x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Local football fans should not pass up golden opportunity at Under 17 World Cup final

Imagine a team managed by a combination of Jurgen Klopp and Ossie Ardiles, who have been fumigated with laughing gas, and you still would not be close to matching the entertainment value of this lot, writes Paul Radley.

Nigerian team players celebrate their 3-0 win over Sweden following the two teams' semi-final in the FIFA U-17 World Cup in Dubai's Rashid Stadium on Wednesday. Nigeria will meet Mexico in the finals on Friday in Abu Dhabi. Karim Sahib / AFP
Nigerian team players celebrate their 3-0 win over Sweden following the two teams' semi-final in the FIFA U-17 World Cup in Dubai's Rashid Stadium on Wednesday. Nigeria will meet Mexico in the finals on Friday in Abu Dhabi. Karim Sahib / AFP

If you are anywhere near the vicinity of Al Jazira’s stadium in Abu Dhabi at around 8pm on Friday night please, please, please drop in to take a look. You are guaranteed to be enriched by the experience.

Even if you have only a passing interest in football. Because if there is a more likeable team anywhere in sport at present than this Nigerian age-group team, then they deserve to be seen by as many sets of eyes as possible.

If the Harlem Globetrotters did football academies, it would be in the spirit of Nigeria’s Under 17 side.

Imagine a team managed by a combination of Jurgen Klopp and Ossie Ardiles, who have been fumigated with laughing gas, and you still would not be close to matching the entertainment value of this lot.

Do not just take our word for it. Listen to the testimony of a player who had his own world title dream shattered by these very same Nigerians, Valmir Berisha, the Sweden striker.

“I went to all of them, especially their forwards, and I told them: ‘You must win the final, and if you don’t then football just isn’t fair’,” Berisha said after Sweden’s semi-final defeat to the “Golden Eaglets” on Tuesday.

That is how they make you feel. Football was invented to be played the way Manu Garba’s golden boys do it.

With a smile. Overflowing with joy. To entertain.

And they might not be like this the next time you see them. By dint of their excellence here, the leading players are almost certain to earn moves to professional clubs abroad.

Maybe professionalism will make them cynical. Maybe pragmatism will shackle their brilliant full-backs, rather than allowing them to maraud up the touchline whenever they fancy, like they do now.

Maybe they will be instructed to dive to win penalties. Maybe their celebrations will become choreographed, rather than the spontaneous outpourings of euphoria they go in for at present.

Like on Tuesday night, when the decisive second goal went in against Sweden. The scorer and two others went to one corner to lead the party with one set of supporters. The rest of the players each made their own plans.

Each was giddy with excitement. You got the impression they would have happily jumped into the mosh pit of their fans, in the stands, if only they were guaranteed to be able to get back to play the rest of the game.

Currently, these players do not betray even the vaguest hint of cynicism. Just wonderful, brilliant, youthful naivety.

“To be in this final we are very, very, very, very happy,” Taiwo Awoniyi, the free-scoring striker, said in the most beautifully untrained prose.

“Very, very, very happy because we have always believed in ourselves.

“We have played every match as if it is a final so to actually reach it, we have to thank God for taking us there.”

If the fare on the field is not enough to sate your senses, the supporters of both sides are just as entertaining.

Mexico’s fans, clad in the colours of their flag, as well as sombreros, have been great value as the World Cup has neared its climax. But they will do well to be heard over the din of the opposition tonight.

The UAE has been like a Nigerian enclave for much of the past three weeks, as the African team’s support has steadily climbed.

“This feels like home for us,” Kelechi Iheanacho, the team’s playmaker and top scorer, said after more than 8,000 watched them at Al Ahli’s stadium in Dubai on Tuesday night.

“We do not have any fear about playing in front of crowds like this because, as you can see, the Nigerians have been giving us everything here.”

pradley@thenational.ae

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