The tension was mounting in a tight Round of 16 tie at the Frank Clair Stadium in Ottawa. Tied at 1-1 with Zambia with a little over 30 minutes to go, Nigeria were struggling to find a way past keeper Jacob Banda. Until, that is, Chukwuma Akabueze crashed an unstoppable 25-yard thunderbolt to leave the Zambian No 1 clutching at thin air as the ball nestled in the back of the net.
"That goal meant a lot to me. I'd been trying to score from distance since the start of the tournament but I hadn't really had much luck until then," the man with the golden left foot told FIFA.com. "To me, getting a goal like that is reward for trying so hard. It was also an important strike for the whole side because it gives us a lot of confidence."
The son of a footballer who encouraged all five of his sons to follow in his footsteps, Chukwuma has lived and breathed the game ever since he could walk. And, as you might expect, his family are right behind him as he chases his dream in Canada. "I keep in contact with them by phone and email. Everyone is really happy and they pray for me every day," he says before revealing the secret of his success. "I've been shooting from distance ever since I was young. It's my strong point."
Chukwuma's left-foot exocet saw the Flying Eagles into the last eight at the expense of another African side and means Nigeria are now the continent's sole representatives, not that he is losing much sleep about it. "It was a big event in Africa," he explains. "We were fortunate enough to win, just as we did in the qualifiers. I don't feel bad about sending another African team home though. That's football. Someone has to win and someone has to lose."
One for all and all for one
Having dispatched Zambia, there is a growing belief in the Nigerian camp that this could be their year, as the Kwara United man reveals. "It was a win that meant a lot to the whole country and everyone was following the game. With each match we are getting closer and closer to our dream. But if we are going to win this World Cup, we need to keep on playing as a team, work towards a common goal, and remember what our coach has been telling us: 'You must attack as a team, defend as a team and cover every blade of grass.'"
And as far as the impressive midfielder is concerned, it is that team spirit that is helping the Flying Eagles reach ever greater heights. "Our major strength - our key asset - is our team work and togetherness. That's why you'll always see us singing together after games, because we are a group. It's that unity that drives us on and pushes us on to greater things." And whenever those post-match sing-songs come around, it is the goalscoring hero's job to provide a little hip-hop. "To be honest, though, I always get a few complaints from some of the guys," he adds with a laugh.
Modest to the last, Chukwuma acknowledges that he and his team-mates still have room for improvement as they strive for perfection on the pitch. "We're improving with every game and we haven't reached our peak yet. We are taking each game as it comes and we're getting stronger and stronger."
Kanu helps out
That progression will certainly be put to the test against Chile. "I've been really impressed by some of the teams. Spain and Chile have played some really nice football in particular, but we're not scared of anyone. Of course we've got our minds set on the final, but we need to focus on one game at a time. We need to take things slowly, step by step, and what we mustn't do is put the cart before the horse, if you know what I mean," he adds, anxious not to let his mind wander too far ahead.
Still buoyed by his matchwinning piledriver, the Nigerian netbuster is hopeful there are more goals to come. "I just want to keep on scoring now so I can help the team reach its goal. That's all I'm thinking about," says the self-confessed Liverpool fan who hopes the class of 2007 can go one better than their predecessors of two years ago and lift the trophy. "They reached the final two years ago and that puts a little pressure on us. We can handle that, though, and we want to do even better. We want to go on and win it."
And as Chukwuma reveals, there is one man who has had a special role in giving him the belief to succeed. "My hero is Nwankwo Kanu. I met him once and it was an incredible experience. He told me to reach my dreams I needed to keep bettering myself. He said if I could do that then the sky was the limit."
The great man himself has also had warm words of encouragement for Chukwuma and his cohorts: "There's no doubt in my mind at all -they want to go back to Nigeria as champions. The boys have a lot of quality and everything is going as planned. I reckon they are going to win."