As much as his players have shone on the pitch during this Fifa Under 17 World Cup, Manu Garba, Nigeria’s emphatic coach, has sparkled off it.
Always assured, forever forthright, the man on the verge of guiding his country to an unprecedented fourth U17 world title has a penchant for a headline quote.
“What are fears? I don’t even know what the word ‘fear’ means,” he said before the semi-final against Sweden.
Previous press briefings have been just as feisty. “My attack is blistering,” he said ahead of the quarter-final showdown with Uruguay. “They can destroy any team on their day.”
Yet if it all portrays youth football’s answer to Jose Mourinho, the comparison irks a little. Garba’s emergent side is refining the concept of “total football”, he says, whereas Mourinho has long built a reputation on a stifling stubbornness.
Jose may be the “Special One”, but Garba can be “Special, Too”. That bedrock belief in his ability has firm foundations in religious conviction.
“I’ve always been very, very confident in myself,” the Nigerian says.
“Why? Because once you believe in God, and believe that God can do something for you, you simply have to be confident all the time. With God, I’m confident in everything I do.”
That much has been proven in an already remarkable coaching career. Underpinned by a bachelor of arts degree, gleaned some years ago at the University of Maiduguri, Garba has always been meticulous in his planning, provoking continued success at age-group level.
He knows what it takes to secure a world championship, as well, having assisted coach Yemi Tella at Korea in 2007 as Nigeria were crowned champions for a third time.
Respect is easily engendered, especially as Garba understands better than most the pressures on his young disciples.
It was in 1983 that he formed part of the Nigeria U20 World Cup side that met Bebeto and Brazil, and a Netherlands team gifted with a teenage Marco van Basten. Been there, got the T-shirt. Now his boys are giving them away.
“Most of the teams here were rushing to change jerseys with our players,” Garba says. “From Uruguay, Iran, Iraq to the Swedes. And they are right. This set of players is the greatest in the tournament. They are above everyone else.”
Although Mexico, Friday night’s opponents and reigning champions, may disagree, at present it is difficult to argue. The “Golden Eaglets” remain unbeaten in the Emirates, the committed collectors of goals – six of their 23 came in an earlier meeting with Mexico – and plaudits. They are favourites to hold aloft the trophy in Abu Dhabi.
If so, it would mark the denouement of an extended narrative; one that began two years ago, when Garba searched his sprawling home territory to unearth its rawest material.
While Mexico’s players can count as employers some of their country’s most established clubs – Chivas, Pachuca, Morelia – the Nigerians are practically apprentices, affiliated only to academies across their homeland. A triumph this evening would therefore taste all the more sweet.
“It’ll be a fantastic achievement,” Garba says. “Because these are players who do not have any club experience; players that we picked from the grass roots; players who we had to polish their technique, game tactics and psychology. So to win the World Cup with this set of boys would be one of my greatest achievements, if not the greatest.”
Thus, Garba believes his current crop of aspirants is even better than their 2007 predecessors, eight of whom are now dotted at clubs around Europe. Three of them, including Dinamo Kiev’s Lukman Haruna, have gone on to represent the Nigeria senior side.
The class of 2013, with Success Isaac, Kelechi Iheanacho and Musa Yahaya forging a path, are expected to follow, and perhaps even blaze a trail of their own.
“If you look at Ghana at the last senior World Cup they reached the quarter-finals, so I believe with these sort of goals now in place, in the few years to come Nigeria will be one of the teams to contest at that level, too,” Garba says.
“The 2007 victory taught me a lot, that if a team is fully prepared they don’t have to fear any opponent. You must be ready to meet any team at any given time. And for that, you must have a winning mentality, always. I have that in this team; even in training every player does not want to lose. In 2007, we knew with the type of players we had, and the way we trained them, we could confront any team. And we’ve certainly had that in this campaign. The world will see a fitting final.”
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