Amuneke: Our best will come in Chile
Nigeria's Golden Eaglets have set the benchmark when it comes to U-17 football - at least, on the global level. With four FIFA U-17 World Cup titles as well as three further appearances in the final match, the west Africans will go into Chile 2015 as one of the favourites. Ironically, they have fewer continental laurels, having won the African championship at the age level just twice, and they only managed to finish fourth earlier this year at the event in Niger.
The side's famous coach, Emmanuel Amuneke, explained the dichotomy to FIFA.com recently, saying their best play tends to come out on the biggest stage. “African football is a totally different ball game. It is more rugged and sometimes the pitch condition does not help a team that likes to keep possession of the ball, for instance.
"We do well at the World Cup because the pitches help us to play much better. This happened at the 2013 tournament in the United Arab Emirates . People could see our real quality.”
Getting the Eaglets to soar Amuneke, who played for the Super Eagles at the 1994 FIFA World Cup USA™ – scoring memorable goals against Bulgaria and Italy – and won gold at the 1996 Olympics, says he believes his international experience will help his players in Chile. “Being a former Nigerian international, I have had the opportunity to play at the highest level - at the FIFA World Cup - and it is always a good memory. It was quite an experience, and taking a team to a World Cup as a coach gives me the opportunity to let the players know what is expected at this level.”
The U-17 World Cup has traditionally drawn many agents and scouts wanting to woo players to European clubs. And while the closeness of that dream can bring out the best in the youngsters from around the world, Amuneke insists his charges understand their connection to each other first. “Every player has their own personal objectives, but they should understand that they will be better off with the collective objective of doing very well at the World Cup. The most important thing is for them to be focused and remain themselves without thinking as individuals. If the team plays well; the scouts will be interested in them, which should not be the priority. The priority should be winning laurels for the country.”
At the African championships in Niger, the Golden Eaglets comfortably won their group, but were stunned by South Africa in the semi-finals before losing the third-place play-off. Amuneke does not seem overly concerned with the sluggish ending to the event. “I was satisfied because we qualified for the World Cup, especially when you see that of all the African teams that went to the last World Cup in the UAE, we are the only one going back in 2015. So we achieved our objective and we will be more prepared for the main event in Chile.”
What is in a name? The 44-year-old coach, whose playing days were severely curtailed by a serious knee-injury he suffered whilst with Barcelona, is reluctant to single out individual players who impressed him in Niger. However, when pressed he says: “We have the captain, Kelechi Nwakali, and Victor Osimhen, Ebere Osinachi and Usman Abass. We also have an exciting young player in Samuel Chukwueze. So we have good players, but like I said, we must see how they can perform and function as a team. This is what I have been emphasizing to the boys and the more they can do this, the better we can function,” he said.
In closing, Amuneke clarifies one of the questions that football fans have been asking: Is his name spelt with an 'e' or an 'i'? “I think the name was simply misspelled during my playing days and since then it had stayed. Throughout my playing days I was using 'Amunike', but now, I prefer to use the correct name: 'Amuneke'.”