x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Youngsters ready for Nigeria

The UAE footballers heading to Nigeria for the Under 17 World Cup will not consider pulling out of the tournament despite sporadic violence in the Niger Delta.

The UAE Under 17 coach Ali Ibrahim, right, speaks to his players Hassan Yousuf, left, and Mohammed Abdullah.
The UAE Under 17 coach Ali Ibrahim, right, speaks to his players Hassan Yousuf, left, and Mohammed Abdullah.

ABU DHABI // The UAE footballers heading to Nigeria for the Under 17 World Cup will not consider pulling out of the tournament despite sporadic violence in the Niger Delta. They say the lure of playing in a showpiece event that will put them up against the brightest prospects around outweighs safety concerns. It is a brave stance by the young players given the climate of political insecurity in Nigeria. "I know how scary it could become when there are safety and security concerns for the players but we are going to play in a World Cup," said the midfielder Mohammed Abdullah, 16, who plays for Al Ahli in Dubai. "This is a once-in-a lifetime opportunity. We just can't buckle because of the dangerous situation in the country. "And besides, it is a Fifa event and they would not stage a competition if there is a serious threat to players. Nobody wants a team going to dangerous places to play if there is not adequate security. We can leave all that for Fifa and the organising committee in that country. "This is the general feeling of all my friends and colleagues. I am of course looking forward to this trip and hopefully a good World Cup campaign for the UAE. If anything has to happen, which is unlikely, it would be one of those unfortunate isolated incidents."

However, the officials who look after the team are slightly more aware of the tensions in Nigeria. "Obviously we are concerned for the security of players. But we are not alone. There are 24 teams and Fifa will not have taken a decision to play in Nigeria if it became too dangerous for the players and visitors," said the coach Ali Ibrahim. The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), a militant group, has warned Fifa to call off the event or to switch it to another country as the safety of players and visitors cannot be guaranteed. "They can be caught in crossfire," MEND stated in an email to football's governing body. But Fifa are going through with their decision of staging the event from October 24 to November 15. However, Ibrahim says facilities for players is a more pressing concern. "My bigger worries are about the lack of basic facilities," he said. "There was absolutely nothing ready when I made a tour to Kano, where we will be playing, when I attended the draw ceremony. I believe nothing has changed."

The UAE are drawn alongside Spain, Malawi and the USA and Ibrahim's aim is to reach the second round at least. "We have been training for more than two months," he said. "We have had three camps in the UAE and one each in Germany, Tunisia and Turkey. We will travel to Italy for our final camp before flying directly to Nigeria. I'm quite satisfied with the progress we have made and our aim would be to reach the second round." Ibrahim's players have just returned from a 10-day break for the Eid and lost the first friendly to Yemen 2-1, which left the coach fuming over the players for not following a fitness programme that was set out during the break. "None of them followed that programme and they returned after holidaying. That was evident when we played Yemen. I was very angry and annoyed for their lack of discipline. But otherwise we have prepared well and looking forward for a good show."

The squad will travel to Italy on October 8 and fly to Spain for a friendly against Mexico on October 13 and return to Italy for a final warm up on October 20 and then fly directly to Nigeria the following day. Ibrahim says he had to change his original plans after his visit to Nigeria in early August. "We had to change our strategy and prepare more on how to deal with playing in such situations. We have to work on the mental side of the players - with this lack of facilities, food, security, everything. "It will be tough for all teams. Our group is based in Kano and we have only one field for training and games. So I don't know what we are going to do. We just have to make sure we are mentally prepared for it. "Playing Spain or others is not the challenge for us; our biggest challenge is that we are playing in Nigeria. That is the only thing we are worried about."

Kenneth Ikwugbado, Al Dhafra's Nigerian defender, is confident the event will pass on without any harmful incident but he admitted there is a lack of facilities. "There has been a lot of adverse publicity but I'm sure this event will be free of any damaging incident," he says. "As far as I know, the Nigerian government will provide adequate security to the teams and visitors." He added: "The facilities may not be that great when you compare it with the stadiums and training pitches of the more established football nations. Nigeria has a lot to do in terms of improving the football infrastructure, but I can assure the atmosphere will be terrific. The Nigerians love their football and will be there to cheer every team." apassela@thenational.ae