Fireworks thundered into the hot Abuja night, young players danced on a podium, eyes heavenward and drunk with victory and relief. But they were not, as overwhelmingly expected, the host Nigerians dancing and leaping for joy, but rather the unlikely debutant Swiss.
The Golden Eaglets had just collected their silver medals and wandered around the virtually empty National Stadium pitch, tears rolling from their cheeks and eyes straining in bitter disappointment. The trophy seemed destined to end in Nigerian hands, as if the title was theirs by decree. More than 60,000 supporters roared their every touch of the ball during the final and the three-time champions had arrived there without having lost a FIFA U-17 World Cup game since 2003.
The total devastation that read on their faces was proof positive, if any were needed, that football can be a cruel game. "It's hard for us," Stanley Okoro, eyes wet with tears, told FIFA.com after reluctantly agreeing to a brief chat. "Luck deserted us and so did the goals. We had many chances to score in the game, but we couldn’t make the ball go into the net."
Nearby, Sani Emmanuel – the team’s supersub and adidas Golden Ball winner for tournament top player – looked virtually dazed after failing to score for the first time in the competition. The Swiss attacked rarely, but they found a way to make the ball go into the net that one crucial time. "It will be hard for this team moving forward," Added Okoro, one of the finest players of these junior world finals. "This cycle has come to an end for us, and who knows where we will end up? It could be the end of the road. And that is a hard thing to swallow."
Ramon Azeez cut a devastated figure, milling around the pitch in a fog. He kicked a water bottle in total frustration as coach John Obuh made his way over for a few words. "Sometimes the goals just go away," the boss said, with a rueful smile. "We had our chances but the ball just wouldn’t go in. Luck played a part, but if you don’t score, you don’t win. It’s as simple as that."
Emmanuel and Abdul Ajagun, both seated in the team dugout in the quiet stadium that had been a raucous wild, place just minutes before, had a handful of chances to get the goal that may have sent the defending champion Nigerians on their way. But their faces now told the whole story. "It's just too hard a thing to describe; what we’re feeling right now," the brave Okoro said, fighting back more tears and his face twisting into a grimace. "We thought we would win," he concluded, silver medal glinting almost apologetically in the yellow glow of the floodlights.