The world maybe Nigeria’s oyster with five record titles under their belt as far as the FIFA U-17 World Cup is concerned. However, the West Africans are yet to produce their near total dominance at the continental level.
This edition will be Nigeria’s ninth appearance since the birth of the cadet continental championship in 1995 but they are only searching for their third continental title.
Golden Eaglets, as the Nigerian lads are fondly called, have two titles (2001 & 2007) just as archrivals Ghana and Gambia.
Nigeria have been runners up twice with the last being at the 2013 finals held in Morocco when the current coach, Manu Garba, blooded the likes of Kelechi Iheanacho of Leicester City and Isaac Success of Watford, amongst others.
Garba has forever been part of the Nigeria U-17 set up since the early 2000s and was an assistant to the late coach Yemi Tella when the Golden Eaglets did the double by winning their second title in Togo en route to global acclaim in South Korea in 2007.
“Every tournament is hard to win,” the 55-year-old Garba who guided Nigeria yet to World Cup glory in 2013 told CAFOnline.com
“No matter how good a team is, sometimes you need elements of luck to win the trophy.”
By and by, the Eaglets have in the past failed five times to qualify for the U-17 AFCON and were eliminated three times at the group stages in their previous eight appearances.
But Garba’s right-hand, Nduka Ugbade, who incidentally captained the Eaglets to win the maiden FIFA U-16 World Cup in 1985, is upbeat about the potentialities of the current lads, adding that Nigeria remains the team to beat in Tanzania.
“The truth is that the U-17 AFCON is very competitive because of the amount of effort that is concentrated upon it by most countries,” Ugbade who was also an assistant to Garba when Nigeria won the U-20 AFCON four years ago in Senegal told CAFOnline.com.
“Teams from Africa can compete favourably well at the FIFA World Cup because the intensity of the game at this level on the continent is very high and that is why the Nigerian team over the years is difficult to beat, due to strength, skills and mental speed.”
Speaking further, Ugbade was of the opinion that CAF has raised the bar for the U-17 AFCON with recently introduced regional tournaments to determine eventual qualifiers for the biennial continental competition.
“I think the U-17 AFCON has taken a new dimension because you must have competed at the highest level to earn the zonal ticket and it makes the competition tougher,” he explained.
“How I wish CAF can allow two teams from each zone to qualify for the main championship in future because some of the traditional teams like Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire and even South Africa would not be in Tanzania.”
The Eaglets were lucky to make the trip to Tanzania since Ghana nearly upstaged their applecart in the regional WAFU Zone B final match in Niger last September where they triumphed 3-1 on penalties after they both tied 1-1 in regulation time.
Ugbade continued: “I want to believe our zonal tournament in Niger was the toughest but I think it has also toughened our mental strength ahead of the trip to Tanzania.
“I so much believe in this team we are taking to Tanzania and I will be the happiest because I have not won the U-17 AFCON before and the last time we were beaten in the final on penalties by Cote d’Ivoire in 2013.”
The present lads showed their readiness for the 2019 AFCON at the recently held UEFA-organised U-17 Turkey Invitational Tournament where despite losing 2-0 in their opener against Senegal. They beat Montenegro (4-2) and their Group A rivals in Tanzania, Angola (3-1).
“There won’t be any margin for errors for us in Tanzania because we will have the best teams from all the regions of Africa,” noted Ugbade who was part of the Super Eagles’ 1994 AFCON-winning team in Tunisia. “Apart from Senegal that defeated us in Turkey, we will also have Cameroon and Guinea.
“Our objective first and foremost would be qualification for the World Cup by reaching the semi-finals and, thereafter, we can focus our attention on winning the trophy for the third time for Nigeria,” he noted.