SHEFFIELD (Julio Chitunda's African Message) - Last week's FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament for Men (OQTM) should be celebrated as a new chapter in the basketball history thanks to the performances of two African teams, especially with Nigeria qualifying for the Olympic Games.
The D’Tigers, as Nigeria national team are commonly known, will play their first Olympic tournament, after winning three of their five games played over the course of six days.
On Sunday, the last day of the OQTM, they beat Dominican Republic
88-73 to claim the last berth for the London Games.
This is a success that few predicted but the Nigerian players always believed.
Now they join 2011 Afrobasket champions Tunisia at the Olympics as Africa representatives.
The last time the African continent had two teams at an Olympic tournament was back in 1988, at the Seoul Games, when the Central African Republic and Egypt were the African flag bearers.
The 2011 Afrobasket bronze medallist Nigeria not only successfully made it to London, but convincingly denied the European dominance with two remarkable wins over Lithuania and Greece.
Additionally, Angola’s win over The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (MKD) and a reasonable showdown against Russia should not be overlooked.
The Russians, though, was the African teams’ black sheep with two wins over both Angola and Nigeria.
Unlike many predictions, these two African teams qualified for the Quarter-Finals, after finishing second in Groups B and D respectively of the OQTM.
They combined for four victories in seven games, drastically improving the African participation from what it had been at the 2008 OQTM when it ended winless.
These two African teams, and especially Nigeria left a clear message: Yes, Africa can.
More than achieving the highest moment of African basketball, the Nigeria national team confirmed to the world stage the so-often claimed basketball talented nation accolade.
Nigeria is drawn in Group A of the 12-team Olympic tournament along with the USA, Argentina, Tunisia, France and Lithuania.
Nigeria’s performance at the OQT translates into a serious statement of a team that was not only satisfied in participating and learning from a world stage tournament.
Instead, they showed that they can compete, win and be dominant.
Of course this is an improved team compared to the one that played at last year’s Afrobasket.
With the likes of brothers Al-Farouq and Alade Aminu, Ade Daganduro, Tony Skinn, Ike Diogu, Derrick Obasohan and Co, this Nigeria team had no other option but to do well.
Nigeria now enjoys a positive record against European nations.
From defeats to France and Germany in 2006, they now count three wins - including last week's triumphs over Lithuania and Greece - and the 2006 FIBA World championship 82-75 win over Serbia and Montenegro.
Coach Ayodele Bakare successfully added a lot of quality into the squad.
Attracting these players to join the national team was the first hurdle Bakare successfully cleared.
I am sure that Bakare was extremely persuasive, something that does not surprise me. After various conversations with him, I was entirely convinced that this team was going to be successful sooner or later.
“That should be a good surprise, don’t you think?” he said to me when I asked him, early this year before the OQTM draw was announced, whether his team was able to beat the European opposition and make it to London.
Then he gave his predictions of the three teams to qualify to the Olympic: “Lithuania, Greece and Nigeria, for sure,” he said at the time.
He failed on his prediction of Greece, a team that he helped to eliminate.
His confidence started since the Nigeria Basketball Federation (NBBF) drew up their OQTM preparation programme.
In the document that I accessed they called it ROAD MAP TO 2012 OLYMPIC BASKETBALL TOURNAMENT.
That document clearly spelled out Nigeria's Olympic intentions.
One paragraph, for instance, says: “It is our firm belief that with the abundance of talented players which Nigeria will have available at that time, combined with adequate preparation and training, plus exposure of the team to high level friendly games we will do the country proud at the Olympics.”
Had Nigeria failed to qualify to the Olympics, the NBBF's credibility would have had to be put at stake. Now, perhaps it is time to break up with the past and turn the federation into an innovative institution.
This OQT saw African teams produce their best performances in global tournaments and proved some stereotypes wrong.
Beside the athleticism, both Angola and Nigeria played smartly with a lot of ferocity and proved that they can compete against the top national teams.
In fact, this OQTM transformed African basketball’s image.
Here are some quotes of African teams’ opponents, before and after the tournament.
MKD forward Vlado Ilievski said before the tournament: “They run, they are athletic, but I don’t think they have the technical skills the European teams have.”
His teammate Pero Antic, had a complete different view after a 88-84 loss to Angola: “They are a good team and they deserved to win,” he said.
MKD head coach Marjan Lazovski said after the OQTM draw was announced: “We have a good chance for the Olympics because we have opponents that we can beat.
“We know what we need to worry about New Zealand...Angola and Korea were the other teams we wished for before the draw.”
MKD were knocked out in the Quarter-Finals by the Dominican Republic.
Russia’s influential player Andrei Kirilenko revealed his thoughts on Nigeria, after a 85-77 Semi-Final win: “Give credit to Nigeria as they fight till the end [of the game]. They are a very good team.”
What African teams have shown is that there isn't one African basketball playing style. Instead there are different ways to interprate games and different ways to execute a plan. For instance, it is pointless trying to associate the Tunisian playing style with that of Chad or Togo.
Three wins and two losses - both to Russia - should be encouraging rather than disappointing.
Despite some relative success by Angola in the past, this year’s OQT was probably the best African appearance on a global stage.
The Greek affair
Nigeria out-rebounded Greece in the 80-79 Quarter-Final win, but Greece coach Ilias Zouros emphasised the referee’s job.
Probably it was a shocking reality for Greece who, in the past 20 years, enjoyed an unbeaten record over African teams in competitive tournaments.
A week before the OQT, Greece had beaten Nigeria (88-76) in a warm-up tournament, in Sao Paulo, Brazil.
Greece’s most recent win over an African team happened at the 2010 FIBA World Championship after trouncing Ivory Coast 97-60.
Before that game, the Greeks had destroyed Angola (102-61) at the 2008 Olympics. Four years earlier, as hosts of the 2004 Olympic Games, they also had beaten Angola (88-56).
Their African demolition dates back to the 1994 FIBA World Championship and a 69-53 win over Egypt. Four years later, as hosts of the FIBA World Championship, they beat Senegal (68-57).
However on July 6, they misfired as Nigeria came bigger and better.
Surely Greece, Lithuania and MKD may have a different perspective on the African teams.
For the Angolans, who will miss out on their first Olympics since 1992, the question is: Will they be able to come back stronger after missing out on the continent gold medal?
Well, past experience shows that after Angola finished third at the 1997 Afrobasket, and missed out the 1998 world championship, they came better than never and won six consecutive African titles (1999, 2001, 2003, 2005, 2007 and 2009).
More than being successful with the qualification to the Olympic Games, Nigerians proved how relevant and crucial the African Diaspora players are to develop the continent’s game.
These two African nations fought hard to confirm that they can do well. It is a remarkable achievement.
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