Korea Republic's players looked a little bemused to see throngs of local fans lining the fence at their late-afternoon training session on Saturday. The lively Asians have made many friends with their dynamic play here in Nigeria, but the size of the crowd seemed somehow incongruous. As the team, going through a light stretch, eyed the hundreds-strong mob quizzically, a blaring siren was heard in the distance.
The Nigerian team bus, led by a noisy police escort, pulled through the gates at the U.J. Esuene Stadium, and the crowd went into frenzy. There were no eyes at all left on the young Taeguk Warriors as the locals crowded the giant vehicle, blowing whistles and plastic horns, and shouting out to their favourite players as they stepped off one by one.
"They are such amazing players, they have so much quality," 13-year-old Victor Amah, a member of Calabar's famous National Youth Soccer Academy, told FIFA.com as he looked on. "We'll win 6-0 on Monday," the young Benue native exclaimed, casting a sympathetic eye toward the setting sun over the training Koreans. "Korea are pretty good, but our Eaglets are strong," he adds, turning his head slightly left to consider his Nigerian idols.
Young Victor and his friends at the Academy are desperate to follow in the footsteps of these U-17 Eaglets, who begin their second training session of the day singing a Nigerian gospel standard in unison and turning their eyes upward to the purple-pink of the darkening sky. "Of course, every young man in the country wants to pull on the green of the national team. This is my dream," continues Amah.
Okoro's 'special place'
"Calabar is a special place," says Stanley Okoro, one of Nigeria's true stars at these world finals, taking a break from the session and the ever-watchful eye of coach John Obuh. "I spent four years here and just look at what the fans are doing and the love they are showing us. It's incredible."
Okoro, with two goals so far, has been an absolute gem in an advanced midfield position, helping the host Nigerians to the quarter-finals with a smashing performance in the 5-0 defeat of New Zealand in the round of 16. Originally from Edo State, Okoro moved to Calabar when he was young Victor's age to study his football at the very same Youth Academy, a premier destination for aspiring Nigerian footballers.
"We had a bit of a rough start," Okoro admits, the smile that spread across his face when talking about Calabar fading into sudden seriousness. "But we are getting better with every game we play. This is a very good sign," adds the Heartland FC ace. "And in our first game in Calabar we want to get a good result and put on a show for the great fans in this city," the No8 says, his eyes drifting toward the Korean players as they gather their belongings and drive off, largely unnoticed, into the night.
Even the lightning and sound of distant thunder is not enough to disperse the crowd around the stadium. When the Nigerian players board their own coach and head for a restful night at their lodgings in nearby Tinapa, the fans spread out from their phalanx around the pitch and head to the small bars and eateries that line the grounds. It's Saturday night in Calabar and as the Star and Gulder beer begins to flow, all the talk is of the home side's big game on Monday.
Out of the darkness strolls a famous Nigerian youth star of yesteryear. Jonathan Akpoborie was a key member of the Golden Eaglets team that won the first FIFA U-17 World Cup in China in 1985. "These young players are good, these Eaglets, and I have every confidence in them. They might be better than we were back in 1985," said the licensed agent, fresh from a long chat and warm embrace with former Super Eagle team-mate and current U-17 assistant coach Garba Lawal.