Nigeria’s U-20 boys national team, the Flying Eagles, will begin their hunt for a first ever FIFA World Cup title tomorrow when they take on debutants, Dominican Republic in the opening match of Group D at the 2023 World Championship in Argentina.
It is on record that even as the Flying Eagles have attended 12 editions of the Junior World Cup, they are yet to taste victory as their best performance remains two runners up finishes in 1989 in Saudi Arabia and 2005 in the Netherlands.
They also placed third at the 1985 edition hosted by the then Soviet Union and reached the quarter-finals on three occasions when Nigeria hosted the championship in 1999, 2007 in Canada and 2011 in Colombia. The seven-time African champions also made it to the Round of 16 in 2009 in Egypt, 2013 in Turkey, 2015 in New Zealand and 2019 in Poland.
Therefore, the Flying Eagles who are representing Africa along with the reigning continental champions, Senegal, The Gambia and Tunisia, are expected to go all the way to the finals and if possible, break the U-20 World Cup jinx.
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But they must first survive what is now referred to as the ‘group of death’. On Friday, April 21, the draws for the competition were held in Zurich at the headquarters of FIFA and the Flying Eagles were pitched in the same group with five time winners Brazil, Italy and Dominican Republic who will be appearing for the first time at the championship.
The presence of world football giants Brazil and Italy in group D has elicited mixed reactions from Nigerian football stakeholders with majority of them saying based on their performance at the last edition of the U-20 AFCON in Egypt where they finished third behind Senegal and The Gambia, the Flying Eagles may not survive the group.
However, Head Coach of the team, Ladan Isah Bosso, has said there is no cause for alarm as he maintained that the tough group will bring out the best in his players. He said his immediate target is to lead the team to the knock-out stage. It will be recalled that he was the man in charge when the Flying Eagles reached their second quarter-finals in Canada.
Sharing in the optimism of Bosso are former Super Eagles players, Dahiru Sadi who was a member of the bronze winning squad in 1983, Garba Lawal a member of the NFF technical committee and Patrick Pascal who is the Chairman of Bauchi State Football Association and Coordinator of the Super Eagles.
In separate interviews with Trust Sports, the former internationals said with adequate preparation, the Flying Eagles will overcome the group and go on to win the coveted trophy for the first time.
Sadi who made a name playing for Ranchers Bees and Abiola Babes said “I don’t think the Flying Eagles will have any problem coming out of the group. I know many people are afraid because of Brazil but I can tell you that Brazil is the least problem in the group. Of course, they deserve respect but if you look at it very well, Italy are more dangerous because they have so many talents within the age bracket who are playing in Serie A.
“Brazil is Brazil but I believe we can beat them. What the Flying Eagles need is good preparation and a convincing win in their opening match of the tournament. Victory over the Dominican Republic will boost their morale ahead of the remaining two group matches.”
He also called on the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) to give every necessary support to the team to enable the boys to perform optimally in Argentina.
On his part, former Super Eagles utility player, Garba Lawal, said Brazilians are always very tough but they can be beaten by any team that does not give them too much respect. The former Roda JC of Holland star maintained that if the coach picks the right players, the Flying Eagles will progress from the group.
“It is a very difficult group but I remember what happened at Atlanta 1996. When we were to play Brazil and Argentina, nobody gave us a chance but we believed in ourselves. And with hard work and determination, we beat all the Southern American heavyweights on our way to becoming Olympic champions.”
Lawal also noted that the tournament in Argentina is a glorious opportunity for the players to make a name for themselves so they must grab it with both hands. “This is an opportunity for the young boys to market themselves to European clubs.
“The whole world will be following the proceedings so they must put in their best to justify their selection to represent Nigeria. For many of them, there will be no such opportunity again so now that it is available, they must not fail to take it.”
He maintained that the Flying Eagles shouldn’t make the mistake of over-concentrating on Brazil and Italy as he said debutants Dominican Republic can be very dangerous as well.
According to him, there are no more minnows in world football and any nation that qualifies for a world championship must be taken seriously.
“The Flying Eagles should take one match at a time. For me, all the teams in the group deserve equal attention. If they focus too much on the big teams, they may be destroyed by the Dominican Republic. A loss in the opening match will be a fatal blow,” said Lawal.
In the same vein, another former Super Eagles star, Patrick Pascal said football has changed so much that what matters most now is determination and hard work to succeed.
According to him, football is not mathematics where two plus two is four. He explained that in the game of football, two plus two can give one 50 as an answer. He also said only the best players will help the team to achieve success in Argentina.
“This is a World Cup where only the best players are featured. So, Bosso should ensure that only the best players are given the chance to represent Nigeria. I have seen smaller countries beating the supposed big nations. It is about self belief and confidence.
“Even when you are in a group of death, you will be dead only when you believe you can die. If you believe you will survive, there will be nothing like death for you. My advice for the Flying Eagles is that they shouldn’t think they are in a group of death.
“So, Bosso and his boys must discard the idea of the group of death. Despite our decline, Nigerian football is still respected across the world. I know that our opponents are also scared of us. By the way, we are the Brazilians of Africa.”
Pascal reiterated that the Flying Eagles’ major undoing will be poor selection of players. He said the country is blessed with abundant talents home and abroad so the coach must produce a formidable squad to represent Nigeria in Argentina.
Meanwhile, the tournament was originally set to be hosted by Indonesia for the 2021 edition but the COVID-19 pandemic forced FIFA to cancel it. However, Indonesia was stripped of the hosting right on 29 March 2023 amidst protests at the participation of Israel. On 17 April, FIFA officially announced Argentina as the new host of the tournament to replace Indonesia.
The 23rd edition will run from May 20 to June 11 in four centres with 24 teams from six confederations competing for the coveted trophy which Nigeria is yet to win.