The UAE's brightest football talent will travel to Nigeria to participate in the Under 17 World Cup, despite chilling threats made by prominent armed militants in the west African country advising Fifa to cancel the tournament because "the safety of international players and visitors cannot be guaranteed". The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) have claimed responsibility for numerous bomb attacks and kidnappings in the region in which a number of the young teams are scheduled to play their games in the tournament, which starts on Oct 24 and runs until Nov 15. And after admitting to attacks on facilities run by the US gas and oil company Chevron on Monday, MEND advised Fifa, world football's governing body, to call off the event or switch it to another country.
"We advise Fifa to have a re-think about Nigeria hosting the U17 World Cup tournament at this time, as the safety of international players and visitors cannot be guaranteed due to the current unrest," said MEND in an email statement. The UAE are taking the threats seriously. Abdullah Yousuf, the general secretary of the UAE FA, said: "Some people are obviously worried about the security situation and it would be better to play in a more secure environment."
However, Yousuf said that the UAE will abide by Fifa guidelines relating to the safety and security of players and fans. "If Fifa decide to go ahead with the tournament in Nigeria, I am sure they will do it only after being satisfactorily convinced about the security situation there," he said. "I don't think they will take a risk. If they feel there is a security threat, I am sure they will decide to move the tournament to a safer venue."
MEND are against what they perceive as exploitation of the people of the Niger Delta and its land by foreign multinational companies such as Chevron and Shell, who are involved in oil production in Nigeria.
The suggestion is that teams could be caught up in the middle of an attack rather than targeted. Media reports suggest only two out of the nine stadiums in Nigeria are close to being ready for the finals. The UAE, Iran, Japan and South Korea are the qualifiers from the Asian region with 24 teams due to participate in the tournament. As a tournament, the U17 World Cup has proved a fertile learning ground for some of the game's leading names. Arsenal captain, Cesc Fabregas, was the tournament's best player at the age of 16 in 2003. Luis Figo, Juan Sebastian Veron and Gianluigi Buffon are a few names to impress at previous stagings. Fifa said yesterday in a statement that they had received written assurances relating to safety issues from the Nigerian government, but promised to review all the host cities and stadiums next month. "Security is clearly a concern and always a priority for any Fifa competition, including the Fifa U17 World Cup Nigeria 2009. Any decision regarding host venues are only confirmed when Fifa has full confidence in a respective region," said a Fifa spokesman. "On Saturday June 13, a Fifa delegation met the Nigerian vice-president Goodluck Ebele Jonathan in Abuja. "Fifa received the full commitment from the Nigerian government, as well as additional guarantees requested by Fifa specific to security and medical related issues. "Fifa will undertake a final inspection visit on the sites where there is a need, by the end of July 2009. Prior to that, Fifa's administration will review all the host cities and stadiums in early July."