If there is one African nation which regularly shines on the international stage, it's Nigeria. The FIFA U-20 World Cup Canada 2007 will be the Flying Eagles' seventh appearance at the competition since it began back in 1977.
A rich reservoir of playing talent enables Nigeria to proudly fly the flag for African football at youth level and, with an estimated population of more than 135 million, the flow seems unlikely to dry up anytime soon. In terms of FIFA U-20 World Cup appearances they rank ahead of continental rivals Côte d'Ivoire, the Young Elephants only having appeared on five occasions, and stand on a par with the historic footballing nations of Portugal and England.
Nigeria have reached the Final of the elite competition twice, in 1989 and 2005, with Ghana (1993 and 2001) the only other African side to do so. In 1989, Nigeria were defeated 2-0 by a Portugal team featuring the likes of Fernando Couto, Abel Xavier and Joao Pinto, the Lusitanians' golden generation clinching a second title two years later on home soil. Whilst the Iberian side continued to shine, the prowess of the Africans faded dramatically.
Another 16 years would pass until the Flying Eagles soared to the Final once more, in an eagerly anticipated duel with Argentina at the FIFA World Youth Championship Netherlands 2005. John Obi Mikel and his team-mates were eventually edged out by a spot-kick from Lionel Messi fifteen minutes from time that sealed a 2-1 defeat.
Having come within a hair's breadth of bringing Africa its first ever world trophy, Nigeria proved they were a force to be reckoned with following a six-year absence. The young Eagles' exploits in this competition also include a bronze medal at the expense of the former Soviet Union in 1985.
Eager for a morale-boosting success on the road to Canada 2007, then coach Godwin Uwua's charges hauled themselves into the Final of the CAF African Youth Championship. Unfortunately for their fans, the five-time champions could not secure a sixth star for their shirts. Against all expectations, they succumbed 1-0 to the Red Devils of Congo in a lacklustre performance which cost the coach his job.
Some weeks after this reverse, Musa Abdullahi became the next manager to take the Flying Eagles under his wing. Having returned from South Africa, where he was coaching the Free State Stars, Musa Abdullahi enjoys special kudos in his home country. In 2003, he served as assistant to Bitrus Bewarang during qualification for the African Youth Championship in Burkina Faso and recently steered the Dolphins of Port Harcourt to the Nigerian league title.
This change at the head of the Nigeria setup caused disruption to the squad's pre-tournament preparations. Players who had taken part in the whole of the qualifying campaign for Congo 2007 had to adapt to new training methods. These managerial issues were then aggravated by financial difficulties. This resulted in the cancellation of plans for a month-long training camp in the United States or Canada, which was intended to acclimatise the players prior to the competition.
A substitute tournament was then scheduled to take place in Germany from 7 to 19 June, bringing together professional players from abroad and two local teams. For administrative reasons, this project also had to be abandoned, to the great dismay of Nigerian supporters. In the end, preparations were completed entirely on Nigerian soil, using a squad of home-based players for the sake of practicality.
In order to protect players earmarked for the summer tournament from the rigours of the domestic league championship run-in, the Nigerian Football Association asked its clubs to withdraw the footballers involved. This move demonstrates that the expectations pinned on the young Eagles' shoulders extend up to the highest level.
Nigeria's U-20s met up in May, before competing against teams made up of local players as well as national club sides. They spent three weeks training in different sports facilities in several Nigerian states, including Lagos and Ekiti. The results have been encouraging for Musa Abdullahi's protégés, who have thus far avoided defeat in the final run-up to Canada. In fact, the team enjoyed successive 2-0 victories against first-division opponents FC Primer d'Oshogbo and the Niger U-20 team. They also shared the spoils in a 2-2 draw against a team made up of players from Lagos State. Even better, they followed this up with a narrow 1-0 win against the national Olympic side.
Abdullahi's place yet to be filled
Nevertheless, the squad's preparations have been dealt a new blow just weeks prior to the Canadian tournament. Coach Musa Abdullahi has been forced to step down for health reasons, handing over the reins to his assistant Ladan Bosso. Bosso also served as deputy to Godwin Uwua at the African Youth Championship 2007, and held the post for a brief caretaker spell after the latter's sacking. This new appointment would also appear to be only a temporary measure, since several candidates have already been lined up to take over from Abdullahi on a permanent basis. Experienced German-born coach Berti Vogts, currently in charge of Nigeria's senior side, may also be called upon to lend his experience to the U-20s during the competition.
Buoyed by their numerous finals appearances, the Flying Eagles will be anxious to fulfil the expectations placed on them by their countrymen. Their ranks have already been strengthened by the inclusion of several overseas-based players. Striker Victor Anichebe from Everton can only improve a squad which is already bursting with talent. Besides, Nigeria love nothing better than to be labelled as underdogs. On their return to the competition in 2005, they confounded the critics by going toe-to-toe with the mighty Albiceleste, inspired by Messi and Sergio Aguero. Therefore, we can only assume that their chaotic preparations will have little impact on the team's bid for glory in Canada.
In Group F, where Nigeria's three opponents (Japan, Costa Rica and Scotland) have mustered a combined total of 17 previous finals appearances, the African team may fancy their chances of qualifying for the next round. Nevertheless, they must tread cautiously against Japan, who have not missed out on a FIFA U-20 World Cup since 1993 and even reached the Final in 1999.
The Flying Eagles certainly cannot be accused of lacking in confidence. Their upbeat attitude is evidenced by coach Bosso, who recently said: "We're not scared by anyone and nobody's really far better than us. I have built the best squad I could. We are very concentrated and Inch Allah, we should not disappoint our fans." If the team's displays can match the conviction of their public statements, Nigeria will be one of the teams to watch on Canadian soil.