Nigeria arrive in the Middle East for the FIFA U-17 World Cup with a rich history in the competition. They share the record number of wins with Brazil [three each] and have appeared in more finals than any other team [six]. It is a history that Nigerian coach Manu Garba is keen to add to as the Golden Eaglets coach prepares to take his squad to the United Arab Emirates, where the 15th edition of the showpiece event for under-17 footballers will be held.
The west Africans, who last won the trophy in 2007 in the Korea Republic and finished runners-up two years later at home, will face defending champions Mexico as well as debutantes Iraq and Sweden in Group F. They open their campaign against Mexico on 19 October at the Sheikh Khalifa International Stadium in Al Ain, and Garba is confident that his charges can do well. "It is the cup, or nothing," he told FIFA.com, adding that he does not see a reason why the team should be frightened about meeting the defending champions in their opener. "We have won the competition three times, Mexico have won it twice, so they should be scared of us. We do not fear any opponent, but we respect them, and I think we can do well," he said.
Garba, who used to be head coach of Gombe United and remains on the coaching staff of the Nigerian Premier League club, has been in charge of the Golden Eaglets since the beginning of 2011, having taken over after the side failed to qualify for the CAF African U-17 Championships in that year. Under his guidance, the team qualified for the continental finals earlier this year, and once there they topped their group to qualify for the semi-finals. That booked their ticket to the United Arab Emirates, but they then went on to beat Tunisia in the last four before losing to Côte d’Ivoire on penalties in the final. At the time Garba said that he would make several changes to the squad that he takes to the UAE. "I have not changed that position," he said recently.
His planned changes are not the only ones that will be dealt with, as others have been forced upon Garba. Ahead of the African finals in Morocco, the players underwent Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scans to test the players' ages. Côte d’Ivoire, Nigeria and Congo each had three players ruled too old by CAF. But as the tests were conducted at such a late stage, the scrapped players could no longer be replaced in the squad and the three countries had just 19 players in their squad instead of 22. To ensure that there is no repetition, Nigerian football officials decided to scan the players prior to the team leaving for the Middle East and again several players were ruled ineligible. "It was a precautionary measure," an official said about these tests.
Contenders for the title
Regardless of the absentees, Garbo is certain that his squad at the finals will still be a very strong one. "I was an assistant in 2007 to the late coach Yemi Tella when we won, and I can see that we have a very strong side again. We will be one of the contenders at the finals."
The coach has been in camp in Calabar with an extended squad for several weeks and the results of friendly matches have been promising, as the Golden Eaglets secured an 11-0 victory against Espanyol FC Academy and a 9-1 win against City Football Club of Calabar. Although he did not want to read too much into the results, Garba said that the technical staff was impressed with the team against Espanyol. "It shows that this is not a one-man team. You can see there is a good chemistry in the team, and we are delighted that the players are really responding and putting into effect all that they are being taught in training."
The finals in the UAE will give Garba an opportunity to overcome the disappointment of not playing at the highest level himself. He was in the Nigerian team that won the African Youth Championships in 1983, thereby becoming the first Nigerian side to qualify for the finals of a global competition. Disappointingly, he was not in the squad for the World Cup that was held in Mexico that same year, but UAE 2013 offers him an opportunity to put all of that behind him on the world stage.