Africa's paper champions want to come out swinging
Nigeria's Falconets will be heading to the FIFA U-19 Women's World Championship Thailand 2004 as lone African participants and continental champions. But is this title simply a function of a profound lack of women's youth competition on the Mother Continent? Join FIFA.com for a closer look at the hopeful Nigerians as they set sail for Siam with hopes of improving on their disappointing performance two years ago at the inaugural finals in Canada.
Though the first instalment of the FIFA U-19 Women's World Championship was heralded as a major success , it proved nothing more than a series of harsh lessons for the unprepared Nigerians.
Though they came into the finals as nominal champions of Africa, they fared poorly on the world stage and were sent packing without a win at the end of the first round in Edmonton. A 1-1 draw with Japan in their opener had given the squad hope, but two consecutive losses to Denmark (1-2) and Canada (0-2) left the Africans propping up the group with just one point from three matches .
In the run-up to Canada 2002, the Nigerians were invited to the finals, foregoing the rigours of a qualifying campaign due to lack of organisation and interest from their neighbours.
Tougher tests this time, still a simple affair
Though they needed to pass a few more tests to reach Thailand, including an edgy, contentious final with South Africa, Nigeria's qualifying process was still a relatively easy affair.
They skipped through the first round of qualifying without having to play a match, due to the late withdrawal of Madagascar and Mozambique. So, after dispatching Equatorial Guinea with a 7-0 scoreline over two legs, the Falconets found themselves in the final - up against South Africa's much-improved U-19 Banyana Banyana.
And in their first true test, the Nigerians scraped through with a 1-0 aggregate win over two legs.
A goal from the impressive Akudo Iwuagbu in Johannesburg saw the side take a nervous edge in the proceedings. The return leg at home in Abeokuta ended 0-0 though the hosts were largely outplayed by their southern counterparts. The narrow result sent the Falconets through to Thailand but also exposed a number of tactical weaknesses.
Under-fire coach Felix Ibe was grilled by journalists after the home leg, and was hard-pressed to defend his side's toothless performance. "It's true that we missed chances and were put on the defensive, but I think that can be explained by the fact that the players felt under a lot of pressure from the crowd," deflected the boss.
Expecting the best, but money woes loom
The coach, who was cleared of allegations of sexual misconduct in July, will surely need to coax some more convincing form out of his charges before things get underway in Thailand. The team, who began a comprehensive training camp on 10 October in Abeokuta, are hoping to show the finer side of African football and avoid another first round exit in Southeast Asia.
Nigerian FA officials - on the surface at least - are in confident mood.
According to NFA General Secretary Taiwo Ogunjobo, things are bound to be different this time around. He recently claimed, "this time around will be nothing like the last (at Canada 2002)."
And with five players from the senior Super Falcons side that recently won their fourth consecutive African Women's Championship and impressed at the Olympics in Athens , the Falconets may well be in for a finer fate come Group B time in Chiang Mai.
"There are five girls in our side at the African championship who will go to Thailand and we promise the African continent that we are working hard to bring the world title back home," Nigeria's top women's soccer administrator Ayo Omidiran recently told FIFA.com.
But after an acrimonious wage bonus row between the women's senior team and the Nigerian FA after the side won their fourth continental crown on the trot, things are not looking so rosy as money is tighter than ever for the West African nation.
"We could take a decision not to take part in future (international) tournaments if money is not made available," Nigeria FA boss Ibrahim Galadima recently told members of the media. "The Under-19 World Cup takes place in barely five weeks' time and we do not know where we are going to get the money to send them to the tournament."