With the venue's opening match still days away, the coastal outpost of Calabar is already in carnival mode in anticipation of the FIFA U-17 World Cup Nigeria 2009. A city of 1.2 million on the easternmost stretch of Nigeria's coastline, the capital of Cross River State is renowned as a place that likes a good party. The annual Christmas carnival is just one mass-scale bash in this scenic, sunny outpost brimming with smiling locals and cool rhythms.
It is fitting then that the upcoming U-17 world finals would be cause for one more celebration in the fun-loving burg. As early as Wednesday 21 October, a Nigeria 2009-themed party parade - complete with a thumping rhythm and brass section - prepared to make its winding way through the streets of Calabar.
"We love football like religion here in Nigeria and the people love to celebrate it," Dr. Rafiu Ladipo, a chief organiser of the event, told FIFA.com. Despite the scorching heat and sapping sunshine, revellers were out in their numbers for the event. A flat-bed truck, packed with whirling local dancers and musicians, embarked from the parking lot of the U. J. Esuene Stadium - where Iran and Gambia will meet in four days - to make its winding, noisy way through the streets of the city.
"We are trying to have a mini carnival as the games approach," Ladipo went on, straining to be heard over the infectious rhythms filling the air. "We have local young people here singing and dancing and trying to create a welcome for all the teams. We here in Nigeria love football, all football. We want to welcome all the teams."
Dr. Ladipo is no stranger to whipping up support for Nigeria's national teams. As the president of the official national teams' supporters' club, he follows the Super Eagles, the Golden Eaglets and the Super Falcons all over the world with the express purpose of inspiring them to victory. "I have been supporting Nigerian national teams for 35 years, and it has given me the most exciting and most disappointing moments of my life," the middle-age man, decked in the green and white of the Nigerian standard, said with a half-smile.
And although Ladipo is keen to stay diplomatically neutral ahead of kick-off, he and his acolytes will be flying the flag for the hometown Golden Eaglets when they open their account Saturday in Abuja against European champions Germany. "Of course we want our Eaglets to do well. It is our job to make it so! That is what we do," he said before gesturing for the truck to hit the streets.
It was a feeling shared throughout the gathered throng. "Go Eaglets, make the country proud. We know you can do it," was the comment of one young man, taking a break from some cool trumpet work. "We are all behind you," his mate, on trombone, chimed in as the big truck lurched, puffed smoke and made its merry way out to the streets of Calabar.