Needing a win to be sure of a spot in the last sixteen, Nigeria did so, downing Korea Republic by the only goal of the game on Thursday afternoon to seal second place in Group B at the FIFA U-20 World Cup.
The match-winner was Olarenwaju Kayode, but the Flying Eagles featured at least one other player who made an outstanding contribution to the Africans racking up maximum points. He comes across in person as shy and retiring, and stands just 1.74m tall. His name is Chukwunenye Okani, and when the 19-year-old from FC Enyimba takes to the field, he is transformed into a bundle of energy and determination.
Okani's magic moment came after 54 minutes of the clash at Ali Sami Yen Arena in Istanbul. His opposite number in the decisive incident was South Korean striker Sunggyu Han, because even though Okani is one of the smallest Nigeria players, he is also their goalkeeper. Han had ghosted in behind the defence and looked certain to score, but Okani raced as if jet-propelled from his goal and smothered the ball before the opposing No20 could even stretch out a leg to finish. The keeper’s brilliance ensured coach John Obuh’s side went on to win the match, but a bigger and less agile number one might not have mastered the situation so expertly.
“I'm really happy this evening. We've made the next round, and I kept a second clean sheet in a row," Okani exclusively told FIFA.com after the final whistle. He appeared bewildered by the attention focused on him, remaining true to his innate modesty and even appearing a little timid. He had no reason to be, because although he is the shortest goalkeeper at the tournament, he has laid down impressive credentials so far.
Right from the start I only ever wanted to play between the sticks, even as a little boy.
Okani is used to the spotlight falling on Nigeria's skilled and prolific forwards, and was unwilling to hype his own performance against Korea Republic. “I've always played in goal, and right from the start I only ever wanted to play between the sticks, even as a little boy," he smiled. He is motivated by the desire to emulate his biggest idol. “I'm amazed by Iker Casillas," he freely admitted. Spain's world-class keeper is fully 10cm taller than the Nigerian, although he too is hardly one of the physical giants of his trade.
Obuh regards Okani as one of the cornerstones of his team, the kind of player he rates as irreplaceable. “Chukwunenye is a terrific lad and he was top class again today," the Nigerian coach said to FIFA.com, “my players look up to him." The 53-year-old almost certainly didn't realise the delicious irony in his choice of phrase. “What makes him special is his extraordinary leaping ability, and his skill and composure with the ball at his feet."
Okani and his team-mates will now closely monitor events this Saturday in the last round of matches in Group F, as Nigeria will meet that section's runners-up in the Round of 16, one of Uzbekistan, Croatia or Uruguay. With their perfect blend of strong attackers such as three-goal Abdul Ajagun and a keeper as good as Okani, the Flying Eagles will be confident regardless of their opponents. “After winning today, we could be contenders for the trophy," said the West Africans’ No1, suddenly and finally throwing off all traces of reticence and shyness.