Before taking their first steps in a competition as hotly
contested as the FIFA U-17 World Cup, teams seek grounds for
optimism anywhere they can find them. Whether by means of
meticulous preparation or friendly matches, all 24 sides taking
part in Korea have endeavoured to stack the chips in their favour
ahead of their crucial first encounters. In the cases of France and
Nigeria, the self-belief instilled by this gruelling groundwork is
further bolstered by a plethora of past statistics.
When the Bleuets emerge onto Gwangyang's Soccer Only Field this Sunday, they will put an end to a lengthy barren spell, as the last time the French featured in a FIFA U-17 World Cup encounter was in Trinidad and Tobago back in 2001. France failed to qualify for the intervening two editions held in Finland and Peru. But at least this last appearance was in the final of the competition, where the young Frenchman recorded a 3-0 triumph. And the side that drew the short straw that day? Yes, you guessed it... Nigeria!
Another Le Tallec amongst the honours?
Under the stewardship of Jean-François Jodar, the young French colts easily overpowered a flock of Golden Eaglets overawed by the magnitude of the occasion and unable to offer any meaningful riposte to the rapier-like cut and thrust of Florent Sinama-Pongolle and Anthony Le Tallec, whose gaol apiece on the day cemented their status as finds of the tournament.
Their current successors are bent on drawing maximum inspiration from this memory in order to ensure history is repeated aganst one of the strongest sides at the Korean competition. "We're well aware of the exploits of the generation led by Pongolle, Jérémy Berthod, Jacques Faty and Le Tallec," explains the Bordeaux striker Henri Saivet. "And we've got another Le Tallec, Damien, Anthony's brother, on our side this time. We realise what they achieved was really remarkable and that just makes us more motivated, as we'd dearly love to experience the same emotions and most importantly get the same sort of result in the final. Nothing could top that feeling."
In the Nigerian camp, rather than recalling the bitter memory of that defeat in the final, they probably prefer to focus their memories on the first round of that same 2001 competition. For while the lesBleuets eventually got to hoist the silverware aloft by beating the likes of the United States, Japan, Argentina and Brazil, they had earlier endured their only defeat of the tournament at the hands of Nigeria. Karimu Shaibu and Victor Brown did the damage for the Golden Eaglets that day, with Sinama-Pongolle providing the French consolation effort late on (2-1).
Nigeria at ease in Asia
And if the Nigerians need further reassurance from past omens ahead of their opening game in the competition, they might also care to cast their minds back to the two world titles won by their country in the past. In China in 1985, at the inaugural edition of the tournament, the Africans were victorious in the final over Germany (2-0). Eight years later in Japan, the generation led by Wilson Oruma, Celestine Babayaro and Nwankwo Kanu clocked up a second triumph when they got the better of a 100% African affair against Ghana.
These are the only two editions of the FIFA U-17 World Cup to have been held on Asian soil, and each time it was Nigeria who stepped up onto the highest step of the podium. For Yemi Tella, the man who guided his side to victory at the CAF U-17 Championship in Togo, this portent is too strong to resist. "The U-17 World Cup is back in Asia and so are Nigeria. There's no doubt about it; we're going to bring the trophy back to Nigeria," he tells FIFA.com.
When reminded of the name of their first opponents and the outcome the last time the two sides met, Tella's conviction scarcely wavers. "We've come here to win the tournament, and to do that, we have to be able to beat everybody, France included. They'll all be tough games, but everybody's beatable".
Finally. another potential pointer from the past comes from the fact that Nigeria will be getting things underway on a ground they already know. When invited here last June to take part in the Eight Nations Tournament, the Golden Eaglets secured a 2-1 success over New Zealand.