Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Moses headed for promised land with Nigeria

You wouldn’t expect that making an appearance in the 22,000 capacity Stade RĂ©gional de Nyamirambo in the Rwandan capital of Kigali is on the wish-list of most Premier League footballers. But when Wigan Athletic winger Victor Moses steps out there to play for Nigeria in next week’s 2013 African Nations Cup qualifier, it will represent a home-coming of sorts for the 21-year-old.
It’s now a decade since Moses arrived in the UK as an asylum-seeker after his parents – both Christian missionaries - were killed in religious riots in his home town of Kaduna in the north of the country. His father Austin had run his own church and was targeted by Muslim extremists determined to enforce Sharia Law after it was introduced to the region the previous year.
Moses was reportedly playing football with friends when his uncle rushed to inform him that rioters had broken into their home and murdered Austin and his mother, Josephine. With his family fearing for his safety, the 11-year-old was hidden at a friend’s house and arrangements were made for him to move to England a week later.
According to legend, Moses was eventually spotted playing in a local park by scouts from Crystal Palace and joined their youth team at the age of 14. Having initially enrolled a local comprehensive in Croydon, south London, he was then given the opportunity to attend a prestigious public school called Whitgift and scored all five goals for them in a national youth cup final in 2005, with his exploits featuring in an article by Guardian writer Paul Kelso.
The skilful forward went on to represent England at several junior levels as he broke into the Palace first team under Neil Warnock and was sold to Wigan for £2.5 million in January 2010 as the club battled against administration. It was then that Nigerian officials first contacted his agent to see if there would be any chance of Moses considering switching allegiances to the land of his birth - despite his recent inclusion in Stuart Pearce’s under 21 squad.
At the time, Pearce expressed his regret that a change in FIFA’s rules meant appearances for junior sides no longer restricted players from switching to a different country at senior level. Now, after nearly two years of soul-searching, it seems Moses has finally made up his mind.
Despite a last-minute wobble when he was called up by the Super Eagles for two friendlies at the end of 2011 and then failed to turn up, a series of discussions with friends and family back home seem to have finally convinced the player Wigan boss Roberto Martinez last week compared to Lionel Messi. Fellow members of the Nigeria squad who are based in the Premier League including West Brom’s Peter Odemwingie and Yakubu from Blackburn have also played their part in persuading Moses to shelve his ambitions of playing for England as new coach Stephen Keshi tries to rebuild the morale of a damaged nation.
The failure to reach the 2012 African Nations Cup Finals in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea marked a new nadir for Super Eagles fans, but with an in-form Yakubu and Moses joining the likes of CSKA Moscow winger Ahmed Musa and Inter Milan’s Joel Obi, their future seems bright. Yet in the week that England also lost promising Blackpool winger Matt Phillips to Scotland, perhaps the FA will one day end up regretting not having done more to keep hold of Wigan’s star player?

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

'Mbazo' prepares to leave sinking ship

Tuesday night was a tough one for Portsmouth supporters. Faced with the prospect of entering administration for the second time, a cruelly disallowed goal by the aptly-named referee Darren Deadman denied them a point against Ipswich Town and leaves the south coast club facing an uphill battle to remain in the Championship.

Watching on from the bench at Fratton Park was former Bafana Bafana captain Aaron Mokoena. He was one of the first players to emerge from the home dressing room after the final whistle to clap around 2,000 Portsmouth fans who had stayed behind to stage an hour-long protest that illustrated their anger that the club should find itself in such peril again.

Fighting for his place in the side after returning from a hamstring injury, 'Mbazo' has developed a close bond with the club since moving there from Blackburn in 2009 and told me in an interview last year that he chooses to lives in the city centre because he 'loves being able to have a conversation with the people who pay to watch you every week'. The man who won a record 107 caps for his country has certainly seen a lot in his distinguished career, but nothing could have prepared him for this situation.

An expected 10-point deduction at Friday's High Court hearing will leave Portsmouth just outside the relegation zone on goal difference. With a transfer embargo likely to be enforced and manager Michael Appleton's squad down to the bare bones, they will need every ounce of Mokoena's vast experience to help them steady the ship.

Yet with the administrators set to be tasked with fulfilling the demands of the club's many creditors (including a massive electricity bill), there is every chance that their first move will be to try and move on several players on big salaries. That could spell the end for the 31-year-old defender who began his career at Jomo Cosmos and went on to play in Germany, Belgium and Holland - as well as the likes of Tal Ben Haim, fellow Cosmos graduate Benjani and captain Liam Lawrence.

Back in November, Mokoena stated in our interview that he would like to end his career in a different country, specifically mentioning USA, China and the United Arab Emirates. In line with his ambition to build his own professional side back home in South Africa when he finally calls it a day, it seems a lucrative final contract could well be on the cards after Chinese team Dalian Shide were linked.

Leaving Portsmouth and England behind would certainly be a wrench for a player who has been in Europe since moving to Bayer Leverkusen as an 18-year-old in 1998. But with the club desperate to survive the choppy seas of administration once more, Mokoena may see now as the perfect opportunity to jump ship.

Monday, 6 February 2012

Knowing me, Knowing you: Zaha!

His name may have been new to those BBC pundits who are usually halfway back to their mansions by the time Crystal Palace make their weekly appearance on The Football League show but Wilfried Zaha has been earmarked for greatness ever since he signed a youth team contract at Selhurst Park in 2007.

That famous Carling Cup quarter-final victory over Manchester United back in December was the first time most  supporters outside the Championship had seen for themselves exactly what the 19-year-old from Abidjan in Ivory Coast was capable of. A series of bamboozling runs on a wet night at Old Trafford sparked a surge of interest from Premier League clubs in the January transfer window, with Palace's owners having to fend off a firm bid from Bolton on transfer deadline day to keep their talented forward.

Zaha's decision to sign a new five year deal just a week after his scintillating display in Manchester was a real coup for boss Dougie Freedman, although most Palace fans will tell you that he is still far from the finished article. A return of just two league goals this season is disappointing from a player with such an abundance of talent but another season of Championship football under his belt should see that potential transformed into reality.

Whether he can go on to emulate the exploits of some of the players produced by his real hometown club is another matter. Asec Mimosas is Ivory Coast's most successful side and was where Zaha spent the formative years of his career until moving with his family to south London.

Since the early 1990s, their academy has produced a number of top-class internationals, with many of them currently starring for 'Les Elephants' in the African Nations Cup in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea. Manchester City midfielder Yaya Toure is the jewel in the crown of the youth system that was first established by lawyer Roger Ouegnin.

After surprisingly beating Tunisian giants Esperance to win the African Champions League in 1999, Asec exported most of their team to Europe, with the likes of Kolo Toure, Emmanuel Eboue and Didier Zokora all ending up in the UK eventually. Their success has since opened the floodgates for Ivorian footballers, although Zaha could end up being the one that got away.  

His appearance for English youth sides apparently illustrates a desire to turn his back on the land of his birth but time will tell. So far, though, Asec's loss has been to Palace's gain.

Friday, 3 February 2012

Peanut is back as Schillo comes full circle

A year can be a very long time in football. Just ask Steven Pienaar.
The man they call ‘Schillo’ back home in South Africa found himself in welcoming surroundings on Thursday afternoon as he faced the media at Everton’s Finch Farm training ground following his last-ditch loan move from Spurs.
A little over 12 months have passed since Harry Redknapp won the race to sign him on a four-year contract worth an estimated £16 million in total, yet Pienaar must have contemplated how things have changed since then as he made the familiar journey up the M6 the day before. Back then, the future seemed so rosy for a player who had finally lived up to the promise he showed as a youngster for Ajax Amsterdam as he prepared to join a club in the knockout stages of the Champions League.
Yet despite starting in the memorable 1-0 victory against AC Milan in the San Siro, that was as it got for Pienaar in a Spurs shirt as first a persistent groin injury and then a lack of first-team opportunities finally got the better of him. But what was most revealing was hearing just how desperate he was to leave north London, with Redknapp apparently keen to hold on to the 29-year-old right up until Tuesday night’s transfer deadline.
“At first he said no, I can’t go. It was the most stressful moment,” said Pienaar at the press conference to unveil him as an Everton player for the second time.
“I had to push him to get him to say yes, and eventually it happened just 10 minutes before time.”
News of the return of the player known as ‘Peanut’ in the blue corner of Merseyside was understandably greeted with great excitement, while Bafana Bafana boss Pitso Mosimane also wasted no time giving his captain the seal of approval after a year of frustration. And with his 30th birthday looming large in just over a month’s time, there is little doubt that Pienaar needs to be playing regularly and a return to the ground where he has arguably produced the best football of his career seems to suit all parties.
Now back home in his home in Woolton in the outskirts of Liverpool that had been up for sale since his departure for London, everything appears rosy. But quite where this leaves Pienaar’s future with Spurs remains to be seen.
Details of the season-long loan have yet to emerge, although it’s unlikely Everton will have been able to finance his weekly wages of around £60,000 – meaning Redknapp’s side are paying a large slice of that figure. Unless he is prepared to take a hefty pay-cut on the remaining three years of that contract, a permanent return to Goodison Park seems impossible.
That leaves just handful of clubs who may be prepared to offer Pienaar an escape route from White Hart Lane, assuming he remains surplus to requirements on his return to north London at the end of the season. But for the player who was given his original nickname in the tough Westbury township in Johannesburg after watching Italy’s Toto Schillachi at the 1990 World Cup, it is hard to underestimate the relief he will be feelling now he finds himself back in the company of old friends in the city he now considers a second home.