Glory for Nigeria – Will the success spill to Brazil 2014?
Harare – Nigeria’s Golden Eaglets destroyed the opposition to win the Under-17 World Cup in the United Arab Emirates last week but, as Africa’s race for the FIFA World Cup reaches a climax this weekend, what chances do the senior teams have of emulating those teenagers in Brazil next year?
The Golden Eaglets destroyed Mexico 3-0 in the final in a fitting climax to a tournament they dominated from day one and where they imposed their class and showed there was a gulf between them and the other participating teams. This was the fourth triumph for the Nigerians, in the Under-17 World Cup, and the manner that the team tore apart the opposition, with a performance rich in style and substance, cheered millions of African souls who had rooted behind their cause.
The teenage Nigerians also swept the board, in terms of individual honours, with their talisman, Kelechi Iheanacho winning the Golden Ball for being the best player at the tournament and goalkeeper, Dele Alampasu, winning the Golden Glove award.
Touted as the finest Number 10 to emerge on the African football scene since Abedi Pele, Iheanacho was simply unplayable and scored four times in the opening game against the Mexicans, where the Nigerians scored half-a-dozen goals.
By the end of the tournament, Iheanacho had scored six goals, to win the Silver Boot, as the second highest goal-scorer in the tournament, and had a hand in 13 of the 26 goals that the Nigerians scored during their show in the United Arab Emirates.
“It means a lot to me personally because when I came into the national team camp I felt uneasy,” Iheanacho told Fifa.com as he soaked in the glory of being voted best player of the tournament.
“A lot of the boys thought maybe I was too small, too skinny to be a good player. But I realised now with what I’ve done here that God is preparing something special for me.
“None of this could have been possible without my teammates. They are the best. The way we all co-operated together to win the World Cup is simply amazing. It’s like nothing else I’ve ever felt. I give them thanks for making it possible for us to do what we did.”
The teenage Nigerian star was at a loss for words as he celebrated winning the World Cup. “I feel good, I feel good, I feel good. I thank God because I feel so good. I don’t know if I can find the words to say what I’m actually feeling. I can’t even tell what I’m feeling because I’m feeling a millions things at the same time,” he told Fifa.com.
“I am feeling love for my teammates and my family and my country. I feel all of it. I’m on a high for winning the World Cup and the Golden Ball (best player).
“I’ve loved the time I’ve spent here in UAE. It’s a wonderful country and it was amazing for me and my teammates to see a different part of the world and to show our football to the people here. I will remember it always.”
The Nigerians also took home the Fair Play award and CAF president, Issa Hayatou, who watched the final in Abu Dhabi, said the Golden Eaglets had made the continent proud.
“On behalf of the CAF executive committee and the African football family, I congratulate you on winning the title at the just ended FIFA Under-17 World Cup in the UAE,” Hayatou said in a statement.
“You have made the whole of Africa proud.” But while the teenage Nigerians touched the heavens in the United Arab Emirates, what chances do the senior national teams, whose identities will be revealed this weekend, have of following their footsteps in Brazil next year?
The Super Eagles of Nigeria are favoured to qualify for Brazil, as they hold a 2-1 lead from the first leg of their final qualifier against Ethiopia going into their home tie, but Steve Keshi and his men are not expected to make a huge statement in Brazil.
The African champions have improved in leaps and bounds, since Keshi took over as coach, and their triumph at the 2013 Nations Cup finals in South Africa early this year provided more proof of the progress they have made under the guidance of their former World Cup captain.
Keshi was the Super Eagles skipper the last time the World Cup was played on the American side of the Atlantic with his team coming within minutes of knocking out Italy, who would eventually reach the final of the ’94 World Cup in the United States, before a late equaliser, destroyed their dreams.
But they look lightweight, even if they were to qualify for Brazil, and do not have the quality of the players who were the backbone of that team in ’94, some of whom went on to win Olympic gold in the United States two years later. Ghana’s Black Stars have all but qualified, having butchered Egypt 6-1 in the first leg of their final qualifier in Kumasi, and only a monumental collapse will deny them a place in Brazil.
They were the best performing African team at the last World Cup in South Africa where they came within just a successful penalty conversion, with the last kick of the game, to become the first country from this continent to reach the semi-finals.
Key players like Asamoah Gyan remain in the team while a window has been opened for Michael Essien and Kevin Price Boateng, who seemingly only love to play at the World Cup, but the Black Stars might find that, when they arrive in Brazil, this is no longer 2010.
Cote d’Ivoire looks like an aging team, and they first have to clear the Senegalese hurdle this weekend, while neither Cameroon nor Tunisia, who are only in the final qualifiers because little Cape Verde were expelled, look convincing.
African football analysts have always questioned why the promise, which is shown by the continent’s representative teams at Under-17 World Cup level, is never fulfilled when it comes to the main World Cup and some have argued that teams like Nigeria and Ghana field over-aged players at those junior tournaments.