Giants, monsters and steamrollers...Those are just a few of the colourful terms used by the international media to describe Nigeria's impressive U-17 team. And the Golden Eaglets have not finished yet.
The Nigerians were head and shoulders above the rest of the
field in the African qualifiers. Burdened by the favourites'
tag when they arrived in Togo for March's CAF African U-17
Championship, Yemi Tella's charges made light of the pressure,
scoring 15 goals and conceding just one during the whole
tournament. A 1-0 final win over the host nation to take the
continental crown was the icing on the cake, having already sealed
their passage to the FIFA U-17 World Cup Korea 2007.
Once on Korean soil, the Golden Eaglets quickly went about underlining their title aspirations. On the back of their qualifying success, striker Kabiru Akinsola revealed that he was already thinking about success in the elite event: "We have a chance to become world champions," said the forward, who was top scorer at the African Championship with four goals.
"There are certainly some good teams, Brazil for example, but we are not afraid of anyone. We are confident in our own ability and we've been together for long enough to know what we can do, and to know that we are capable of lifting the World Cup."
In order to get themselves in the mood for the FIFA U-17 World Cup, the Nigerians took part in the Eight Nations International U-17 Tournament in Korea Republic in June. Anyone who questioned the quality of the African champions, or indeed their desire to succeed, would have been left in no doubt at all after victories over New Zealand, USA and Japan - the first two by 2-1 scorelines before a 5-0 success - took them into the final against Brazil, which they lost on penalties. However, the Golden Eaglets finished the tournament as top scorers (11 goals) and with a new billing as serious challengers for the world title.
Strength and maturity
Aware of the expectation surrounding his team, Yemi Tella is happy to calmly soak up the pressure. "Nigeria will be aiming to go all the way and lift the trophy, just like we do in any competition," the Golden Eaglets coach told FIFA.com. "We have a very solid, well-balanced side. For every position, I have players who are strong, mature and motivated. Our best asset is our desire. We want to win everything. Victory is our motto."
Drawn against 2001 world champions France in their Group D
curtain raiser, and tipped by many to reach the final, the Africans
made their physical strength count in completely suffocating the
Bleuets' attacking efforts. They also demonstrated
their maturity as they capitalised on two French defensive errors
to seal a vital 2-1 victory, without finding their best form.
The win prompted a typically positive response from Tella: "We are here for the world title. That means we want to beat everyone. We will take one match at a time, but the aim will always be the same: victory."
That might sound like arrogance, but Tella is merely being realistic. In the following match, an ambitious Japan team eager to avenge their 5-0 defeat a few months ago, were duly taught another lesson. Macauley Chrisantus, a player for the big occasion, scored twice as the Nigerians swept to a 3-0 victory, while the prodigiously gifted Rabiu Ibrahim subjected his Asian opponents to his full range of tricks in a display eerily reminiscent of former Nigerian legend Augustine 'Jay Jay' Okocha.
'A win is always a win'
After the Japan game, Chrisantus promised FIFA.com that there would be more victories to follow. "We were too strong for them today. And we'll be hoping for the same situation in our next match. Haiti will be playing for their future in the competition, while we have already qualified. But you can be sure that we won't be taking our foot off the pedal; we will be playing to win. That's what motivates us. A win is always a win."
The Africans have been given a major boost by the presence of a
loyal travelling support, who have been following them all over
'The Land of Morning Calm'. Hundreds of Nigerians, some
expatriates based in Korea, others who have made the journey
specially, ensure a terrific atmosphere in the stadiums whenever
the Eaglets are playing, filling the air with the sound of their
trumpets and drums.
"Coach Tella has promised that he will bring home the trophy," says David, a Nigerian who lives just outside Gwangyang and who is thrilled to have his national team playing on his doorstep. "I am here to lend my support and to help him to keep that promise. Not that I have any doubts. I am convinced that we have the best team in the tournament."
The players themselves would almost certainly agree. And they will be looking to leave Haiti in agreement. Their Caribbean opponents are desperate to win to stay in the tournament, but they will need a gigantic performance of their own to stop the Nigerian steamroller in its tracks.