Despite a somewhat lacklustre campaign at the recent CAF African Youth Championship in Congo, Nigeria's Flying Eagles did just enough to earn a coveted place at the FIFA U-20 World Cup Canada 2007. A new wave of Nigerian youngsters may have reached the Final at the 15th edition of the continental youth competition, losing 1-0, but they manifestly lacked the sparkle of previous generations.
Back at the 2005 tournament in Benin, stunning performances from the likes of Taye Taiwo and John Obi Mikel saw Nigeria power past Egypt in the Final, before following that up with a second-place finish at the world event on Dutch soil later that year. Under the steady hand of former international Samson Siasia, the Flying Eagles soared to within a feather's breadth of glory in the Netherlands, only to be denied by a phenomenal performance from Argentina and Barça starlet Lionel Messi.
The new generation fell some way below the standard set by their predecessors, and appeared to be short on both inspiration and technical ability. The young Eagles eventually scrambled their way to the Final, their stated pre-tournament objective, despite coming within a whisker of early elimination from a Group B containing Egypt, Cameroon and Zambia.
Nigerian fans remain hopeful of an upturn in the team's performances come this summer's tournament in Canada, and the squad still contains a sprinkling of players capable of devastating flashes of footballing artistry. Their opponents at Canada 2007 beware: underestimate the Flying Eagles at your peril.
The reigning continental youth champions kicked off their defence in some style, captain Blessing Okardi leading his team-mates to a comfortable 4-2 success over the Chipolopolo of Zambia. Nigeria had been the only team to score more than two goals in their opening game, and were swiftly installed as favourites to retain their African crown. However, the Flying Eagles came down to earth with a thud in their second game against Egypt, the young Pharaohs clearly the better side throughout the 1-1 draw.
Nor did Nigeria's final group game do anything to brighten the mood in the camp. The young Eagles proved no match for the Indomitable Lions of Cameroon, two deadly blows from the Lions' claws ending Nigeria's unbeaten start to the competition (2-0). Finishing the first phase level on points with the plucky Pharaohs, Nigeria scraped through to the last four on goal difference.
Up against Gambia's Baby Scorpions at the semi-final stage, a single goal proved sufficient to draw their opponents' sting and send Nigeria to the Final. That solitary strike provided sweet relief for the young Nigerians, who struggled for long periods against a Gambian side lacking a killer touch in front of goal. Slipping back into their stupor on the day of the Final itself, Nigeria missed the opportunity to clinch a 6th continental title when they were comprehensively outplayed by host nation Congo. The Congolese, roared on by their partisan home fans, eventually ran out deserved 1-0 winners.
Ladan Bosso was appointed boss in May after former coach Musa Abdullah fell ill. The former assistant's mission is simple: bring the Flying Eagles as far as possible in Canada. Although he lacks experience at the highest international levels, he will be able to count on the support of former German international Berti Vogts as the current Nigeria senior boss has been tapped to act as Bosso's 'technical advisor' in Canada. Bosso, who also coaches at club level in Nigeria with Wikki Tourist Football Club de Bauchi, will be hoping his youthful side can match the brilliant run the Africans put in two yours ago in the Netherlands when they reached the Final. "Getting to the Final two years ago was a great achievement and it will be a source of inspiration for my team," the coach recently said.
Ezekiel Bala may not look the strongest player (1,68m, 64 kilos), but the Flying Eagles striker does not lack talent. Explosive on the ball, his quickness can cause opposing defences all kinds of trouble. A true all-around player, he has stood out playing many different positions for his club - FC Lyn Oslo, currently 5th in the Norwegian league. Bala has proven himself as good a midfielder as a striker, playing in the middle of the pitch or on the wings. He should offer his Nigerian coach many options if the need arises. He was the best striker for Nigeria in Finland at the FIFA U17 World Championship 2003 (2 goals), though he was not in the U20 squad which reached the Final in Netherlands in 2005. Missing the call was disappointment which has served also as a source of motivation for him. "Every player knows what Nigerian fans are expecting from him," he said with confidence about the upcoming tournament. "And, we won't disappoint them."