With the U-20 World Cup just days away, Jimmy Aidoo raises the curtain of his previews on the African teams that will be strutting their stuff at the centerpiece. Here, he begins by profiling Africa’s biggest hope, the Flying Eagles of Nigeria.
The man in the CAF bib wandering along the touchline at the Dakar National Stadium is not a despot. Neither is he a military commander. But to the uninitiated, that sounds like an apt description. A sneer of cold command, monitoring proceedings with one finger resting on his pouted lips as his team battles on in the finals of the African Youth Championship on a windy evening at the Stade Leopold Sedar Senghor.
A hard taskmaster with infectious stoicism. No smile, no pity. Just watching on and one could feel the weight of his eyes on his players on the field of play. Not even an utterly freakish Bernard Bulbwa howitzer of a goal was enough to alter his somewhat not-so-sunny disposition on the touchlines.
After some really absorbing exchanges in the dying embers of the game, the man with the whistle, books and cards blew his whistle to call time on what had been an exciting contest. The spontaneous joy on the Nigerian bench was palpable. The whistle which sounded like sweet music in the eyes of millions of Nigerians all over the world meant they had just won a record 7th AYC title, yet the main man in the dugout didn’t celebrate wildly.
With a face creasing into a smile, he punched the air with his two clenched fists, shook hands with the other members of his technical team as well as that of the opposing team. Walked up to the officiating match officials, he muttered a few congratulatory words to them, waved and saluted the few traveling fans, shook hands and hugged his players, hang around for a bit more, then quietly he left for the dressing room only to return later for his gold medal. This sums up all you need to know about Flying Eagles coach Manu Garba; the man who takes the cheque at the end of every month to make the final call on how Nigeria lines up.
NIGERIA – CAF champions
In GROUP E: with BRAZIL KOREA DPR & HUNGARY
A sixth of Africa’s population lives in Nigeria and a large chunk of them will have their eyes and hopes firmly fixed on the Flying Eagles around midnight on the 1st of June when Nigeria takes on Brazil at the Taranki Stadium in Plymouth, New Zealand.
Indeed, the young Nigerians go into the 2015 World Youth Championships as genuine title contenders. As CAF champions, Nigeria carries the brightest prospect of the African continent and must pad their young shoulders since the weight of expectation of an entire continent will rest on them.
A young and enterprising group most of whom were drawn from various academies in Nigeria has left many drawing parallels with Mikel Obi’s class of 2005, and many more tipping them to go a step further. They are crack free scoring side, whipping in 12 goals from the five matches they played in Senegal and a further 15 goals from their three pre-tournament warm-up games.
Under the tutelage of Garba, the Flying Eagles have been turned in a very solid unit. With an excellent goalkeeper ably assisted by a mean back four, an industrious and highly technical midfield provides fodder for an ever dangerous and unforgiving frontline of Awoniyi and/or Isaac Success.
With the invitation of Manchester city’s Kelechi Iheanacho, Tottenham Hotspur’s Musa Yahaya and defensive stalwart Wilfred Ndidi, the confidence amongst Nigerian football fans are at an all-time high and there is a renewed hope these young Nigerians would be able to replicate the fine form they showed two years ago when the won the U-17 World Cup.
BRAZIL – CONMEBOL semi-finalsts
In Brazil, the Flying Eagles face their stiffest opposition in the group stages. The Brazilian side is lacking in confidence having qualified for the mundial by finishing 4th at the Sudamericano Sub-20 tournament in Uruguay. After some stern and rather uncomplimentary words from Jose Maria Marin, the president of the Brazilian Football confederation (CFB), Coach Alexandre Gallos and his charges will be heading to Kiwi Land to try to prove a point.
Adopting a rather cautious approach this time round, Galos dropped all players he labeled as inexperienced and not lacking clear carrier paths, opting for a more experienced personnel. The Nigerian technical team would want to keep an eye in the heart of midfield where Manchester United’s Andreas Pereira and Atletico Paranaense’s Marcos Guilherme will be pitching their camps and firing ammunition at the Nigerian defense, while Real Madrid’s Jean Carlos and Fluminense little magician Kenedy will be sniffing around for mistakes from the backline and hoping to duly exact justice.
HUNGARY – UEFA semi-finalists
A fairly competitive European team coached by Bernd Storck who replaced Geza Meszoly after side only managed to grind out a 3rd place finish in group A of the UEFA U19 Championship as hosts. That was enough to give them a ticket to the World Cup but left them feeling they could surely do more.
Hungary will be enplaning to New Zealand on the back of the experience of their coach who is largely remembered for his playing days at Borussia Dortmund. However, they carry potent threats in their marauding left back Kristian Tamas, currently on the books of AC Milan, and midfielder Zsolt Kalmar. Hungary will be hoping to replicate their 2009 form when they lost in the semi-finals to another African side and eventual champions – the Black Satellites of Ghana.
KOREA DPR – AFC runners-up
Nigeria face yet another test in Young Chollimas of Korea DPR who got their rights to appear at the bi-annual showpiece in New Zealand by picking silver at the AFC U19 championships. With their trademark dogged fighting spirit, An Ye Gun’s charges naturally rely on some slick counterattacking play after soaking up considerable pressure from the opponent.
Their silent weapon is in the midfield pair of Jo Kwang Myong and Ri Un Chol whilst the Nigerian back four would have a bit of thinking to do about the quick direct play of the lethal pair of So Jong Hyok and Kim Yu Song. They bear an unflattering tag of a team lacking big match temperament and international experience but Garba’s men would only have themselves to blame if they should underrate the Young Chollimas.
Following a coruscating performance in UAE two years ago, this Nigerian team will be brimming in confidence going into the World Cup, but it will be imperative they keep it at a healthy level. In Brazil, Korea DPR and Hungary, they face no mean task. They had a very good pre-tournament camp in Germany, leaving in its wake a presaging parcel of optimism going forward.
They would have to cement the top spot in the group or risk facing potential match up against a very fluid German team in the next round. However, a resurgent Brazilian side would have a few things to say about that. The Flying Eagles may feel this is their time to rule world youth football. Watch out for Kelechi Iheanacho!