– The Sun News

Nigeria, beware of Mario Mandzukic!

Let’s talk football today.  The game that is like no other.  The game that mirrors and reflects life.  The game that is so beautiful yet so cruel.  The game which pastors use to preach.  The game from which we learn management lessons about team-building, leadership, goal setting and winning. 

The game that Nigerians love and worship like religion.  The Beautiful Game.  The People’s Game.  The game that keeps me happy.  Each time there is big match, my day is made and my heart is filled with high expectations. 

I am not alone.  We all love football.  We all eat football.  We all drink football.  We all love watching football.  We love discussing football.  We love everything about football.  We are not alone.  It’s a universal passion. 

This is the year of football, the year when nations of the world will assemble in Russia for the World Cup.  Nations that didn’t qualify for the World Cup are grieving and cursing their bad luck.  Thank God Nigeria qualified for the World Cup.  Thank God we did when other big name countries didn’t qualify.  Italy didn’t qualify.  The Netherlands didn’t qualify.  USA didn’t qualify.  Chile didn’t qualify.  The list goes on and on. 

Football is a game I love writing about even though my wife won’t read my column each time it is about football.  Much as I try to keep away from football, football refuses to keep away from me.   It haunts me.  It drives me.  It inspires me.  Oh, what would the world be without football?

On Wednesday night, I watched a wonderful match: the return leg of the Real Madrid versus Juventus match.  A Champions League quarterfinal duel between two giants.  It was one match that proved that in football anything can happen.  In football, it is not over until it is over.  In football, you should expect the unexpected.  Real Madrid had won the first leg, beating the Old Lady Juventus 3-0 on their own ground last week.  The second leg was supposed to be a formality with Real Madrid expected to win easily, but in football, the unexpected happens. 

Before you knew, Juventus was taking the fight straight to Real Madrid.  In the second minute, Juventus was already leading with a header by Mario Mandzukic, the Croation goal poacher.  In the 37th minute, thunder struck a second time with the same Mario Mandzukic scoring with another header that caught Keylor Navas, the Real Madrid goalkeeper napping. 

Oh, what a match!  What a drama on the football pitch!  In the 60th minute, Juventus scored again to level up with Real Madrid at 3-0 each.  From then on, everybody was praying for Juventus to finish its fairy tale victory like a Cinderella.  Everybody loves a comeback story.  But with just a minute or so for the match to end, the referee awarded a controversial penalty which got Real Madrid out of jail.  Thanks to Cristiano Ronaldo who in spite of the tension had the courage and the composure to find an angle and to score through a penalty.  I really felt sorry for Juventus having come so far and almost close to making history as the only team to come from a 3-0 loss in the first leg and winning.  But they didn’t make it.  They almost did. 

I can understand the fury of the Juventus goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon who was given a red card.  I can also understand the anger of the Manchester City coach Guardiola who felt the referee had been unfair to his team and was also punished and banished from the touchline.      

Ah, football is a cruel game.  I really pitied Juventus, having come so far and losing the match with just a minute or so to go.  It’s so painful.  But that is football for you.  That is what makes it the beautiful game, even though it was marred by certain ugly incidents. 

The same exciting scenarios unfolded on Tuesday as the unexpected happened with Roma beating Barcelona to qualify for the semifinals.  Same with Liverpool stunning the EPL league leaders Manchester City beating them 2-1 on their ground and in front of the myriads of their supporters waving the teams’ flag and banners. 

Oh, what an unforgettable week of football.  It was a week when football almost witnessed a paradigm shift with the table turning against the big guns.  Real Madrid was simply lucky.  Very lucky.  Let’s see how far their luck would carry them. 

The good news for Nigeria is that Lionel Messi can be tamed.  With the right strategy and approach, his game can be neutralized and rendered ineffective as it happened on Tuesday with Roma whose coach executed a perfect game plan that yielded victory.      

The Croatian Angle

Like in football, journalism is about finding a good angle.  The French call it: cherchez le creneau.  Look for a hole.  Look for a niche.  Look for an angle.  And aim your shot there.  You spot an angle and kick you ball into that narrow angle to score a goal.  That is what I am trying to do now in this piece. 

For me, my interest or my “creneau” is in that man Mario Mandzukic.  The Croatian point man we would be facing on June 16 in Russia.  This man scares me.  I am wondering: How are we going to cope with him?  Do we have the defenders to tame him and stop him from bombing our goalpost?  And to think that we don’t even have a good goalkeeper, a tested and experienced goalkeeper to face the likes of Mandzukic, Messi and Aguero! 

For us, the fear of Croatia should be the beginning of wisdom.  It is better we know from the start what we are up against.  To underrate Croatia is to dig our grave at the World Cup.  May God forbid. 

I don’t know much about the Croation team but I know some stars they parade.  Stars like Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic who play for Real Madrid and Barcelona respectively.  Then there is an attacker Ivan Perisic of Inter Milan.  Then there is a defender Dejan Lovren, the Liverpool Central back defender. 

I am not out to scare or create panic among my fellow Nigerians. I am just out to wake up our Super Eagles from complacency and to know what they are up against.  The World Cup is not a tea party.  It is not a walk in the park.  So, let’s smell the coffee and wake up to fight for our country. 


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