Sharjah: Nigeria and their coach Manu Garba are embarking on a mission that goes far beyond the ongoing Fifa Under-17 World Cup being played here in the UAE.
The West African nation are three-times champions at under-17 level, having conquered the world in 1985, 1993 and 2007. But at senior level the Golden Eagles have under-achieved — they have never progressed beyond the second round at World Cups, while their African Nations Cup success earlier this year was only their third continental triumph.
So Garba was handed a crucial task when the Nigeria Football Federation asked him to travel the length and breadth of the troubled country to find a group of players that will eventually form the backbone of a successful senior team. The coach and his staff spent two years compiling a squad made up entirely of players who were not aligned to a particular club, so that they can be moulded into a successful team.
“I was told not to pick up a single player who is already linked to a club. All our players are from the grassroots football academies operating within Nigeria,” Garba said.
And they have impressed in the UAE so far, beating defending champions Mexico 6-1 in their opener, before drawing 3-3 with surprise package Sweden and thrashing Iraq 5-0 to top Group F. They then eased past Iran 4-1 in the round of 16 to set up a quarter-finals clash with Uruguay in Sharjah on Saturday.
But Garba expects the team to improve as the tournament goes on — especially as their preparations were hampered by the fact they had very little time for pre-tournament friendlies. Their last match to mark the opening of the new national stadium in Abuja was on September 25, when they enjoyed a 6-1 thrashing of the Abuja-based Amakson Football Academy.
“That [the draw with Sweden] explains the inconsistency that comes from a team that is yet to find its stride as they have not been together for a long time,” he explained.
“We simply did not have the opportunity and luxury of friendly matches. But this is a squad that has the capacity to evolve and become better with each match. This team can only get better,
“Now that we are in the knockout rounds we will ensure we keep our mistakes to a bare minimum. We received some unnecessary yellow cards in the early stages of the competition, but I believe we can only get better from here on.”