Ravaged by drought and gripped by widespread poverty, Niger — a country named by the UN in its list of 'Least Developed Nations' — has seen limited sporting successes. In fact, the west African country has won just two Olympic medals in its history: A bronze medal won by boxer Issaka Daborg at the 1972 Munich Games, and a silver in 80kg taekwondo won by Abdoul Razak Issoufou at Rio last year.
Starved of sporting highlights, fans are now rallying around a handful of teenagers currently playing football in India. In many ways, the Niger team competing in the FIFA Under-17 World Cup is already a trailblazer. In fact, these teenagers have become something of role models for a country which had hitherto never competed in the World Cup at any age group.
And if qualification itself was such a huge achievement, they went a step further on Saturday, defeating North Korea 1-0 at Kochi's Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, thanks to a strike by Salim Abdourahmane. "This is the first time our country is at such a big event. The team is writing a new page of Niger football history by winning this game at the World Cup. It's not something that will be forgotten," said Niger assistant coach Hamidou Harouna.
Scenes of delirium witnessed on the pitch were mirrored by similar jubilation that prevailed back home, where families of the players gathered together to watch the match, which was broadcast on national TV. "People from our country watched us winning the game on national TV. It made the country really happy," Harouna said.
He added that while the country's government is yet to announce any reward for the players, the head of the football federation, who is in India with the team, was busy all night, answering calls from dignitaries who wanted to congratulate the new superstars.
Coach Ismaila Tiemoko added, "In football, this is the first time we have been involved in a tournament like this. People of our country are really proud of this team. The young players have done well."
In Kochi, much of the buzz has been around North Korea, and traditional footballing giants Brazil and Spain. But Niger is steadily gaining recognition. Local media reported that over 1,000 people turned up to watch them train at the Fort Kochi Veli ground last Wednesday. It later transpired that the fans were told it's the Brazil team which was training.
On Sunday, however, reporters gathered outside the Maharaja College Ground wanted to talk only to the Niger players, and not Brazil for a change. Having crossed the first hurdle against North Korea, things will get tougher for the the boys from Niger. They will have to leap over mountains in their next two matches: Against Spain on Tuesday, and Brazil on Friday.
"Against Spain and Brazil, we will play to our strength. Whoever our opponent is, we will try to play our game. Spain is a big country, but we also have something to fight for in the game: We know that winning the match will let us qualify for the next round. We believe in ourselves," Harouna said.
To this, Tiemoko added, "It's true that Brazil and Spain are footballing heavyweights. But when people talk about Brazil and Spain, they usually think of the greatness of their senior national teams. But at the U-17 level, other teams also have a thing or two to say. At this level, most teams are more or less equal. None of us have attended a tournament of this level before. Moreover, we beat reigning champions Nigeria in the African competition to qualify for this World Cup."
"Yes, these players lack experience and references (influences) on the pitch. But this is the future of Niger football. The federation will keep working on them and they will play together at least until the U-20 African Cup of Nations, two years from now, which we will host," Tiemoko added.
Updated Date: Oct 09, 2017 17:13 PM