In a thrilling Nigeria team that relentlessly launches attack after incisive attack, the attributes of Abdullahi Alfa can easily go unnoticed. Unlikely to feature prominently in the post-match statistics, his passes are usually those that pave the way for his team-mates further forward to lay on assists.
Take a closer look, however, and the importance of Alfa to a style of play that has yielded 23 goals in six matches becomes evident. In a baggy No8 shirt that seems too big for his slight build, the midfielder efficiently shifts the ball from side to side, dictating the rhythm of play of one of the finalists – and major revelations – of the FIFA U-17 World Cup UAE 2013.
“That’s the way I like to play,” said Alfa, who was born in Niger State. "I need to keep a cool head and pivot in all directions to start our attacks."
It is a template he has adopted from the player he looks up to as his role model, Andres Iniesta: “I love the way he plays, turning this way and that to receive the ball and to initiate moves.”
Interestingly, Alfa’s eulogising of the Spanish star comes hot on the heels of similar words from his team-mate Musa Yahaya, who plays further forward, who also told FIFA.com of his unconditional admiration of the Barcelona midfielder. The Nigerians share similar tastes, but there is more to it than that. By singling out Iniesta for special praise, Alfa speaks volumes about how his team have played at UAE 2013.
Alfa is supposedly a holding midfielder for Nigeria, playing in a withdrawn position near the central defenders. Why supposedly? Truth be told, in a team that is such an attacking machine, and which likes to pin opponents in their own half, the diminutive midfielder – at 5' 7'' the shortest player on the pitch in the 3-0 victory over Sweden – has not yet had his man-marking skills properly tested.
Usually stationed on the right, he has license to roam, with static positioning contrary to the philosophy of coach Manu Garba. “The coach gives us lots of freedom,” explained Alfa. “He has fostered a great team spirit. We all get along with one another as if we were brothers.”
I love the way he plays, turning this way and that to receive the ball and to initiate moves.
Nigeria indeed seem to be a perfectly functioning family. Up front, Kelechi Iheanacho and Taiwo Awoniyi are wreaking havoc, having accumulated nine goals and 12 assists between them. But to get the best out of this duo, they have to receive the service.
That is where Alfa comes in. “The three of us have trained and played together for a long, long time now, which has enabled us to strike up a great understanding on the pitch,” said one of the foot soldiers behind the forwards' success.
Maradona and Mexico
In the semi-final, Alfa put in an especially eye-catching performance, with none other than Diego Maradona watching from the stands. “I didn’t know he was there, but even if I had it wouldn’t have made me nervous,” he said. “It’s obviously pleasing to know that one of football’s all-time greats was watching me and my friends play.”
Alfa and his team-mates certainly put on a show at the Rashid Stadium. The constant swift-passing moves through midfield were a delight to behold. Perhaps the simplest manner to describe each touch is to accompany it with a yell of “olé!”, as is the wont of Mexican fans when appreciating a long sequence of passes.
In the UAE 2013 final on Friday, in Abu Dhabi, these fans will be in attendance as Nigeria and Mexico square off for a second time in the tournament. The Africans thrashed their North American opponents 6-1 in their opening group-stage encounter.
“We saw them play before our semi-final, and they looked strong against Argentina,” said the midfielder. “We’re hoping for a repeat performance [of the group match]. In football it’s difficult to make predictions but, God willing, we'll beat them again. Mexico can make all the changes they want, but it will be the same team we faced in the group stage.”
Alfa is clearly not one for mincing his words. Some may interpret it as overconfidence, but the midfielder simply believes his team are on an unstoppable run of form.
In a jarring contrast to his discreet playing style, Alfa concluded with a bold statement when looking forward to the upcoming decider: “I promise our people back home that we will bring back the trophy. Yes, I can promise that.”