Visitors to Enugu taking in a match at the Nnamdi Azikiwe Stadium during the FIFA U-17 World Cup Nigeria 2009 quickly came to appreciate that the south-eastern city is a football hotbed. The stands were constantly awash with colour and noise regardless of the teams playing or the status of the match.
Local fans in Enugu were treated to a broad view of the global football picture with five of FIFA's six confederations represented, in what was a metaphor for football's inclusiveness and reach. Group D contained Turkey, Costa Rica, New Zealand and nearby African nation Burkina Faso, with the final day of group action also featuring Iran against the Netherlands. Enugu's final match was a round-of-16 encounter with group winners Turkey meeting, and eventually defeating, Asian representatives United Arab Emirates.
While African neighbours Burkina Faso perhaps marginally enjoyed the best support, there is no question that all teams were widely backed by the general populace, with the response from the young players equally enthusiastic in return. You could say it was football that enjoyed the best support, with the stadium erupting virtually as soon as any team got within sight of goal. The infectious enthusiasm of the crowds, the Mexican waves and the blowing of horns, was a constant theme in this football-crazy hotbed.
The city of Enugu, whose original growth owed much to the discovery of coal, may not have the size or fame of the likes of Lagos or Abuja, but undoubtedly its people can lay claim to serious football credibility. Rangers International, formerly Enugu Rangers have won six Nigerian Premier League titles, more than other side in Africa's most populace nation. The list of former players reads like a who's-who of Nigerian football and includes the likes of Jay-Jay Okocha and Taribo West.
It is little surprise then that near-capacity crowds welcomed the finest young footballers from across the world to Enugu. "A tournament like this is very rare, so people are very excited about the event," said fan Isu Okogeri, who arrived early before the final match to soak up the atmosphere.
"People all over Nigeria love football," he continued as a large group of enthusiastic local fans got into the spirit of the occasion by waving United Arab Emirates flags. "There are people from all over Nigeria here in Enugu for these matches. If I can I will go to Abuja and Lagos to see the other games, because I love football so much... so very, very much. I am going to miss the tournament."
Ten years on from hosting matches at the FIFA U-20 World Cup, Enugu has again benefited from the world stage being set-up on local soil. A renovated stadium, with a new state-of-the-art artificial surface, is just one of the obvious legacies. "The tournament has come and gone (in Enugu) and we have many wonderful memories and wonderful facilities remaining that can be utilised," said the Hon. Chidi Ofo Okenwa, Enugu's LOC Venue Manager. "I want to thank FIFA for bringing football to countries such as Nigeria."
The city, which celebrates its centenary later this year, is well-known as a student centre, a fact reflected in the high number of young people in the crowd, adding to the electric atmosphere. "The tournament brings the world closer, certainly it feels like the world is closer to Enugu," said volunteer and recent graduate Ortega J.T. Okolo. "Attention from all continents is being focused here. The tournament puts everybody in the same place. It has been a once in a lifetime experience. I have been sharing my experiences with my friends and family. This is an experience I will even share with my children."
In a tournament that showcases the stars of tomorrow, the final word goes to a shy 14-year-old FIFA flag-bearer named Goodluck who, like many his age in Nigeria, lives and breathes the game. Having led the teams onto the field of play for the past fortnight, when asked if he wanted to be on the same stage in a few years, Goodluck's smiling reply: "Yes, by God's grace... I just love football."