By Demola Olajire
Nigeria’s youngsters are truly thrilling all at the FIFA U-17 World
Cup finals in the United Arab Emirates and semi final opponents Sweden have a mountain to climb when both teams clash at the Rashid Stadium on Tuesday.
There was a pitch to the voice of their supporters at the quarter
final clash with Uruguay in Sharjah on Saturday night, following the
arrival of members of the Nigeria Football Supporters Club, led by the President-General, Dr. Rafiu Oladipo.
Saturday’s duel was expected to be the Eaglets’ toughest assignment so far but the boys rose to the occasion and dealt with it manfully.
Hours before the game, Deputy Senate President Ike Ekweremadu flew
into Dubai straight from an official assignment in Senegal, and exuded so much confidence before kick-off. He was joined at the VVIP section by Nigeria’s High Commissioner to the UAE and President of Nigeria Football Federation, Alhaji Aminu Maigari. President of the Athletics Federation of Nigeria, Chief Solomon Ogba, was also there.
Ekweremadu, in buoyant mood, said: “I know we are winning this match.
The Uruguayans cannot stop our boys. We are already in the semi
finals, I tell you.”
And the Golden Eaglets rose stoutly, with marked improvement in their
defending and general comportment. Even goalkeeper Dele Alampasu,
knocked for his jitters against Sweden in the group phase, was much
more composed and pulled off a number of reflex saves.
President of the Confederation of African Football, Alhaji Issa
Hayatou, was watching the Golden Eaglets live for the first time in
the tournament. He was impressed: “Your boys are excellent,” he said
at the final whistle. “They are lifting the African flag very high”.
FIFA Executive Committee member, Jacques Anouma, who had just seen his Ivorian boys sent packing, congratulated all Nigerian dignitaries in the VVIP box and wished the Eaglets well going forward.
Chairman of the NFF Technical Committee, Barrister Chris Green,
Members of the NFF Executive Committee Chief Felix Anyansi-Agwu and
Alhaji Ahmad Kawu, Director of Technical, Dr. Emmanuel Ikpeme,
Director of Competitions, Dr. Mohammed Sanusi, Assistant Director
(Media), Ademola Olajire, Head of International Competitions, Bola
Oyeyode and a handful of State FA chairmen and secretaries were
Former Super Eagles’ captain Sunday Oliseh, beamed in delight as did
Victor Ikpeba, a member of the NFF Technical Committee who played at
the 1989 tournament, before his glorious exploits with the Super
Eighty minutes before kick-off, the Eaglets knew they were the only
African side left in the tournament, following Cote d’Ivoire’s
elimination by Argentina, at the same Sharjah FC Stadium.
It was added responsibility that they carried with grace and sense of duty. It would be difficult for the team to do less, looking at the technical bench. Head Coach Manu Garba (MFR), himself a former junior international, was assistant to Coach Yemi Tella when the Eaglets triumphed at the FIFA U-17 World Cup in Korea Republic.
Assistant Coach Emmanuel Amuneke won a medal as an U-23 player at the
All-Africa Games in Cairo in 1991, before his better reported exploits with the senior team, and with the Olympic gold-winning Dream Team at the 1996 Games in Atlanta.
Assistant Coach Nduka Ugbade was captain of the Nigerian team that
swept all to win the inaugural event of this championship, in China in 1985. And goalkeeper’s trainer Emeka Amadi won silver medal at the
FIFA U-20 World Cup in Saudi Arabia in 1989.
Sweden stretched the Eaglets remarkably in the group phase before both teams shared the spoils in a six-goal thriller. But the indices are different for Tuesday.
The Rashid Stadium in Dubai will be packed to its rafters by chanting, drumming and dancing Nigerians, as members of the Nigeria Football Supporters Club are joined by Nigeria’s sizeable population in the United Arab Emirates.
Sports Minister, Alhaji Bolaji Abdullahi, is expected in Dubai on
Monday morning with a message of encouragement for the team from
Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, GCFR. Several other top functionaries, captains of industry and dignitaries are also expected to storm the Gulf State.
Nigeria has never lost a FIFA U-17 World Cup semi final, and boast a
great record against European sides since the tournament was launched
28 years ago.
In all her 10 participation, Nigeria has only failed to reach the
knock-out stage only once before, and that was even through the
boardroom; Austin Eguavoen’s Class of 2003 wickedly eliminated by the toss of coin after ending up on same number of points, goals for,
goals against and head-to-head with Costa Rica in Finland.
In 1989, the Eaglets were eliminated after penalty shoot-out in the
quarter final stage in Dundee by eventual winners Saudi Arabia. And in 1995, Oman, which finished in fourth place and produced the Player of the Tournament, prevailed 2-1 over Nigeria in the last eight in Portojievo. Three wins and three silver medals are the haul from the other six championships.
Those heavy on superstition remember that Nigeria have won all three
previous titles on Asian soil (as is UAE), and that on the way to
winning in Korea Republic six years ago, the Eaglets beat a South
American nation (Argentina) 2-0 in the quarter finals, as they have
done here against Uruguay, another South American country!
Brazil, the only other country to have won the tournament three times, has already been eliminated, sent home after a marathon penalty shoot-out against Mexico. So, the road is clear for the Eaglets to set record here, and for Nigeria to be even louder in Dubai!
-Ademola Olajire is an Assistant Director, Media of the Nigeria Football Federation, NFF.