Since their arrival in Augsburg to take part in this year’s FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup, the faces of Nigeria’s players have been a study in absolute concentration and intensity. Ndem Egan’s charges have treated the tournament, at which Nigeria have been an ever-present since its inception in Canada in 2002, with the utmost seriousness so far.
But after the Africans’ crucial win over Japan in their second Group C fixture, the serious outlook has given way to bright smiles all round. Although not yet mathematically qualified for the quarter-finals, the Nigerians have taken a giant step towards reaching the knockout stage for the fourth successive time.
“As I said after our opening draw with England, my players have a winning mindset," said Egan. "In the first game, all we were lacking was that little bit of luck you need to claim three points. Against Japan our game clicked into place right from the kick-off, and we overcame them with our strength and speed.
"I’m very pleased and happy for my players. But we now need to focus on Mexico, our upcoming opponents. We’re not quite there yet – we need to make sure of our place in the next round in the final group match.”
Before they relocated to Bochum for a clash with Las Aztecas that will decide the group, FIFA.com caught up with some of the delighted Nigerian players. “After grabbing the opening goal, the only thing I could think of was to run to the bench to celebrate with my team-mates,” described a smiling Amarachi Okoronkwo, who also scored during the group stage of the 2008 FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup in New Zealand. "It was very important to score first.”
A predatory pairing
The true leaders of the Nigerian attack are two women of few words, who prefer to do the majority of their talking on the pitch. Germany 2010 is not Ebere Orji and Desire Oparanozie’s first experience of a global showpiece, as evidenced by the fighting spirit and maturity they have displayed in both matches.
”We try to stamp our style of play on games, by controlling possession and attacking in numbers," said Orji, who with three assists has played a key role in all of Nigeria’s goals thus far. "Many of the players in the squad know each other from our New Zealand 2008 campaign and that familiarity extends to the field of play.
“I want to help out my team with my ability to put the ball in the net, but for the moment I’m not having much luck in that department. I am happy to have played some part in the goals, though,” added the pacy forward, who scored once at New Zealand 2008 and three times at the previous FIFA Women’s U-20 World Cup in Chile the same year.
With two goals in as many matches, Oparanozie is now the team’s leading scorer in the competition. “I’m very happy," said the Nigerian No9, one of the squad's youngest players. "Against England, I felt that I should have had more. We deserved to win. But I was able to make up for it in the Japan game, by helping the team to a victory.”
Of the productive bond with good friend and fellow front-runner Orji, Oparanozie added: “We played together at the same club from a young age. Then she left for Rivers Angels and we've only met up for Nigeria matches. We have a great understanding; each one knows where the other is going to be at any given moment.” In Bochum the gifted youngster will look to add to her goal tally to propel Nigeria towards the quarter-finals, and perhaps even further?