Nigeria’s hopes of a world championship triumph at U-20 level next month carry the boost of having a bedrock of considerable experience already. Some 15 of the preliminary squad members named for the upcoming FIFA U-20 World Cup in Colombia come from the U-17 squad which finished as runners-up at the 2009 FIFA U-17 World Cup on home soil.
However, coach John Obuh, promoted up alongside the successful team that he is largely credited with shaping, cautions that the two tournaments are “quite a different ball game” and that the Flying Eagles are going to have to up their performance to reach such heady heights again. “Players at U-20s have mostly all had experience playing at senior level for their clubs, and some have even played for their national teams, which makes it a lot more intense of a competition in comparison to the U-17s,” he explained.
It means, as Obuh insists, that past form is nothing to go by, as well as explains why his reaction to the seemingly favourable draw for his side in Colombia lacked the expected enthusiasm. “I had no different a reaction to this draw than I had to all the other draws,” he said from Nigeria’s pre-tournament training base in Portugal. “I have always maintained that football these days is so unpredictable and there has been so much development that no opponent can be seen to be weaker than any other.”
I try as much as I can to emphasise to the players they must learn to take one step at a time. They really need to concentrate on the job at hand at the tournament and then worry about getting a contract overseas.
Obuh, who continued to add to his list of achievements by winning the African Youth Championships in South Africa in May, will see his charges go up against Guatemala first in Group D, in the town of Armenia, and then play Croatia and Saudi Arabia. It seems a promising draw, but Obuh has concerns over the focus of his players. “We are always seeking the best out of everything we do and there are players who have the added motivation of using the world championship as a stage to tidy up offers of contracts with clubs in Europe. None of them want to stay in the local league,” he explained.
A scramble for employment after the tournament has the potential to backfire on the team ethic. “I’ve had that experience in the past and I try as much as I can to emphasise to the players they must learn to take one step at a time. They really need to concentrate on the job at hand at the tournament and then worry about getting a contract overseas,” added the 45-year-old.
But he is confident it can be done, and he has built up a strong relationship with the group. “The players listen to instructions, and they play to our plans, but they also bring their own personal attributes to the team and the way it plays. This is a good thing for us,” he said.
Obi out, Musa in
Missing in Obuh’s armoury will be the Inter Milan midfielder Joel Obi, who has already won a place in the Nigerian senior squad for the Super Eagles, but has not shown any interest in playing for the U-20 side. But, consistent with his confident demeanour, Obuh is more nonplussed than upset about Obi’s lack of availability, even though the youngster is reckoned to have the ability to be the next African footballing superstar.
“I’m not disappointed he is not coming because we have a lot of other talent at our disposal. You can’t afford to put all your eggs in one basket,” he said before adding: “He has not played for me before, so I don’t know what I’m supposed to be missing.”
Committed to travel to Colombia, however, is Ahmed Musa, who Obuh says could be highly influential, living up to his hype as a prospect to watch. The Dutch-based forward, who is just 18 years old, has also become a regular for Nigeria’s senior side in their 2012 CAF Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers, so Obuh should have no shortage of firepower lined up for the Flying Eagles. He said recently that his strategy is generally to field an offensive team and attack with confidence. “In most of the competitions we have taken part in, we have usually emerged as the top scorers.”