Seasoned Sabi leads by example
Of the 336 players who travelled to Russia for the FIFA U-20 Women's World Championship , only five were able to boast experience of the tournament's two previous editions. Anyone who has seen even a glimpse of Akudo Sabi's play at this tournament will not be surprised in slightest to learn that she is one of the five.
Though still a mere teenager - she was just 15 when she made the journey to Canada 2002 - Nigeria's captain fits the clichéd 'old head on young shoulders' tag to a tee, with her thoughtful and assertive off-field demeanour mirroring the intelligent, commanding performances she invariably produces at the heart of the Falconets' defence.
Physically, she may not be as imposing as many of her Chinese, Korean or German counterparts, but many a taller opponent has found herself out-muscled, out-jumped and generally out-manoeuvred by this dynamic defender, who uses her lean, athletic frame to complement the experience she has accrued over the past four years.
"Because this is my third world championship, I don't feel that anything is new to me anymore and nothing worries me," Sabi told FIFA.com. "I still remember how tough it was when I went with the team to Canada because I was just a girl then and I was up against players much bigger, more physical and better than I had ever played against before.
"Physically and mentally, it was a big challenge for me, but I learned a lot of lessons very quickly and it was the same in Thailand two years ago. Now I feel I'm able to pass on some of these lessons to the young players in our squad and I know that, though it will be hard for them, it will make them tougher players just as it did for me."
Nigeria certainly appear confident of proving a tough nut for Brazil to crack when the teams meet at Moscow's Torpedo stadium tomorrow in a quarter-final clash that, given both sides' wholehearted commitment to attack, looks to have all the makings of an end-to-end thriller.
'We'll save China for the final'
It will certainly do well to live up to the standard set in the sides' Group B encounter at Thailand 2004, a match which brimmed with incident and drama, and ended with Nigeria scoring in injury time to triumph by the odd goal in five over a Brazilian side earlier reduced to 10 women.
Sabi remembers it well - she wore the captain's armband that night, too - but though she faced up to numerous opponents with whom she's likely to renew acquaintances tomorrow, among them Renata Costa , Aliane and Maurine, her memories are dominated by Russia 2006's most notable absentee.
"To be honest, I don't remember much about the Brazilian team other than that they had a truly great player in Marta ," she recalled. "We won that night, but I remember very well that Marta hurt us a lot. It is a shame for the tournament that she is not here, but from a Nigerian perspective I can't say that I am too unhappy.
"In any case, I think it will be a great game without her. Both sides play good football and our styles should make for a very exciting game that will be a nice one for the Russian fans to watch."
Entertaining the crowd is one goal for Sabi. Winning the match, quite obviously, is another. Yet, for a young woman who also plays her club football in Nigeria for Bayelsa Queens, there is also the not inconsiderable challenge of winning respect and recognition both in her homeland and the wider continent.
Traditionally, women's football in Africa has always suffered from a lack of support, both financial and moral, and Finland's coach Jarmo Matikainen admitted ahead of the tournament to "admiring the Nigerian players all the more" for their resolute determination to champion the game's cause against a backdrop of widespread indifference. Fortunately, Sabi believes that the tide may already be turning in this respect, and firmly believes that the Falconets can help accelerate the process by virtue of an extended run at Russia 2006.
"It's true that female football needs to be more professional and well-respected in Nigeria," she admitted. "But I look on the internet and I see that there are a lot of nice things being written about what we are doing over here, and I do think people appreciate that we are doing well for our country.
"As you know, we had a letter of encouragement from our president before the competition started and, if we get to the final - which I think we can - then that would be a big deal back home. That's a realistic aim for us, and I think it would make a difference.
"People might look at the fact we lost to China and think we don't have a chance, but I tell you now: if we played them again, the score would be very different. I really want to meet China again, in fact. But we'll save them for the final… "