the ball.  People now forget how much abuse he took for all his efforts.  Until their remarkable, over-achieving 2006 WC finals run everyone thought he was a silly meddler who didn't understand the German mentality, having moved to the US.  He soldiered on, and remade the team, and basically changed the German mentality.  They are reaping the rewards.  Capello is never the sort of transformative genius who can effect such a change, and even though Capello will almost certainly be shown the door now, with a fat severance in his back pocket, all the discussion of replacements are about getting in a "proper Englishman who understands the English player".  Yes.  They still just don't get it.

So true-blue English pundits, enjoy watching the Germans show you what sort of football it takes to do well in modern international tournaments.  Don't worry about changing that stubborn English mentality.  Go ahead and keep encouraging thug plowmen like Shawcross, telling them that they are good enough for the Three Lions, and better yet, keep teaching your schoolboys that's the sort of football Englishmen play.  Luckily I'm not an England fan.  Nigeria and the US have their own problems, for sure, but I can at least enjoy the sentiment described by that marvellous German term schadenfreude .  And I hope Ramsey, who showed flashes for brilliance for Wales, and is at least an example that Britain might be capable of producing something approximating an actual world class player, is enjoying the misery of all those people whose sympathies just a few months ago lay not with him, but with the drooling zombie who injured him.  In your face, English mentality.


Gooner luv (or "Aaaaaaaarsenal")

IMG_1108 For a while, whenever my three year old, Jide, came across football on the TV, he'd jump up and down yelling "Aaaaaaarsenal. Ar-SE-nal!" regardless of who was actually playing. He was just imitating his Dad. I've surprised even myself at how quickly and surely I've become an Arsenal maniac. This is so even though the first EPL game I ever watched live was Tottenham vs. Coventry City at White Hart Lane. It was the best deal I could get for a London game. I liked Arsenal even then, and knew that Spurs were derby rivals, but I had no idea how intense the rivalry was until I heard the anti-Arsenal songs (never mind that Moustapha Hadji and Coventry City was the problem Spurs fans should have been addressing) and saw the very aggressive tee-shirts (I'll forever be disturbed by the one of the Spurs mascot raping the Arsenal mascot). I decided to affect Tottenham color for the day, just for my own safety. I thus have a Spurs scarf to go with my many bits of Arsenal gear and I can always entertain my brit friends by wearing the two teams' colors together (My colleague Kenny Akpan, a Spurs fan, told me: "You do know you could be beaten up twice dressing like that in London, mate"). Yeah, Kenny. I know.

I did later visit Highbury to watch The Arsenal versus Leeds in a losing effort for the Gunners (undone by a magnificent Ian Harte free kick). This time I didn't feel queer siding with the sea of fans around me. Confirmation of my deep red blood. It's been The Arsenal without the slightest stint since then.

The gunner-side leaning started with Ian Wright and gang, back when it was quite hard to catch EPL in the U.S. I had to economize the efforts to find matches. I didn't really have a club affiliation (I enjoyed playing since I was a kid, but never got into watching until college age) but naturally I always plumped for the big names-- Manchester United or Arsenal games. I also looked for Liverpool games because my closest cousins are all Liverpool supporters (their family tradition since my Uncle took an interest in the career of John Barnes), but Liverpool haven't been all that fun to watch for a while. Interestingly enough I also came to enjoy watching Chelsea because of Nigerian Celestine Babayaro, Zola's brilliance, and the constant drama of Tore André Flo getting subbed in with five minutes to go and still finding a way to score. The Chelski era, especially under Mourinho, has put a firm end to that.

But Arsenal always took the cake. In the past decade of avid watching one thing I've come to expect from The Arsenal is that they're always easy on the eyes, even in a losing effort. Indeed it seems to me that most of the time when they lose it's just because they insist on the perfect goal to the detriment of the actual score line. I think probably the only time I've seen them played off the park was in the 2005 FA Cup final versus Man U (I hated watching that game), and they still somehow managed to win. Chelsea did also give them quite a run-around earlier this year as well, I admit. Both cases were Arsenal at their nadir, in the process of their current transformation to renewed brilliance.

I just love the new guard. If it's possible to be more skillful than Dennis Bergkamp, van Persie is definitely staking a claim. Adebayor is like Kanu, but seems more reliable on goal (I guess that is to say he's like Kanu playing for country rather than club). Fabregas isn't as tough as Viera, but makes up for it by complete mastery of middle of the pitch, passing as if he has a circle of eyes full round his head. Touré can pretty much shut down anyone in the world, and Eboué is showing signs of the same ability. Senderos is ponderous, but at least careful. The only one I haven't warmed up to is Reyes, whom I find to be skillful enough, but very rarely a true inspiration (it doesn't help that he is wont to dive, and I hate divers). As for the old guard, Henry is beyond superlatives, Pirès is still the second deadliest dart in any sheaf, and Lehman has shaken off his erratic form of a year ago.

Sporting away colors Dwelling on Henry for a bit, I hope for everyone's sake that he doesn't leave. It's not just that he's good for Arsenal, but also that Arsenal is good for him. Any observer can see that Henry thrives in an atmosphere of finesse. He flourishes when the Arsenal midfield is in the throes of their exquisite one and two-touch passing rallies, or on their lightning quick counter- attack. When the opposing team succeeds in dropping lead into Arsenal midfielders' shorts, Henry tends to completely disappear from the game. He's not a Drogba or van Nistelrooy, who are happy to order their back line to completely bypass a beaten midfield and switch to route one football. This is where the false accusation comes from that Henry is not a big game player. In fact, Henry thrives in big games, as long as his midfield is thriving, as well.

Anyway, I just can't see Henry getting that steady diet of joga bonito anywhere else. OK. OK. Barcelona (another favorite club of mine), and to be fair, that's the club he's been most often linked with. But even though Barcelona's midfield could support Henry almost as well as Arsenal's, he would never dominate the Barcelona attack as thoroughly as he does Arsenal's. Not while Ronaldinho and Eto'o are there, and perhaps not even while Messi is there. At Arsenal, Henry is the inevitable cap on a run of midfield brilliance. At Barcelona he'd have to fight tooth and nail for his share of the finishing glory. And let's be honest. Fighting tooth and nail is not something that suits Henry's disposition. Personally, I think that if he leaves Arsenal, he will never really be the same. Of course neither would Arsenal. Here's to Henry in red, er, claret strip forever.

It's definitely a swish time to be an Arsenal fan. It's been fun watching them humble fellow European giants Real Madrid and Juventus, surpassing all previous Champions league progress. Gunners for the Champion's league cup. This year and next. (There's a slim chance--requiring a complete Liverpool meltdown--for a Champion's league tie between Gunners and Spurs next year. Now wouldn't that be tasty?) Oh, and beat Man U tomorrow.

[Uche Ogbuji]

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Off the line by Gary Speed

So Newcastle United are pressing Bolton Wanderers hard early at The Reebok, Trotter fans in a hush, Toon Army baying for away blood, and all that, and all of a sudden, off runs Gary Speed to his right post, as if whispered a message by very wing-sandaled Hermes. Tactically, he has no reason to be at that spot, but before I (and probably millions of other viewers) can open our mouths to say "what the hell are you doing loitering on that post, you goat?", Lee Bowyer gets a cock eye at the ball and shapes in a wicked shot past Jaaskelainen and right onto the head of, yeah, you guessed it, Gary Speed. Cleared off the line by the lost boy. One of the wackiest sequences I've seen in Soccer this year, I must say. I find it easier to believe that Gary Speed was visited by sudden clairvoyance than to believe that anyone is that stupid-lucky.

[Uche Ogbuji]

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Colorado Rapids home opener, and Mr. Eddie Johnson

Lo! the cat with ball of string
Winking and jinking
Winking and jinking
Winking and jinking
Like Eddie Johnson

In other words, that boy bad! Naw, that boy bad! Running past CONCACAF defenders like they're wearing cement moon boots. Can't wait to see him at the World Cup in Germany next year.

We Ogbujis, proud Colorado Rapids season's ticket holders, went to see the home opener against F.C. Dallas Saturday night. I'll be honest, though. Eddie was the expected highlight. All the images have captions (titles, technically): just hold your mouse over them.

EJ takes a throw in (uuuuh, why, coach?)

Osi showing the folks how to do the Corner Kick Stampede <em>proper

Hmm. Eddie threw up some nice moves, Joe Cannon (should-be MVP and should be national team starter) made some spectacular saves, Carlos Ruiz did his usual flopping flounder impression, but it all ended up 0-0.

So what was cool was that Rapids staffers were going around spotting kids and giving out passes to a post game autograph session with Mr. Johnson himself. It's never hard to miss loudmouth Osi, so we copped some for the family. After the game we went to the tunnel for the event...

Osi gives RapidMan a poundUche sporting Rapids pride while waiting to greet the star opponentOsi and Jide making concrete angels, or something

And we got our brief, but cool bonus. Osi knows Eddie Johnson from watching his father cheer him on through the television set, but upon meeting the man and getting his autograph, his only words were...

EJ scribbles for Osi

Osi balefully inspects EJ's script, while Jide looks on

"Hey, I can't read those letters." Eddie Johnson replied: "So what, dude, you want me to print my name for you or something?". We laughed. We jetted. Fun night, all around.

[Uche Ogbuji]

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