Presently in Nigeria, you cannot lay claim to being a sports enthusiast, or a football buff in particular, and not know about the man called Mitchell Obi. He remains one of the major pioneers of sports broadcasting and marketing in the country today. Mitchell began flourishing in his sports writing and reporting career when he joined the Guardian Newspapers in 1983 and by 1987 he had risen to become the Sports Editor. He moved on to edit the Guardian Express and subsequently became the Acting Editor of the Guardian on Sunday. It was shortly after this that Mitchell broke into television and then Radio sportscasting and hit national prominence with his stimulating commentaries as Anchor of one of the biggest and most popular sports programmes on television, Master Sports.
Needless to say, this accomplished veteran sports journalist and commentator is highly respected in Nigeria’s sports circuit. Mitchell Obi is also currently the president of Sports Writers in Africa, a position you can only aspire to when you have been widely adjudged to be an authority in sports, not just football. And indeed, Mitchell is an authority in football and sports as a whole. He is particularly admired by many for his constant profound critique of sports administration in the country and his views on the country’s different national teams, especially when they’re involved in a major tournament like the on-going AFCON 2019.
Already, many people, football loving Nigerians, are constantly hounding him, seeking his honest opinion of the Super Eagles performance so far at the current AFCON tournament. Nigerians want to know what he thinks of the players capabilities and the different tactical strategies employed by the Super Eagles Coach, Gernot Rohr. Mitchell knows football like the palm of his hands. Clearly, he is not a football coach but his knowledge of the game and the dynamics of how it is played is phenomenal. And he can also be brutally frank in his views. Mitchell says it like it is, not giving a hoot whose ox is gored. This is why Nigerians give him rapt attention when he talks football. This is also why the team of City People Publisher, SEYE KEHINDE, Deputy MD, FRANCIS OWOJORI, Senior Editor, WALE LAWAL and Senior Reporter, ISAAC ABIMBADE paid the respected sports journalist a visit, to pick his brain on the performance of the super eagles at the on-going AFCON Competition. He also shared with us his thoughts on what he thinks are the chances of the Super Eagles and the corruption crisis presently rocking CAF.
What has kept you going in Sports or better still, Football reporting? One would have thought you would have given up or gone into something else, rather than football and sports?
Actually, I’m not into football and sports for the fun of it. I am more into the business of Sports. And Sports business is all encompassing, because Sports is life. Sport is Culture. Sports again is big business. So, I’m within my scope. I am a Sport business solutionist. I am looking at the different dynamics that makes a country know that there’s a sector that can add to the general revenue harvest of a nation. So, Sports is within that fold, but we’ve scratched it. As a pioneer, we keep opening doors, we keep trying to search to get the right kind of, not only environment, also the right kind of opportunities where Nigerians can best appreciate what sports is all about.
What is your assessment of the on-going Nations cup? What can you say about the competition since it started a few days ago till now?
It’s promising. We’ve seen some new teams showing they can go far. I’m pleased with what I saw of Madagascar. The boys showed that their qualification wasn’t a fluke. They were one of the early birds to pick a ticket to Egypt and they are fulfilling their promises, giving Guinea a tough match. Guinea is a top team when it comes to Africa football. The Guineans have proved over time they can hold their own, and to come from behind to draw with the Madagascar side, that is good. We saw Burundi also. Burundi against Nigeria. It took almost a retired Striker to give us the only goal of that game.
The Burundi side are disciplined. Many of them are in the Armed forces, from their top clubs. It brings excitement when you see young guys who try to prove mettle; it’s enchanting.
Also in the opening game, the favourite tag of the host has changed. The Egypt came in at short notice, other short-comings they have, we can excuse them, but they gave us good opening ceremony. We had a Nigerian presence, Femi Kuti, which tells us they are thinking. I don’t know where Fela got that, but Fela believed civilisation started from Africa and if you look at the Egyptians you will know they are the rocks of civilisation. The pyramids is a marvel anyday, anytime. It tells us we are more organised before Christ than anything else.
Why didn’t you go for the competition in Egypt?
There is still time. I’m more interested in the political side of the game. The Congress will come up on the 18th of July. It’s going to be a crucial Congress. The future of African Football is at stake because a resolution was taken at the last executive meeting, in which CAF and its executive committee decided to surrender their administrative, financial and operational arms to an outsider. Another organisation which in my estimation are still also a neophyte; those who are managing the organisation are neophytes, interms of experience, because the FIFA is also coming out of a crisis, and if they are coming to manage Africa, it says something about our visions and quality. How can a body whose man-power or personel is in a mess, is coming to manage another confederation which is struggling. It’s like they are trying to make it look like a confederation thing. When you have the Secretary General of FIFA maintaining her portfolio, even though she delegated her duty and is still coming to act as a FIFA delegate to Africa, that tells us we’ve not only gone to our knees, it shows a certain understanding of what we need to do in the continent. And it’s a big problem whether that position will be ratified by the congress that will hold on 18th of July, 2019. Congress is the body that has the power to do all and end all. And if it’s ratified by the congress, you know what that means. Of course, there has been controversies overtime. A decision to replay Champions League Final (CAF). It’s something that will also be discussed. The series of allegations against the President which is being investigated by FIFA ethics committee, and the fact that he was even questioned by the French Police at one point in time. That itself is disturbing. Beyond all of that, is even the election. There are some seats that will be vacated for executive committee.
Would you say that CAF opened itself up for ridicule by FIFA with the recent arrest of the President, and the corruption crisis rocking CAF?
It’s like epidemic where everybody is scared that you maybe victim of epidemic; you start going for immunization. Since we have this new leadership in CAF, the Ahmad leadership, they have shown that they move from one trouble to another. So many people are asking who is really in-charge and now we have seen that nobody seems to be in-charge. FIFA is going to come for a forensic audit, all round, and set a clean slate for Africa to do what is supposed to be done, so that football in Africa can progress.
Are you saying Ahmad Ahmad is incompetent for CAF President?
The first big shock of CAF was when its 1st Vice President was involved in corruption investigation in Ghana Lawyer journalist investigation, where he was found with over 60 thousand dollars. It was a scandal that rocked African football. That was the first shock. Ahmad was part of the Executive Commttee of Issa Hayatou. He looked like the one who wasn’t affected by the ‘old virus’ and they thought he was an innocent, but what people are beginning to see is that, the change has not changed anything. African football is beginning to be questioned all round. You saw the crisis that came with the hosting of the Nation’s Cup. The country that was given opportunity to host couldn’t meet up with the deadline, and all that had to be revised. The last 4 editions of the Nations Cup, have not been hosted by the original country that were suppose to host it. You can see the overlapping mud.
For me personally, my interest is the fact that we have a Nigerian who happened to be the 1st Vice President of CAF and I’m also President of all the Sports Journalist in Africa, and I want to tell you, we’ve not had a robust relationship with this dispensation of CAF.
How do you feel when you see that we keep getting it wrong in football?
Sometimes, it’s good to stand away from the crowd. I follow football, I don’t get affected by the game, because it has taken me considerable time to take my emotion away from the game and appreciate what it is. That is why I can enjoy football no matter how it is. It’s an emotional game. And that is my problem with VAR (Video Assistant Referee). VAR is making the game too clinical. I still believe that, sports is a fast track to the development if you manage all the elements. The problem of youth today can be tackled if we deploy sports as a veritable vehicle for solving the unemployment.
In 2004, when the UN met in determing the millenium goals to a sustainable development growth. It was unanimously agreed that sports is the enabler in the fulfilment of the sustainable development goal and our President was among those who endorsed it. South Africa was a hidden secret until World Cup. When people went to South Africa for World Cup, they found a new haven.
Qatar, their 35 year development plan is anchored on Sports. For Qater, the 2022 World Cup is a turning point.
What is your assessment of some of the big teams at the ongoing Africa Cup of Nations. Have they lived up to expectation? What is your assessment of the Super Eagles?
Let me be sincere with you, any pundit giving you a projection of this Nations Cup, is just doing that because we need a projection. The reality is that African Football consistently defies logic. And the only time you can start making any projection that is realistic or valid is when you see the teams get into the last 4, at least by then, they would have played 4 matches. You can now access their strength in depth, you can access their tactical play and then you can even access their motivations. But traditionally, there are also tradition powerhouses. There are teams that will always find their ways into the knock out stages. And we have a team that can always find their way into the semi-finals. Ghana, for instance, is hungry. Ghana hasn’t won a Nations Cup since 1982. They beat Libya in the final on penalty shoot out. And one man whose son is now the captain of Ghana was just 16 years old at the time. Abedi Pele whose son is now Captain of Ghana was 16 years old was captain of the last team to win the Nations Cup for Ghana. But that has not stopped the Ghanaians from reaching final. Since then, they have gotten to 3 finals and lost.
Then you have Algeria. This competition is being played in North Africa. And most times when competitions are hosted by North African country, you always have North Africa doing well. Algeria have started well. There’s Tunisia. There is host, Egypt. They have their fan’s who come into the stadium to support them. Then you have Ivory Coast, they are also a force. And there’s one country that has not won the Nations Cup for all their strength, the Senegalese; they haven’t won the Nations Cup. And talking about Lions, we have the Cameroon Lions. Nobody expected them to win the last Nations Cup. We have Morrocco with the luckiest Coach in the history of the African Cup of Nations. The man who is not African but has won more African Nations Cup than anybody as a coach, with 3 different teams.
I intentionally did not mention Nigeria because it’s when you don’t expect them to excel they do. There’s a law of surprise which applies to Nigeria. When everybody thinks we have the team that can go out and make a mark, that’s when they disappoint but when everybody has almost forgotten them, they shock us. And this is our come back to Nations Cup after missing out on 2 editions. So, we have a point to prove. I haven’t talked about Uganda. They surprised us beating Dr. Congo.
The Congolese have the good pedigree in the Nations Cup but it was a shock losing to Uganda. Even Tanzania, they came back to Nations Cup with a Nigeria’s coach. They lost their opening game but can be one of the best losers if they win 2 their last games.
Which area of the Nigerian team would you regard as the strongest?
The attack is very good. The attack show they can improvise, when your left-footed player going to the wing and play from the right and right-footed player doing the same. But I’m worried about the shooting strength of that attack. You saw Ighalo who showed you he’s more economical with the game and that’s how it should be. You have to be business-like, very direct. You have a chance and you take it. That’s functionality. You have one chance you take it. Efficiency. Look at Senegal number of chances Senegal’s Nyang had before they could score, with a bullet of a shot.
How do you see the performance of the Super Falcons and the Coach, at the Women World Cup in France?
I don’t understand our Development philosophy. When you bring a foreign coach to handle a team that essentially needs to be improved upon, at the end of the day what legacy do you leave? That is my big worry. Because if coach Dennerby decides to leave Nigeria for another country, what would you say of the benefit he has gained as a coach? What would you say of the experience he’s garnered as a coach? Where will he take that to? So, at the end of the day, we’ve wasted, not only the effort, we also wasted the opportunity to not only cultivate our own but also bring home the lessons of the World Cup. Those lessons aren’t with us. Because when you go to the World Cup and get through the group stages, you get into the knock-out stages, there are so many things you learn across the board, as a coach. And I don’t think he would come here and stay here with us. And what has he added?
The team I saw in the Women Nation’s Cup, I keep saying, I’m a fanatical backer of women football interms of where I want them to go because I believe that, once the women fully accept the game, then it becomes a family thing. They would be the ones encouraging their kids to go out and play. When Blatter said the future of football is femine, that’s what he was saying. There was no joy in the victory we had in the Nations Cup. We only scored one goal from 4 games. What does that tell you? The other goal was an own goal. That is the reality. What we have done might not help us. And no outsider has ever won the world cup. Once you know that, you have to be clear in terms of vision. That’s my own view. And you hear people say they have brought experts. What is expert? Has he changed the way some players run? They should have given a woman a chance as a coach. We need to know what we do so that this game can prosper.
Another grouse I have is that we go to a Nations Cup in Africa, there’s no home-based player apart from a goalkeeper who is not being used. So what do you say about the Nigerian Football, the league? You have killed it because there’s no aspirational thrust, no dreams. It means you may play all your football in Nigeria and you may not play for the national team, is that the right message? No matter how our league is, when it comes to the Nations cup, we must find at least 4 or 5 home-based players out of 23.