There are some countries that are so football-crazy that a match involving any of their national teams is enough to set off a wave of hysteria. With Nigeria firmly among this select group, just imagine the fervour supplied by over 100 million Nigerians as they prepare to cheer on their countrymen at the FIFA U-17 World Cup on home soil. Do the Golden Eaglets have broad enough shoulders to handle the pressure?
Forty-eight hours before his team make their bow in the tournament, coach John Obu knows what his fellow Nigerians are expecting from the young squad. "We all wanted to host this tournament, and now that we have been given this honour, we can't go complaining about the extra pressure on the players," he said at a press conference held in the Abuja National Stadium, where his team will be playing on Saturday. "We are a footballing nation, we know that we will have the support of the whole country and we don't want to let them down."
While the coach of a nation which has won this tournament three times in the past seems impervious to pressure, he knows full well that is not the case for his players. "My lads obviously know what everyone is expecting. Knowing when you're that age that all eyes are on you is clearly intimidating. But it's my job to make sure that they don't get stage fright, and instead use the weight of expectation as motivation."
It will likely take more than Obu's air of calmness to dampen the ardour of the Golden Eaglets' fans who, particularly after success at Korea 2007 saw them draw alongside Brazil on the competition's honour board, have taken victory at the tournament for granted. Macauley Chrisantus, Haruna Lukman and Rabiu Ibrahim were the stars of the show in 2007, playing a brand of football that was solid at the back, pacy up front and the right blend of skill and strength.
The 2009 squad therefore have a 'defending champions' tag to live up to when they take on Germany, Argentina and Honduras in Group A. Yet more reasons for the host nation to be under pressure, but Obi, who is leading the country into its ninth FIFA U-17 World Cup finals, is having none of it.
"This team is the cornerstone of the future Nigerian team, and let me assure you that they are ready to live up to this responsibility," said the man who took over the coaching reins only a few months ago following Alphonsus Dike and Henry Nwosu departing in quick succession. "We have a reputation to uphold, we are playing at home and our build-up has been excellent, so there's three reasons for optimism."
Reputation to uphold
Optimism is indeed the order of the day after Nigeria notched no fewer than 21 goals in a mere three practice matches during their recent training camp in Qatar. Heartland FC's Stanley Okoro, who scored three goals in the CAF Champions League and helped his club to make it through to the final of that competition, is the man the Golden Eaglets will be relying on up front. Also on form is Omuh Ojabu, who scored a whopping five goals in a 14-1 warm-up win over Qatari Sports Club.
That said, Obu and his youngsters know that they will be playing a team made of altogether sterner stuff on Saturday evening in front of 60,000 fans. "Germany have a reputation, a style, a tradition and a team that we know all about," he warned.
"Whenever you play them, whatever the age group or tournament, you always know what to expect. The Germany teams of today and the future are no different from the ones of the past - they will fight until the last minute. But we're ready for this tournament and we hope to prove that right from the kick-off."