John Obi Mikel is nothing if not optimistic when it comes to Nigeria’s hopes of qualifying for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia�. Although Africa’s third round of qualifying only reaches its halfway point at the end of this month and beginning of September, the Super Eagles captain believes a place at the global finals is within their grasp.

Group B, in which Nigeria are already four points clear of second-placed Cameroon and five ahead of Zambia and Algeria, certainly makes for pleasant reading. And though four tough games have still to be negotiated, Mikel is upbeat about their prospects of topping the table and claiming the section’s sole spot at Russia 2018.

“We are in a very good position in our group,” the 30-year-old Tianjin Teda midfielder told FIFA.com. “We have two wins from two games, and in our last game we beat Algeria at home. We have a very good young team and the players play good football. If we can win our next match (at home to Cameroon on 31 August) it will edge us closer to qualification. I think we can go through.”

For the former Chelsea star, the pressure to make it to Russia is immense. And as he explained, that is not simply due to the expectations of supporters in his football-mad homeland. “My wife is Russian, he said, and many of our relatives and friends are from Russia. They are all expecting Nigeria to qualify for the next World Cup. I think they will kill me if I fail them,” he added, laughing.

Crunch ties

For all his confidence, Mikel is under no illusions that the remainder of Nigeria’s campaign will be easy. Looming large, after all, are back-to-back meetings with reigning African champions Cameroon, who have drawn both their matches thus far. The Super Eagles captain knows that these meetings on 31 August and 4 September will go a long way towards deciding the group’s outcome.

“As everyone knows, they are a very good team, he said of Cameroon. They are strong and they play with confidence. We must get ourselves well prepared for this game and try our best to get on top against them. It won’t be easy but these are important matches. If we win both, we will be almost there.

As might be expected given his role as captain, Mikel has figured prominently in Nigeria’s qualifying campaign thus far. Notably, he scored one and set up for another in their most recent triumph: a 3-1 win over Algeria in November. However, injury has kept him sidelined over recent months, causing concern for supporters of both club and country. Mikel, though, has vowed to do everything within his power to be fit for this vital upcoming double-header.

“I had maintained good form until this injury,” he said. “So it was a shame. But this is part of the game and now I am focusing on recovery and on coming back stronger. I will do whatever I can to get fit to play for Teda and my national team.

“This Nigeria team look up to me for advice. My team-mates miss me and they need me. As the captain, I want to fulfil my role and help them with my experience.”

A distinguished career

Mikel certainly has pedigree that few of his African peers can match. He broke on to the scene at the 2005 FIFA U-20 World Cup, when he helped Nigeria march all the way to the final, where they were edged out by a Lionel Messi-inspired Argentina.

In the senior ranks, he helped Nigeria to the 2013 African Cup of Nations title and, more recently, starred for the Super Eagles at Brazil 2014, where they reached the second round for the first time since 1998.

At club level, he won just about everything on offer during a glittering 11-year spell with Chelsea, departing Stamford Bridge having claimed a UEFA Champions League title, two English Premier League crowns and four FA Cups. Such achievements, however, merely serve to whet his appetite for more.

I am glad with what I have done, he said. But at the same time, I am not satisfied. I want to achieve more, so I must push harder. The next World Cup in Russia will be a fresh chance for us but, first, we have to make it there. Then the next challenge will be to make sure we enjoy an even better tournament in Russia than we did in Brazil.

Source: Confederation Africaine de Football

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Of all the ingredients that spell success at U-17 level, few swing the pendulum like coaching expertise � and few U-17 coaches boast the stature of Mali’s Jonas Komla. A youth-team specialist and one of Africa’s most respected management figures, his record speaks for itself, with Les Aiglonnets (the Eaglets) booking their place at the FIFA U-17 World Cup India 2017 by winning the last edition of the CAF Africa U-17 Cup of Nations.

That triumph added further sheen to Komla’s reputation, and FIFA.com spoke with the Mali coach about his side’s next major challenge � though not before a brief recap of his career so far. “I’ve worked with several youth teams,” he explained. “I had the chance to work in the United Arab Emirates for three years and I got my grounding at some of Europe’s biggest clubs, like Manchester City, Valencia and Real Madrid. I’m now putting all that experience to good use for Malian football, with the goal of helping the young players progress and do well at the U-17 World Cup.”

Group stage goal

The draw for the final tournament has placed Mali in a fairly even group with Paraguay, Turkey and New Zealand, but Komla believes his side has every chance of qualifying for the knockout phase. “The Paraguayans love football,” he said. “They have a good team and lots of talent, especially at youth level. I got the chance to take on Mexico in Japan and the two teams are quite similar, with a focus on technique and rapid movement.”

Komla is likewise wary of an improved Turkey team. “The Turks have been concentrating on youth development. They’re putting their focus on technique and power, so I’m expecting a physical game against them, especially considering the size of their players. In terms of tactics, we’ll have to be up to the task on the day.”

As for fellow group hopefuls New Zealand, the Mali coach believes the Oceanian contenders are the weakest side in the section � despite gearing up for their sixth U-17 World Cup in succession and eighth overall. “New Zealand will be putting their faith in a new generation of players,” he said. “They always qualify for the U-17 World Cup and we’ll take them very seriously. You have to treat every game like a final. We’ll take every match as it comes, without getting ahead of ourselves. Our opponents will fear us because we’re the African champions, and it’ll be up to us to live up to our standing.”

Mali will also begin the tournament as runners-up from two years ago in Chile, and as such they will be among the favourites to lift the trophy. Despite that pedigree, Komla is keeping his feet on the ground. “You hope to go as far as possible in every competition. Our first goal is to get beyond the group stage, and for that to happen we’ll need to be completely focused on our first three matches. Once that’s achieved, we’ll approach the knockout games one by one.”

Positive preparations

Mali will certainly begin their bid in top form, in contrast to several sides who have endured difficult periods as the finals approach. “We’ve prepared well, with training camps in Japan and Qatar,” said Komla. “We still have seven matches to go before we leave for India, and we know what to expect over there.”

His charges have also just ended their campaign at the Jeux de la Francophonie (Francophone Games), an experience that Komla feels was hugely positive. “The Malian association made the good decision to take part in the Games,” he said. “We were fortunate enough to be able to take on some good-quality U-23 teams, like Cameroon, Niger, CAte d’Ivoire, Congo and Congo DR. Those matches taught us a lot. When we get back to Bamako, we’ll correct the mistakes that we identified in CAte d’Ivoire.”

Mali’s mental toughness

One aspect that should escape scrutiny is Mali’s impressive mental strength. As Komla explained, the coaching staff have been addressing the psychological side of the game with players for a number of years. “Compared to other African countries, Mali are a step ahead when it comes to mental preparation. We’ve been working with these players since they started at U-13 level, and we’ve put a lot of emphasis on the mental aspect. You mustn’t forget that they come from very poor families and that football is a way out for them. We teach them to play every game with the same rigour and the same focus.

“I’ve reminded my players that every match at the World Cup will be a final for us,” he added. “If we win one, it’ll be like winning the World Cup. And if we lose one, it’ll be like losing the World Cup. That’s my way of encouraging them to give everything on the pitch. I keep telling them that this World Cup won’t be easy. That’s why we need to work on our fitness, technique and mentality. My team isn’t just strong in terms of tactics; it also has vast reserves of mental strength.”

Source: Confederation Africaine de Football

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Boko Haram Split Creates Two Deadly Forces

LAGOS, NIGERIA � A Boko Haram faction responsible for the kidnapping of a Nigerian oil prospecting team, which led to the deaths of at least 37 people, has become a deadly force capable of carrying out highly organized attacks.

Nigerian government forces have focused on crushing the best-known branch of the Islamist militant group whose leader Abubakar Shekau has led an eight-year insurgency to create an Islamic state in the northeast that has killed thousands.

But while Nigeria has claimed the capture of Shekau’s main base in the Sambisa forest and freed many of more than 200 schoolgirls abducted by his faction in April 2014 in Chibok town, a rival wing has developed the capacity to carry out attacks on a larger scale.

Better organized, better message

At least 37 people, including members of the prospecting team, rescuers from the military and vigilantes, died last week when security forces tried to free those being held by the Boko Haram faction led by Abu Musab al-Barnawi, who is trying to thwart government efforts to explore for oil in the Lake Chad Basin.

That wing is much better organized than the Shekau faction which typically stages suicide bombings in mosques and markets, said Malte Liewerscheidt, senior Africa analyst at Verisk Maplecroft consultancy group.

The Shekau faction does not seem to have a clear ideology or any strategy, said Liewerscheidt. That makes it easier for al-Barnawi’s faction to recruit, whereas Shekau’s faction was not trusted by locals, he said.

And despite the assessment that it is less organized, Shekau’s faction has stepped up suicide bombings in the last few weeks, killing at least 113 people since June 1, according to a Reuters tally.

The combined attacks by the two wings marks a resurgence by the group, months after President Muhammadu Buhari’s announcement in December 2016 that Boko Haram’s stronghold in the Sambisa forest had been captured.

Boko Haram, which has killed more than 20,000 people and forced about 2.7 million to flee their homes since 2009, split last year.

IS-backed faction

The division led by Shekau, Boko Haram’s most recognizable figure known for videos taunting Nigerian authorities circulated on social media, operates in the northeastern Sambisa forest and usually deploys girls as suicide bombers.

But, since Islamic State named al-Barnawi as Boko Haram’s leader in August 2016 after the west African militants pledged allegiance the previous year, his Lake Chad-based faction has been moving fighters and ammunition across porous borders in northeast Nigeria, Cameroon, Niger and Chad.

The head of a private Nigerian security firm, who did not want to be named, said al-Barnawi’s IS affiliation meant his wing benefits from sub-Saharan trade routes to ship weapons from lawless Libya where Islamic State is active.

His group has been planning a larger scale attack for some time, said a Western diplomat, speaking anonymously.

Boko Haram launched two attacks in June, the most prolonged raid on the northeastern city of Maiduguri in 18 months and an attack on a police convoy, which were more ambitious than routine suicide attacks. Shekau’s faction is widely believed to have been behind the two attacks.

Not-so-liberated areas

Buhari has repeatedly said the insurgents are on the verge of defeat since the army, helped by neighboring countries, wrested back most of the land in Nigeria’s northeast, an area the size of Belgium, that the militants took in early 2015.

But security experts say the territorial gain has given a false impression because much of the liberated areas beyond main roads patrolled by the army remain no-go areas where displaced people cannot return to farm.

While insurgent-held territory has been recaptured, this was conflated with a military victory, said Ryan Cummings, director of Africa-focused risk management company Signal Risk.

All that has happened is that Boko Haram has reverted to the asymmetrical armed campaign it had waged for the seven out of the eight years of its armed campaign against the Nigerian state, he said.

The military has been forced to concentrate forces around Maiduguri, capital of the insurgency’s birthplace, Borno state, where Shekau’s faction has stepped up suicide bombings, which now occur on a near-daily basis.

Ransom money

A security analyst said Shekau’s wing used ransom money paid by the government to free Chibok girls to buy weapons and recruit fighters. The attacks stepped up after a deal was brokered in May to free 82 of them.

The return of experienced commanders freed in exchange for the girls also bolstered his group, said the analyst, who asked not to be named.

The fact that they were held for some time suggests they were serious players, he said.

Acting-President Yemi Osinbajo, in power while Buhari takes medical leave in Britain for an unspecified ailment, responded to the oil team’s abduction and frequent attacks by ordering military chiefs to scale up their efforts in Borno, according to a statement.

The military said armed forces chiefs relocated to Maiduguri Aug. 1.

This move and action are expected to give impetus to the military effort, it said, without elaborating. The theatre army commander is already based in the city.

Source: Voice of America

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Cameroonians Donate Blood to Help War Against Boko Haram

YAOUNDE � In Cameroon, people have been supporting the war effort against Boko Haram by donating blood for the wounded, but officials say the country’s blood banks continue to run short.

Hundreds of people have been gathering at the court yard of the city council in Yaounde to donate blood for Cameroonian soldiers fighting the Boko Haram insurgency.

Among them is 50-year-old Anatol Bihina who is waiting to be tested to see if he can donate.

He says he owes the military respect and encourages them to go ahead defending Cameroon from acts of terror. He says if he is approved to donate blood, he will not hesitate to give every time he can.

Cameroon has deployed more than 3,000 troops to its northern border with Nigeria as part of the multinational joint task force battling Boko Haram. Another 1,000 soldiers are on the country’s eastern border with the troubled Central African Republic to keep rebels out of Cameroon’s territory.

Since it began its offensive two years ago, the regional force has chased Boko Haram out of much of the territory it once held. But raids and suicide bombings have continued.

Officials say hundreds of people wounded in Boko Haram violence, including soldiers, have died partly due to blood shortages.

According to the Ministry of Health, Cameroon runs short by at least 400,000 pints of blood every year.

Dr. Biwole Sida of the general hospital in Yaounde says donations help but still are not enough to meet the need.

The doctor says 13 percent of donated blood is rejected due to the high prevalence rate of hepatitis B.

Among those helping fill empty blood banks is the South African community. Zanele Makina, South Africa’s high commissioner to Cameroon, says it was able to collect blood from at least 200 people this week.

“It’s amazing, it’s very good. We did not expect so much response from Cameroonians but the moment they saw the set where we had set up our area of blood donation, even market kids who were selling, the moment they heard or saw musicians singing, they would come and say they also want to give blood,” said Makina.

In a statement, the military said it is heartened by the initiative. Cameroonian President Paul Biya has encouraged citizens to support the military. The government says it has received large food consignments and as much as $6 million in donations for the soldiers over the past two years.

Source: Voice of America

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