For the first time in their history, Nigeria have reached the second round of a FIFA tournament without losing a game or conceding a goal. Without doubt that is a source of confidence for the Flying Eagles, runners-up at Netherlands 2005 and highly fancied to mount another strong challenge here in Canada.
But if they are to achieve that goal, Ladan Bosso's side first have to overcome a familiar foe, Zambia, in the Round of 16. Just hours before the all-African clash in Ottawa, FIFA.com spoke exclusively to Ezekiel Bala, Nigeria's captain and top-scorer at the championship.
Small stature, big heart
Bala is not exactly an intimidating physical presence when you first meet him. In fact, at just 1.68m, he is the second shortest player in a squad that stands out for its stature. However, when the striker holds forth on the beautiful game, he speaks with the confidence and surety of a player who has scored two of this side's three goals at the competition.
As his coach Ladan Bosso puts it: "He is one the professionals in the team, someone I know really well. He can change the course of a game for you, as he can go on the offensive from any position. Depending on our opponents' tactics, we can get him to cover different areas of the pitch, and he always does it well. He's a fundamental player for us."
Such high praise does not embarrass Bala, who is very clear on his role for the Flying Eagles. "It's not an easy job being team captain, but I do it willingly. I try to motivate and drive my players on to victory, and I have a lot of responsibility. I know all the players listen to me, and that's very important."
Bala currently lives in Norway, where he plays his football with Oslo club Lyn, an experience he says sets him apart from many of his team-mates and has made a big difference to his game. "There are a lot of differences you have to get accustomed to. Being in Europe, I've got used to playing in better stadiums and facing more renowned players, and that comes in useful here. That's why I have a different role out on the pitch, where I try to encourage and push my team-mates. Experience is also important," he says.
A big admirer of Michael Owen and Obafemi Martins, the Nigeria captain is mature enough to recognise that, despite his goals, his team's main strength is their defensive solidity. "No one has scored against us yet, and that's important. I think that's our forte. We work very hard at that aspect, and it's the result of communication and team spirit."
Bala took up the game after encouragement from his father, who remains his main source of inspiration to this day. "I think of him every time I run out on the pitch. The knowledge that I have his support is all I need to go there and perform," he admits.
Presently, his father and six siblings are following his progress back home in Nigeria - and with no small amount of pride. "We communicate via the Internet or they call me by phone. They always tell me to continue as I am and keep going forward. They say that because they know I'm capable of giving more during this tournament."
Asked to explain what he means by "giving more", the striker says: "It's my dream to reach the final and be named the tournament's top player or top scorer. That would bring me one step closer to my other goal, which is to one day wear the colours of English side Chelsea."
"We fear no one"
This Thursday in Ottawa, Nigeria and Bala will be hoping to get past their old rivals Zambia and reach the quarter-finals. "We already met them during the African qualifying tournament, when we beat them 4-2. The truth is that we don't fear them, or any team for that matter," the captain says defiantly.
"We know we may have to face teams we know, like Zambia, just as we may have to face Brazil. While it's true some people might take to the pitch thinking it's great to be up against such great players, once we take to the field none of that enters our minds. All we focus on is ourselves, because we know we're capable of beating anybody," he insists.
Before letting the player go and continue his preparations for the big game, we finish by asking him if he thinks knowing the opponents so well is a positive or negative thing. Bala is not sure it makes much difference, saying: "It's hard to say. We'll just have to wait and see what happens when we play. The best team on the day will go through, and I'm confident that will be us."