Dami Paul does not cut the most impressive figure between the pipes. Quite short for a goalkeeper, at only 173cm, he looks all at sea in the large white frame of the goal. However, Nigeria's No1 has proven himself to be a top shot-stopper at these finals. His spring-loaded reflex saves kept the Spaniards at bay on two occasions in particular, making him every inch the unsung hero of the crucial 3-1 semi-final win in Lagos.
While sumptuous attackers Sani Emmanuel and Stanley Okoro are the ones grabbing all the headlines in the local media, the soft-spoken custodian is doing more than his fair share for the cause.
"We are a very offensive and aggressive team and we create a lot of scoring chances," the diminutive net-minder told FIFA.com deep in the cement bowels of the Teslim Balogun Stadium. "We can still do a little better at taking our chances and we will need to be a little more clinical in the final," he adds, stoking the fire for his colleagues in attack.
Spain's finishers had been quite ruthless in their games leading up to the semi with the hosts, scoring a then tournament-best 16 goals. But it took the previously prolific La Rojita a full 83 minutes to finally find a way past Nigeria's athletic and acrobatic net-minder. At that point the game was already beyond the Spaniards thanks, in large part, to a pair of reflex saves by Paul, first on Isco from close range and then from Pablo Sarabia. On both occasions, this spring-loaded little man between the pipes appeared to have thwarted odds-on goals. "I'm really glad to have made these saves, because if they managed to draw level or get an early goal it could have given them confidence."
While the Nigerians have become renowned for their scintillating attacking play, the back line has been equally impressive, conceding only four goals in the last five games. Much of that is down to Paul and his stodgy mate in the centre-back position, captain Fortune Chukwudi. "We are very strong in defence, it's true," says Paul, who plays for Ousford Academy and admits to idolising Manchester United and Netherlands icon Edwin van der Sar. "We work very hard on it. It's a matter of communication. We talk all the time and make sure we know where we need to be and where our teammates are. When we communicate well, we are very difficult to score against."
One step away
Paul and his Nigerian pals are just one step away from their second consecutive and fourth overall U-17 world title. One factor aiding the cause has been the home support. At halftime of the Eaglets' first game with Germany, local fans poured out of the National Stadium in disgust, missing out on a proud fightback. Since then, the hordes in Abuja, Bauchi, Calabar and Lagos have been offering up raucous, irresistible support. With a crowd of 60,000 expected for the final against Switzerland, the Nigerian goalkeeper knows he and his mates have a powerful 12th man to lean on. "It’s been incredible, the way the fans have been supporting us," adds Paul. "They follow us everywhere we go. What we really want is to win the title here and then we can dedicate it to them. This would please us no end."
Holding aloft the trophy at the National Stadium on Sunday would not just be a matter of national pride and vague patriotism for the young Paul, as he freely admits. "We worked hard as a team and we would be so honoured and proud to hold that trophy in the air," he concludes. "For us, this is the top of world football, the most we can do. We will go out and fight as a team as we have done all the way up to the final."
With two of the top strikers of these finals in Nassim Ben Khalifa and Haris Seferovic (both on four goals), the Swiss – playing in their first FIFA world final since 1924 – will be hoping to spoil the little man's big day. "We want to make history in our own country and it's Switzerland that are standing between us and destiny," Paul adds, steely determination shining in his young eyes.