When Nigeria and Morocco met in the semi-finals of the African Youth Championship in Benin late January, neither can have reckoned with a rematch at the same stage of the FIFA World Youth Championship Netherlands 2005.
Six months on, the North Africans are still smarting from their 5-3 penalty shoot-out defeat to the eventual continental champions that day. The semi-final had ended in a 2-2 draw a.e.t., but it was the Nigerians who took the spoils. Hardly surprisingly, Morocco are approaching the chance to take revenge on the world stage with firm determination.
"We're confident of reaching the final," a relaxed and smiling Nabir El Zhar told FIFA.com at the team hotel in Heerlen, where both sides are quartered. "I know we lost to Nigeria at the African championship, but we were down to 10 men," the Morocco number 10 points out, ruefully recalling the red card he himself collected early in extra-time.
Morocco led twice but were pegged back on both occasions. "We actually scored two more goals in that match, but both were disallowed," recalls defender Salah Sbai. The pair amble the lobby with a visible air of confidence, their upbeat mood apparently anything but a show for the media. Their optimism is justified as the team has improved from match to match here. "We all have a job to do. We all have to concentrate. We have to take our chances and not concede goals. That's what matters at this level. That's how you win every game you play," Zhar had said before the round of 16.
History beckons for both teams
Both teams are aware of this historic opportunity to write their names into the footballing annals. Morocco have reached the semi-finals of an international competition for the first time in their history. Nigeria have twice won the U-17 world championship, but are looking for a debut success at U-20 level. The Nigerians are just as confident as their opponents, convinced they have the ability to down Morocco for the second time in six months. Once again, the dressing room mood is not without justification as the West Africans comfortably survived a mean-looking group featuring Brazil, Korea Republic and Switzerland, before withstanding joint favourites and hosts the Netherlands in the quarter-finals after an epic 45 minute penalty shoot-out.
Much of the credit for Nigeria's progress must go to coach Samson Siasia. The players freely admit the boss is the man for the right words and advice to drive his team on at the decisive moments. Siasia, a semi-finalist at the FIFA World Youth Championship 1985, told FIFA.com he had issued a stern warning to his players. "Morocco caused us no end of problems at the African championship. We only won after a penalty shoot-out. We're meeting them at a world championship this time, and the circumstances are completely different. I'm expecting another immensely tough game."
Following the tense victory over the Netherlands, the Nigerians are expecting another "away" crowd at the Parkstad-Limburg stadium in Kerkrade where local sympathies are bound to lie with the Moroccans. The West Africans are determined to withstand Morocco's likely attacking storm in the opening quarter of an hour, as the fans noisily urge El Zhar, Iajour and company to go for goal.
Nigeria looking for heavenly support
Nigeria defender Taiye Taiwo will again take on a key role for his team in stemming Morocco's attacking flow. The player was brimming with confidence when he spoke to FIFA.com. "We had a few problems with Morocco at the African championship, but this is a completely different match. They're very difficult to play against, and I do know some of their players extremely well, but we'll win, whatever it takes. We have God on our side. We've beaten the hosts, and we've seen the light."
The meeting is the second all-African semi-final in the history of the FIFA World Youth Championship. Ghana beat Egypt 2-0 in 2001, before falling to hosts Argentina in the final. Morocco will be desperate to avoid another shoot-out against Nigeria, as their opponents appear to relish the drama and tension of the sudden-death deciders. Nigeria sealed third place in a shoot-out in 1985, knocked out the USA in the semi-finals in 1989, disposed of Ireland in the round of sixteen in 1999, and just a few days ago put paid to the Netherlands, every time on penalties. Whatever the outcome, African football is already the winner even before a ball has been kicked, as the continent's best proudly take centre stage in the Netherlands.