Ajiboye soars on Eaglets' wings
© Foto-net

THE DAY REPLAYED - Penalties. One word, but one which brings so many memories of jubilation and despair. For the Golden Eaglets of Nigeria, they will look back fondly on the spot-kicks taken at the final of the FIFA U-17 World Cup Korea 2007, but for Spain the emotions may be too painful to recall. Some might say that a penalty shoot-out is no way to settle a match, let alone a FIFA final, but on the evening absolutely nothing could separate these two teams.

This was a match that was played not with a fear of losing, but rather a longing for glory. Both sides pressed for victory, with only the woodwork and some excellent goalkeeping ensuring a 0-0 scoreline after 120 minutes. It was the first-ever goalless draw in the final of the competition, leading to its fourth penalty shoot-out.

Nigeria, winners of the very first event back in 1985, were playing in their fifth final and this was their third trophy. That it is in their hands tonight is down in no small part to the goalkeeping heroics of Oladele Ajiboye, who saved from both Fran Merida and Iago as Yemi Tella's side secured a 3-0 shoot-out success. Matthew Edile, Daniel Joshua and Ganiyu Oseni all successfully converted their spot-kicks and with Spain substitute Asier Illarramendi dragging his effort wide, the destination of the trophy was decided.

Many will feel that Nigeria merited the win, given their performances in the tournament so far. They were the only team to win all of their games and with an attack spearheaded by Macauley Christantus, the adidas Golden Shoe winner, they were a joy to watch from the first whistle to the last.

How the supporters, providing a large part of the 36,125 crowd, lapped up Nigeria's victory at the FIFA World Cup Stadium in Seoul. With their trumpets blaring, even during the awards ceremony, they celebrated the victory as passionately as the players. On and off the pitch, the Nigerians have brought a real sense of colour to this tournament, a good portent for when they host the FIFA U-17 World Cup in two years' time.

Golden Kroos in control
In the day's other game, Germany were indebted to adidas Golden Ball recipient Toni Kroos for their third-placed finish - only the second time the Europeans have finished on the podium at the FIFA U-17 World Cup and their best ranking since finishing runners-up to Nigeria back in 1985.

Kroos was imperious in his team's 2-1 win over Ghana, pulling the strings in midfield, scoring one, creating another and not wasting a single pass. His 17th minute free-kick was a goal worthy of gracing any FIFA finals tournament. At the moment when we think of great free-kick takers, names such as David Beckham and Roberto Carlos instantly spring to mind, but in years to come, Kroos may have usurped them both.

But there is more to the Bayern Munich man's game than set-pieces, as today's match showed. He is a player capable of inspiring a team and winning a match. Before the tournament he was billed merely as a 'playmaker'. Those skills were in evidence in the final minute of the match when he presented substitute Alexander Esswein with the easiest of opportunities after his driving run from midfield had carved open the Ghana defence.

"Toni is a wonderful player," said coach Heiko Herrlich after the game. "I have absolutely no doubt that he will go on to be a great player for Bayern Munich and for Germany. During the tournament he has impressed me so much. He's a leader on the pitch and he is a leader off it. Yes, he is still young and still learning the game and he is bound to have good times and bad times, but he will get there."

The Kroos-inspired second was Germany's 20th of the tournament, more than the other 23 teams in Korea and only two short of Spain's tally of 22 recorded in 1997. Ghana, for their part, wrote themselves into the history of the event by scoring in their 21st consecutive FIFA U-17 World Cup finals match.

So, farewell to Kroos, Bojan, Chrisantus and Co - although there is little doubt that we will see them on the world's biggest stage in the years to come. And as the curtain falls on this event, one which epitomised FIFA's principles of Fair Play, one is reminded of the Sportsman's Prayer.

When the Great Scorer comes to write, he will not write whether you won or lost, but how you played the game.

For the teenagers who took part in this competition, they may have learned many lessons about the beautiful game, but hopefully about life as well.