Nigerian heroes dance for joy
© Getty Images

Those who were lucky enough to see Nigeria play at the 2013 FIFA U-17 World Cup will not soon forget their elegant patterns and freedom-loving football. And the way they danced after the final whistle in Abu Dhabi, well that will live long in the memory as well.

“I don’t have any words for this moment,” Abdullahi Alfa, swimming in his too-large No8 shirt, told on his way to the locker-room “That’s why we dance in this moment. This is a way, a better way, to show our happiness,” he said, a giant smile spreading across his young face. “I’ll tell you a secret - I’m the best dancer in the group. The rest all know it too.”

Alfa had some stiff competition for that accolade in the centre-circle following the final whistle of the 3-0 win over Mexico. There was true freedom in their moves; how they stood toe-to-toe, moving in rhythm to the pumping bass of the Mohammad Bin Zayed Stadium's sound system. They fell to the ground laughing. They embraced and tried to raise coach Manu Garba up on their young, thin shoulders, but without much luck. Tournament officials tried to round up the players, to corral them so they could hand over trophies and do their bureaucratic duties. The Nigerians, slippery and wiggling their hips, didn’t make it easy on the suits.

I’m feeling a million different things at once.
Nigeria's No10 Iheanacho

The dancing continued in the locker-room, where the players – with most of the trophies on offer from the day – posed for photos and called their families back home. Musa Yahaya, a revelation of pure midfield exuberance, couldn’t resist the urge to kick something, so he juggled an empty Coca-Cola bottle with his feet. “I’m just thrilled to have done my part,” said captain Musa Muhammed, who scored a stunning free-kick and set up another goal in the final. “To help my team win a World Cup; it just feels like a dream. We would be nothing without the people back home.”

There was so much energy in the room it was hard to believe the boys had just played 90 minutes of high-octane football. Dele Alampasu wandered by, a giant kissing his adidas Golden Glove trophy for tournament top goalkeeper. “We were confident that we would win, but now that we have it’s just a different feeling, a feeling of pure joy,” he said in a soft voice not quite matching his massive frame. “It wasn’t just for Nigeria, I feel proud to be African and I send my love back home.”

A moment to savour
The party continued. None of the Nigerian players wanted to get on the bus. They wanted another hug from their coach, another joke with a teammate, a few more seconds to savour the biggest moment of their young lives. “I’m just very, very, very excited,” said Taiwo Awoniyi, the tall striker who came to UAE as a substitute and ended up playing in six of Nigeria’s seven games and scoring four goals. “All I tried to do was run and run to help my mates, to get into dangerous situations so we could work it out as a team. I just wanted to make an impact.”

Awoniyi wore a long sleeve shirt under his jersey during the final and he immediately put on a heavy down warm-up coat afterwards. He’s always cold, and he laughs about it when prodded. After all, we’re in the desert. His smile gets wider still when thinking about what he and his mates achieved here in the Emirates. “I didn’t know if I would even play and now to be a world champion is just beyond belief.”

The dancing went on. So did the snapshots and the poses. Some the boys prayed to Allah on their knees in the corner. There was pure joy in that changing room, a joy these young Eaglets will not soon forget. “I’m feeling a million different things at once,” enthused their No10 Kelechi Iheanacho, the tournament’s best player, before joining his mates in the revelry.