The few with just an ounce of optimism that the game would hold, believed that Atletico Madrid would not be coming with their main players.
There were even more doubts when Super Eagles coach Salisu Yusuf named a 23-man squad with 16 home-based players for the game.
Atletico Madrid, however, unveiled their squad for the friendly game, including the likes of Fernando Torres, Jan Oblak and Juanfran with Antoine Griezmann, Diego Costa and other 2018 FIFA World Cup-bound players the only exemptions.
The list stoked optimism ahead of the game and when Diego Simeone, Torres and other Atletico Madrid players arrived in Uyo on Monday, May 21, it was official.
Atletico Madrid’s arrival
It had been a very hectic one week to end of the season for Atletico. They played in the Europa League final which they won 3-0 against Marseille on Wednesday, May 16 and their last La Liga game of the season, a 2-2 home draw against Eibar on Sunday, May 20.
Just 24 hours later, the touched down at the Ibom International Airport in Uyo.
Atletico Madrid’s commitment to the game was not out of choice rather an obligation to La Liga. The friendly game was an initiative from the partnership between La Liga and the Nigeria Professional Football League(NPFL) and sponsored by cable television DSTV-that was why the friendly game was called GOTv Max Cup.
La Liga have been working to improve their ties with Nigeria to make the league very popular in the country.
They had launched an office in Nigeria, working with a Nigerian agency and using former Nigerian players who played in the La Liga during their careersto strengthen ties with the country.
This game was an opportunity for them to connect Nigerians with La Liga and it didn’t cost the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) and the League Management Company (LMC), organisers of the NPFL a dime, that is where DSTV came in. The cable giants sponsored the game and called it GOTv Max Cup to garner popularity for their product ahead of the 2018 FIFA World Cup.
“We are not paying Atletico a dime. That’s the beauty of what Dikko is doing at the LMC. Mamelodi Sundowns (of South Africa) are paying Barcelona about $4 million for a friendly but we are not paying anything,” NFF boss Amaju Pinnick explained on a breakfast show on Channels Television.
“It’s an arrangement that the LMC had with La Liga a couple of years back. You know La Liga have an office here, they employ Nigerians and also pay their taxes here.”
The presence of Atletico Madrid with some of their star players is a testament to how keen La Liga were on this game.
Another dilemma for Atletico Madrid was how they were to manage dispirited and tired players who would have preferred relaxing at some of the choicest holiday locations around the world to playing a friendly game in Africa.
Torres in Nigeria
A press conference for the game could not be arranged because the Atletico Madrid players were tired.
The players were only made available for a meet-and-greet with LMC, DSTV officials and the media. No interview request was granted although we at Pulse Sportsmanaged to snag a few minutes with Atletico and Ghanaian player Thomas Amartey.
As footballers, the game was more fun to them, they got on it with ease and won. It was apparent they took the game easy and played with an intensity way below the usual.
It could have been just a friendly game but losing wasn’t in their script.
It was clear they would have scored more if they wanted to. They won 3-2 against a Nigerian side that gave good accounts of themselves.
Simeone spoke to the Nigerian press after the game, aided by former Nigerian and Barcelona defender Gbenga Okunowo who acted as an interpreter.
A few minutes later, the Atletico Madrid contingent was on their way to the airport to board the flight to Spain.
Despite the inconvenience, the experience will sure remain with the visitors including Torres who was hugely popular in Uyo.
Torres was a special case. The Atletico Madrid legend who had played his last official game for the club but was still under contract until June 1.
With Atletico Madrid obligated by La Liga, they still had to bring Torres to Nigeria for the game.
From the airport, hotel and the stadium, everyone wanted a photo with Torres. He started from the bench but that didn’t stop the crowd from cheering anytime his face was shown on the big screen. He bowed and acknowledged the cheers when he came on at the start of the second half and scored later.
Atletico Madrid and the 34-year-old share a special connection. He has donned the shirts of Liverpool, Chelsea and AC Milan but these clubs mean nothing to him compare to his boyhood side Atletico.
And that is why he will never forget Nigeria, the country he last kicked a ball for the club that flows through his veins.