As genuine rivals to Brazil for the tag of Fifa Under 17 World Cup favourites, Nigeria are wearing well the heightened expectation ahead of tonight’s last-16 match with Iran.
“I agree Iran have been making progress since they started,” said Manu Garba, the Golden Eaglets coach, on Monday. “But they won’t progress at the expense of Nigeria.”
Nigeria, seeking an unprecedented fourth U17 world title, have been placed in the opposite side of the draw to Brazil, with many anticipating that the competition’s two three-time winners will meet in the final in Abu Dhabi on November 8.
The omens are good; the west Africans are specialists on this continent.
Nigeria’s previous tournament victories – in 1985, 1993 and 2007 – were in Asia.
“And we are here in Asia again, so I think history favours us to win this trophy,” Garba said.
“But we are not talking about winning the trophy now. Rather, we are talking about Iran and, Inshallah, we shall win against Iran.”
Iran, who advanced courtesy of a runner-up finish in Group E, may seem merely an obstacle on Nigeria’s path to the trophy, yet Garba’s young charges still spent their final training session practising penalties in the event they are extended to a shoot-out.
They will not want it to progress that far, though, especially as it would reduce any belated birthday celebrations for Uzoho Francis Odinaka, the goalkeeper, who turned 15 on Monday.
“We will do everything to make it a special occasion for Odinaka,” said Kelechi Iheanacho, the four-goal hero against Mexico. “By the grace of god, we are going to win our match and I even don’t care if I don’t score. The most important thing for us is to win all our matches.”
In the day’s other fixtures, an all-African clash in Fujairah pits Morocco, winners of Group C, against Ivory Coast, champions of their continent.
Elsewhere, Argentina seek to live up to their badge as South American champions when they take on Tunisia at Dubai’s Rashid Stadium, while Uruguay face Slovakia in Ras Al Khaimah.
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