x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

‘Golden Eaglets’ can fly high at Fifa Under 17 World Cup

Great expectations on young squad as strikers receive blessing from previous champion Kanu, writes Ian Hawkey.

The team that won gold at the 1996 Olympics has set the bar for all future Nigeria squads. Dieter Endilcher / AP Photo
The team that won gold at the 1996 Olympics has set the bar for all future Nigeria squads. Dieter Endilcher / AP Photo

Should the 2013 Under 17 World Cup end up distributing its medals via penalty shoot-outs, anybody with tickets for the final, the semis, or the third-place play-off would be advised not to make too many plans for later in the evening.

Even less so, should any of the four African teams be involved.

They may be long contests. One lesson from Africa’s U17 tournament, back in April is that from 12 yards, the continent’s best teenagers are ice-cool and determined.

It took no fewer than 34 penalties to resolve positions first to fourth at the Caf U17 tournament in Morocco, with Ivory Coast edging Nigeria in the final with a 5-4 win on spot kicks and Tunisia claiming the bronze medal ahead of the hosts after a marathon session that ended 11-10, with only three misses.

If those margins suggest there is little to distinguish the quartet of African sides taking part in the U17 World Cup, they also indicate the intensity of the competition among Africa’s youngsters.

For some, the pressure placed on schoolboy footballers, particularly from West Africa, seems excessive at times. It can come from families, believing that a career in the game for a gifted son is the likeliest route to wealth and shared prosperity for a large number of dependents, and that the best platform to launch that career is a major international youth event.

It can also come from an expectant public.

Youth-level football generates huge national interest, not least in Nigeria, where a tradition of global conquests burdens every team wearing the dark green strip in major championships with great expectations.

Nigerian football’s finest hour remains the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, when the team of Nwankwo Kanu, Jay Jay Okocha, Emmanuel Emenike, Victor Ikpeba, Sunday Oliseh, Wilson Oruma, Celestine Babayaro and Daniel Amokachi won the gold medal. Kanu, Babayaro and Oruma had, three years earlier, been part of the triumphant U17 squad who won the trophy in Japan, the second of Nigeria’s trio of such titles.

The search for the next Okocha or Kanu starts in the mid-teens, and the desire to see one emerge is powerful. According to Austin Eguavoen, a former coach of national youth teams, as well as of the senior Super Eagles, it can easily become counter-productive.

“In this part of the world,” he says, “the desperation to win at all cost compels people to exert pressures on the youngsters. And that’s sad. The U17s should be the grooming ground for the future star players. We should understand this and stop killing talents in desperation for instant success.”

Easier said than done. Nigeria’s squad have been urged by the country’s head of state and various government ministers to deliver the trophy on November 8, and there is a justified belief that they have the attacking firepower to do so quite spectacularly.

Striker Success Isaac has been prolific in the build-up matches, as he was in the African U17 championships, where he notched seven goals. His partner up front, Kelechi Iheanacho, is also a poised finisher.

Both have received the blessing of Kanu, a feted figure in Nigeria. The former Ajax, Inter Milan and Arsenal forward has every confidence in the so-called Golden Eaglets’ attacking strength, but worries about their rearguard.

“What they need is great solidity at the back,” he told This Day newspaper. “Then they build more from there. But it’s a nice team to watch, and I’m confident they will do very well.”

sports@thenational

Follow us on twitter at @SprtNationalUAE