Liverpool: Triumph of Silence by Mumini Alao

Liverpool: Triumph of Silence By Mumini Alao

IT WAS at the 1994 World Cup in USA. Venue was the Foxboro Stadium in Boston, Massachusetts and a debutant Nigeria were on the verge of an upset victory over three-time World Cup winners Italy in a thrilling second round clash for a place in the quarterfinals of the World Cup.

Emmanuel Amuneke’s opportunistic first half goal separated the two sides. The Italians were sweltering in the Boston heat while their manager, Arigo Sacchi was yelling his head off at the touchline. Into the last five minutes and it was looking like there was no way back for the Azzuris. A famous Super Eagles victory was on the cards.

I was seating in the stands behind the so-called “technical director” of the Nigerian team, coach Tunde Disu. “So-called” because Disu had actually been fired from the Eagles where he was “chief coach” by the “real” manager, Clemens Westerhof, who accused  Disu of betrayal. Somehow, Disu ended up with the big title of “technical director,” and I still remember the big battles he fought to gain some relevance for an office which had no clear-cut responsibilities. In fact, Disu dared not move near Westerhof’s team then, and that was how he found himself far away in the stands at Foxboro.

As the Eagles marched nearer to victory against the Azzuris, an inner voice kept telling me to restrain myself, hold my excitement in check and not celebrate just too early. And, although I was bursting inside of me, I listened to the voice as the Eagles kept their lead.

Into the final three minutes and I couldn’t hold my excitement any more. I leaned over to Disu in front of me and began in a mixture of English and Yoruba: “Coachy, o ma da bi eni wipe a maa win…….(Coach, it looks like we’re going to win……).

I did not complete the sentence before Roberto Baggio equalized for Italy! And the rest, as they say, is history. Baggio went on to score Italy’s winner in extra-time. And the following day, the USA ’94 Daily Bullentin came up with the headline: “AFRICAN’T!”

Ordinarily, I am not superstitious and I believe in destiny. But even now, I can’t help thinking what might have been had I listened to my inner voice in Foxboro. Maybe, just maybe the Eagles might have held their lead to the end against Italy if I had kept my mouth shut. But now, I will never know.

It was that episode 11 years ago in USA that played back in my mind in March this year (2005) when my childhood club, Liverpool, qualified for the knockout phase of the UEFA Champions League. An inner voice warned me not to celebrate anything in public until the Cup was won and that is why I never published a word in this column about Liverpool’s conquest of Juventus or Chelsea en route to the Final.

Expectedly, I received a lot of text messages and emails from my readers, friends and co-Liverpool supporters as the Reds marched step-by-step to the final in Instanbul, Turkey. Many times, especially after the high-octane semifinal win over Chelsea, I felt like bursting with excitement in this column. But I restrained myself once I remembered the episode in Foxboro. In the end, my silence was triumphant as Liverpool overcame every odd imaginable, including an impossible 3-0 halftime deficit against AC Milan, to record one of the most famous victories in European Cup history.

Surely, there’s hardly anything new for me to say about the drama in Instanbul other than to emphasize the point about the unpredictability of football, and how destiny plays a huge part in the affairs of men.

At the start of the season, Michael Owen dumped Liverpool to join the Galacticos of Real Madrid in search of silverware. But now, the unfashionable colleagues he left behind at Anfield are champions of Europe while Owen is not even a local champion in Spain.

At the start of the season, Arsenal who were the unbeaten English champions from the previous season, ever-present Manchester United and the big-spending Chelsea were the pundits’ tips to dominate English football. Indeed, the trio dominated, Chelsea winning the league and the other two contesting the Cup final. But it was from an unlikely source – Merseyside – that the champions of Europe emerged.

Indeed, my rating of Liverpool this year is that of a team with two characters – the fake and the original. While the “fake” turned inconsistency into an art on the domestic front, the “original” was rock solid in Europe, bar the first half decimation by Milan in the final.

What is the lesson for Nigeria in all of these? Simple: always stay focused until the very end. It was a loss of focus (and probably my early celebration!) that cost the Eagles victory against Italy at USA ’94. And it was a loss of focus that cost AC Milan their 3-0 lead within a space of six minutes, and ultimately the Cup, in Instanbul.

Congratulations to all Liverpool fans. We Shall Never Walk Alone.

*(Culled from the book, “Soccertalk: Selected Articles on Contemporary Issues in Nigerian Football,” By Mumini Alao. Page 294. Published 2007).

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