Upton Park, the home ground of Coca-Cola Championship team, West Ham has been finally picked to host this year's edition of the Unity Cup football tournament, with Nigeria's Super Eagles, the Black Stars of Ghana, Jamaica's Reggae Boyz and the Trinidad and Tobago senior team coming into London for the big showcase.
“All arrangements are in place. We want this to be much better than whatever we put up in earlier years. I have been doing a lot of travelling lately, and I was in Ghana to see the federation chiefs and the coach of the Black Stars. There is excitement everywhere.
“By this weekend, I hope to have met and sorted out certain matters with the Nigeria Football Association chiefs, so that everything will move as planned. I tell you again: This will be a big spectacle and will set a standard for other tournaments to follow in subsequent years”, Rotimi Pedro, chief executive of the organizers, OSMi, told Saturday Vanguard during the week.
Nigeria, Trinidad and Tobago and Ghana are using the tournament, which will be broken into two parts over 12 days, as preparatory forum for next month's double-dose World Cup 2006 qualifying games. The African series also serve as the Nations Cup 2006 qualifiers.
The Unity Cup tournament started as a 'NiJam' clash between the Super Eagles and the Reggae Boyz on the margin of the 2002 World Cup finals. That match was played at the Loftus Road Stadium of Queens Park Rangers, with the Eagles winning by a James Obiorah goal.
“The Unity Cup unifies all cultures and communities. It is a tournament that many Africans and Caribbeans look forward to each year and we have come to realize the pride of place it occupies in the calender of many people. It is not something we can toy with any longer.
“Obviously, it has become an annual event, and what we would be discussing subsequently would be how many teams for each year. We can no longer go below the four teams that are taking part this year. I get calls from London everyday and you can't imagine the kind of excitement building up already”, Pedro said further.
Nigeria's Coach Christian Chukwu, who is in Manchester presently undergoing an understudy programme with Bolton Wanderers manager, Sam Allardyce, alongside his assistant, Augustine Eguavoen, said before leaving Lagos that he is grateful for the opportunity presented by the Unity Cup to prepare his boys for the crackers against Rwanda and Angola next month.
“We have no high-profile friendly lined up but this tournament has come at the right time and the fact that they are prepared to break the event for us so as to prepare for the two games is wonderful. We'll play a match before going to Kigali for the qualifier against the Wasps on June 3 and then have another game before flying down to Nigeria for the match against Angola. This is a good schedule for us. If we can pick six points from those matches, we would be closer to Germany 2006 than we can imagine.”
Ghana have a home game against Burkina Faso's Etalons on June 3 and would then fly down to Johannesburg for the clash with group leaders, South Africa - a game expected to determine the outcome of group two.
“Everything we are doing is to see that all the teams find the tournament attractive and though they actually love it, the arrangement we have in place now ensures that it dovetails with their own programme. June is a crucial month in the World Cup qualifiers and the Unity Cup provides a window for the coaches to see what they have in their storehouse”, Pedro added.
Nigeria's Super Eagles lead group four of the World Cup/African qualifying series with 13 points from six matches, followed by the Palancas Negras of Angola with 11 points. A win over Rwanda, and expected defeat of Angola would take the Eagles to within kissing distance of their fourth successive World Cup ticket. It is possible that by the end of June, the Nigerians would be at least five points ahead of the Angolans. But Zimbabwe's Warriors and the Panthers of Gabon are not to be ruled out of the fight.