Nigeria coach Manu Garba had a genuine surprise up his sleeve when he unveiled his FIFA U-20 World Cup squad. Saviour Godwin was not a player many had predicted would take part, and even fewer imagined spotting his name on a team sheet at New Zealand 2015.
With the African champions facing a crucial Group E tussle with Korea DPR, the prospect seemed especially unlikely, but Garba had other ideas – and after Godwin’s stellar performance in New Plymouth, it is easy to see what the coach had in mind.
“He’s a lad I know well because he was in our squad when we won the U-17 World Cup in the United Arab Emirates in 2013,” explained Garba. “I put him in my starting XI today for tactical reasons. He’s quick, holds the ball up well and he can shoot with both feet. His qualities seemed useful for taking on Korea DPR. Saviour responded in the right way, even if he can still do more. But it’s true that his two goals did us a lot of good.”
The Number 13 swung the match, in fact, heading in the opener on 48 minutes and calmly burying his second three minutes later to put Nigeria in control of a game they had started slowly.
Until that point, the Flying Eagles had faced an impregnable wall in Cha Jong-Hun, with Godwin denied by the miracle-worker after a quarter of an hour and Musa Muhammed left similarly frustrated from a 27th-minute free-kick.
And when they could beat the North Korean goalkeeper, the woodwork came to their opponents’ rescue, as it did with just two minutes gone. No matter how much Nigeria persevered, the ball would not go in.
“We had a well-conceived plan for this match which my players didn’t really respect in the first half,” added Garba. “But I spoke to them at half-time and they got the job done afterwards.”
The details of what was said will likely remain a mystery, however, with Godwin unwilling to shed too much light on the dressing-room exchange at Stadium Taranaki.
“The coach just gave us a few instructions,” he told fifa.com cagily. “He made a few adjustments ahead of the second half.”
Godwin had already done his talking on the pitch, of course. Exploiting his pace and technical ability, he was involved in everything that Nigeria did well against Korea DPR, and ended his first competitive start with a double to savour.
“All the credit goes to my team-mates,” the youngster explained with a smile. “They made the conditions ideal for me during the game, and before it as well with their encouragements ahead of my first start. They asked me to give everything, so that’s what I did. The coach didn’t tell me anything specific, but I didn’t need any extra motivation”.
Having been restricted to cameo performances under Garba, Godwin’s enthusiasm is easy to imagine. The FC Stars striker may have made six appearances at the 2013 FIFA U-17 World Cup, but all of them came off the bench.
And he missed out altogether for Nigeria’s trip to the CAF African U-20 Championship. “Was this about proving a point? I don’t know about that,” he said. “It’s up to the coach to make his decisions and I just have to accept them. Today he gave me a chance to express myself and I seized it.”
He also put the Flying Eagles back on track in New Zealand. Beaten by Brazil in their opening game, the African contenders could settle for nothing less than all three points against the North Koreans if they hoped to maintain their quarter-final chances.
Thanks to Godwin, the two-time runners-up have breathed new life into their bid. “It’s fantastic. To score my first international goals in this context obviously brings on a lot of emotions,” concluded Nigeria’s match winner – or, perhaps more appropriately, their ‘saviour’.