There is a strong feeling among the African nations that they can spearhead their continent's challenge at the forthcoming 2017 U-17 FIFA World Cup, which will be hosted by India. In the absence of five-time winners Nigeria, teams like Mali, Guinea, Ghana and debutants Niger have qualified for the youth tournament. Just like hosts India, Niger will experience what it feels like to play on the grandest stage. That said, first-timers often have the tendency to take teams by surprise without notice, meaning that they can either emerge as a surprise package or display a completely different brand of football.
For a nation which has never participated at the senior level too, the U-17 World Cup comes as an opportunity to at least leave a mark. Of course, there is going to be immense pressure on Niger. Every single goal will be cherished regardless of the result and so will a single point. The only thing that should matter to the tiny nation is showing what they are capable of.
At the U-17 African Cup of Nations tournament in Gabon, Niger faced the two-time reigning champions Nigeria in the second round qualifier as the latter were expected to breeze past their opponent in both the legs. But, they didn't. Already comfortable at a 1-0 win in the first leg, it was expected to be a stroll in the park for Nigeria in the second. However, they had no idea what was to come next. Niger bounced back to thrash the Golden Eaglets 3-1 and sealed qualification in the U-17 AFCON. Abdoul Karim Tinni Sanda’s 90th-minute free-kick in the return leg gave Niger a shock 3-2 aggregate win.
Niger's qualification meant that this will be the first time in the country’s history that Nigeria won’t be part of all AFCON tournaments at all levels. The team won’t feature in Gabon 2017 and moreover, they were denied qualification in the U-20 category by Sudan.
Ahead of the Niger clash, it was reported that at least 26 Nigerian players out of 60 had failed MRI tests. The tests used an exceptionally strong magnet and radio frequency waves to generate an image of the body to understand the cause of several health issues and in football, especially to determine age (range) of players.
The official said: “It is a disaster. Virtually the first team the coaches have been working on have been disqualified. It’s a serious problem.”
Meanwhile, Niger did not stop there. The Les Menas continued to perform well and reached the last four of the continental finals, a surprise run that secured them a place in 2017 U-17 World Cup. They drew 2-2 with Angola in their opening group match in Gabon before losing narrowly to Mali. Niger saw themselves in a do or die situation against Tanzania to advance to the semis, a task they achieved thanks to Ibrahim Boubacar Marou’s solitary goal. Beaten 6-5 on penalties by Ghana after a goalless semi-final, Niger then went down 3-1 to Guinea in the match for third place, though they had already achieved their lofty objective by then.
Niger coach Tiemogo Soumaila, the former captain of the senior national side, had established himself as a vital cog as far as development in football is concerned, first as a solid defender and then as a physical education coach after hanging up his boots for the betterment of sports. The 54-year-old also attended courses in Europe and Brazil before being appointed as Niger’s national director of football in 1995 and not to forget, the all-important role of head coach.
All eyes will be on Soumalia and his side after Niger were drawn in a very competitive group with Brazil, Spain and Korea. Brazil have already made headlines for winning the U-17 South American Championship earlier this year, where they scored 24 goals and let in just three, including a 5-0 win over Chile. The Spanish team won the UEFA U-17 Championship earlier this year and had six players from Barcelona’s La Masia and five from Real Madrid’s academy. Finally, the North Koreans have been consistent in recent games.
Against such difficult and diverse opponents, the West African country has a mountain to climb if they want to make it beyond the group stages. But, as debutants, their only task should be to enjoy football and at least make a mark in the prestigious tournament by reaching the quarter-finals.
Updated Date: Sep 28, 2017 16:55 PM