Fancy a game anyone? Andrew Hockley tells the tale of one of the most bizarre international fixtures you'll ever encounter
We’ve all seen it happen. A match is organised, there is confusion among the participants as to whether it will actually take place, no one is quite sure when it kicks off and finally the visiting team show up late without enough players to make up a team.
In this case, though, rather than a couple of estate cars overstuffed with slightly portly and sheepish-looking blokes drawing up and wondering if they could borrow a couple of players, the whole comedy of embarrassment was played out on Romanian TV, as the Romania v Nigeria friendly in Bucharest on November 16 descended rapidly into utter farce.
The signs were there as much as a week in advance when the Nigerian Football Association chairman, Ibrahim Galadina, informed the media at home that the game had been cancelled at the request of Romania. They even, it seems, managed to arrange another friendly with Oman to make up the gap. But, in fact, the match hadn’t been cancelled at all and was still scheduled to go ahead. The NFA finally contacted their players on the Monday, 48 hours before the game, to let them know they had been selected and would they mind going to Bucharest. Realising the late notification may be a problem, they took the unusual step of inviting 40 players to the game in the hope that some of them at least would show up. In the circumstances it’s hardly surprising that most of the big names in the Nigeria side chose not to.
By lunchtime on the day of the match, due to start at 5pm, precisely three Nigeria players had made it to Romania. Just after 2pm a plane arrived carrying a further seven (protesting that the match was supposed to start at 8pm, and saying: “Let us rest, we’re dying of hunger”) and the remainder of the “delegation”, which consisted of one official from the NFA, the goalkeeping coach and Daniel Amokachi, assistant-to-the-normal-assistant-coach. (The team’s manager, Augustine Eguavoen, had gone to Morocco instead to watch the second leg of the CAF Confederation Cup final.)
With the players at the hotel attempting to grab a hasty nap to recover from the long flight, the officials were seen in one of Bucharest’s shopping centres, getting names and numbers printed onto the shirts. By this time an 11th player had been identified, FC National Bucharest’s Agumbiade Abiodun. Apparently he had played a couple of games for the Nigeria Under-17 team, but since then had not been close to the full squad. Still, he was available and in the country. Interviewed on television when they located him (by this time the “game” was big news and it seemed like the media had taken over the business of trying to make it go ahead), he was asked if he knew Amokachi. “Oh yes, I know him very well, I just don’t think he knows me.” Yet more Nigerians were located, seven in all, players for second-division side FC Targoviste, but they were deemed surplus to requirements – after all, by now a 12th player, Benedict Agwuegbu (a man who even had some previous caps), had arrived from Austria.
Finally, in front of a massive crowd of 300 and a Nigeria bench with one sub, but still live on TV, the match kicked off at 6.20pm. For the record, what amounted to Romania B beat Nigeria D 3-0.
The real question, aside from whatever recriminations go on in Lagos, is why on earth this game was arranged in the first place. Romania don’t have another competitive match until the Euro 2008 qualifiers begin and, having already played Ivory Coast the Saturday before, had presumably got whatever practice they needed against west African opposition (in preparation for the remote possibility of meeting some in the 2010 World Cup finals?). For Nigeria, it was billed as a warm-up game for the upcoming African Nations Cup. But with none of the first-choice team playing and the coach not even showing up to watch, it’s debatable what kind of a warm-up it actually was. Still, if nothing else, at least Abiodun, Brentford’s Sam Sodje and a whole bunch of other previously uncapped players have stories to tell their grandkids about how they ended up playing for Nigeria.
From WSC 227 January 2006. What was happening this month