Although there has never been a women's world finals at U-17 level before, Nigeria's dominance of African women's football is such that their presence at New Zealand 2008 was always all but guaranteed. The country's senior side have, after all, qualified for all five FIFA Women's World Cups as continental champions, and their youth team progressed to a fourth successive FIFA U-20 Women's World Cup earlier this year.
The U-17 team, nicknamed ‘the Flamingoes', might be the new kids on the block, but the NFA signalled their intent for this fledgling side by appointing Felix Ibe-Ukwu, one of the nation's most experienced women's football coaches, as their coach. Sure enough, the Flamingoes booked their place at New Zealand 2008 with a game to spare, a 3-0 win over Cameroon on 23 June securing their passage. The ease with which they qualified also enabled Nigeria to test some of their fringe players in the second half of their preliminary campaign, helping to finalise the squad that will do battle in New Zealand.
Nigeria's route to New Zealand 2008 proved predictably straightforward, with the tone set by a thumping 12-0 aggregate win over Guinea in the preliminary round of CAF qualifiers. The withdrawal of Liberia, their scheduled opponents, then handed the Flamingoes a bye to the final, decisive stage. There, Ibe-Ukwu's side faced up to Ghana and Cameroon in the battle for Africa's two available slots, and their bid began somewhat tentatively, with a battling 1-1 draw with Cameroon in Yaounde. Nigeria proved unstoppable at home, however, and it was two resounding wins in Abuja that made sure of their place in New Zealand. Ghana were the first to go down, with Ebere Orji opening the scoring in a 4-2 victory that saw Amarachi Okoronkwo reveal her potential with a superbly-taken hat-trick. Next to fall were Cameroon, with Orji on target again along with Ngozi Okobi and Ugo Oparanozie in a 3-0 win that secured qualification with a game to spare.
Felix Ibe-Ukwu, nicknamed 'Gabowski', took on his first coaching role in women's football 22 years ago with club side Urualla, moving on in 1993 to Rivers Angels Sports Club, where he led the club to a series of league and cup successes. In 1998, during his second stint at the club following a spell in charge of Kogi United, a male professional club, 'Gabowski' was named Coach of the Year. By this stage, he had already gained experience within the national set-up as part of the coaching team that guided Nigeria's U-17 men to the 1995 FIFA U-17 World Cup in Ecuador.
His reputation for developing young talent later led to the NFA putting him in charge of the national women's U-19 side, and he rewarded their faith by leading the team to the FIFA U-19 World Championship Thailand 2004. Replaced by Emmanuel Tetteh Okonkwo as coach before the tournament's next edition in 2006, Ibe-Ukwu only returned to the national set-up in a coaching shake-up late last year, taking charge of an U-17 side he will now lead into the inaugural FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup.
Players to watch
Strikers Amarachi Okoronkwo and Ebere Orji were crucial to the success of Nigeria's qualifying bid, and the duo will once again be key to the Flamingoes' hopes of making a major impact at New Zealand 2008. Okoronkwo displayed her scoring prowess by grabbing a hat-trick in the 4-2 win over Ghana, while Orji - who will also be a central figure in the U-20 side's bid for glory at Chile 2008 - performed superbly throughout, leading the forward line with considerable class.
What they said...
"We are going to make the nation proud. I know my girls. Once I tell them to go, they will fly. Once I give the signal, they will play their hearts out," Felix Ibe-Ukwu, Nigeria coach.
|IBE UKWU Felix|