Golden Eaglets… On the march again
Beginning from today, the focus of many football lovers across the globe will be on youth players, as the 18th edition of the FIFA U-17 World Cup kicks off in Brazil.
The tournament runs from today to November 17 with 24 teams from six confederations. And from Europe to Africa, South and North America and Asia, discussions will be on the young stars, who will be navigating their way into international reckoning.
The Golden Eaglets of Nigeria is the most successful team in the tournament, having won a record five FIFA U-17 World Cup titles. They were runners up on three different occasions. They are also two-time Africa U-17 Cup of Nations champions.
The Golden Eaglets won the maiden edition of FIFA U-17 World Cup in China ’85. Then, the tournament sponsored by Kodak was known as the U-16 tournament.
Before the trip to China, not much was known about the Nigerian team. The team was originally called The Baby Eagles, but Muhammadu Buhari, who was the head of state then, later christened it the Golden Eaglets.
At China ’85, the boys did not raise expectations of Nigerians when they beat Italy 1-0 in their first game and followed it up with a 0-0 draw with Saudi Arabia.
But an emphatic 3-0 win over Costa Rica in their third and final group saw the Nigerians safely through to the quarter-finals where they began to show their true potential.
Their quarter-final opponent at China ’85 was Hungary, the team they will face this night in the opening match of Brazil 2019.
The Nigerians showed impressive resilience in that game after going one behind to Hungary. A stirring comeback saw the Baby Eagles won 3-1 before overcoming Guinea, which proved a hard nut to crack in the semi-finals. Nigeria eventually won 4-2 on penalties at full-time while extra-time had ended 1-1.
Few gave them a chance against Germany, but Nigeria eased to a 2-0 victory courtesy of goals from Jonathan Akpoborie and Victor Igbinoba. That was in August 1985 inside the 80,000-capacity stadium in Beijing.
Akpoborie and captain Nduka Ugbade, the first man to ever lift the FIFA U-16/U-17 World Cup trophy, went on to become accomplished professionals and senior internationals.
The victory at China ’85 contributed to the rise of some of the players, including Imama Amapakabo, Fatai Atere, Baldwin Bazuaye, and Victor Igbinovia. Coach Sabastine Brodrick-Imasuen, who led the team to China ‘85 became an instant hero on his return from the tournament.
That first global triumph prepared the grounds for what was to become a successful hunting ground for Nigeria, who have crowned World Champions on four other occasions in 1993, 2007, 2013, and 2015 (becoming only the second team since Brazil to win it back to back).
After coming agonisingly close to defending their title before falling to the USSR in 1987 and crashing out in the quarterfinals to eventual winners, Saudi Arabia in 1989, the Golden Eaglets bounced back in 1993. Coach Fanny Amun-led the squad.
With the likes of Nwankwo Kanu, Wilson Oruma, Celestine Babayaro, and Mobi Oparaku, Amun turned them into a winning machine.
The set of ’93 was not only unbeaten all through the tournament, but won all their matches, some with ruthless efficiency.
Oruma and the gang destroyed Canada 8-0 in their first group match, rubbished Argentina 4-0 and saw off Australia 2-0 to claim nine points from three and a massive plus 14 goals difference.
Hosts Japan put up a brave resistance but fell 1-2 in the quarter-finals, just as Poland and Ghana fell in the semi-finals and final respectively.
The Golden Eaglets have crowned World Champions once again at Korea 2007, where they defeated Spain on penalties in the final. The coach Yemi Tella-led squad claimed the Adidas Golden Shoe with Chrisantus Macaulay’s seven goals. Chrisantus also won the Adidas Silver Ball.
The boys of Tella were ruthless from the start, edging out 2001 champions, France 2-1 before thrashing Japan and Haiti 4-1 and 3-0 respectively in their group matches.
The round of 16 proved to be a bit tough, but the Eaglets saw off Colombia 2-1, before beating Argentina 2-0 in the quarter-finals. The Eaglets overpowered Germany in the semi-finals, beating the Europeans 3-1. But Spain refused to budge in the final, holding the Nigerians to a goalless full time and extra time.
The Nigerians, however, triumphed on penalties, claiming their third U-17 World Cup on Asian soil.
One of the stars of the tournament was Haruna Lukman.
Nigeria failed to qualify for the 2011 edition of the tournament.
They returned in 2013, but the preparation was thrown into disarray midway when some key members of the team were discovered by MRI scanning to be overage and excluded from the team.
The setback notwithstanding, the Golden Eaglets came out smoking in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
Manu Garba coached the team to UAE 2013, and was another high scoring one, netting 14 times in three group matches.
The Eaglets smashed Mexico 6-1, drew 3-3 with Sweden and thrashed Iraq 5-0. Iran fell 4-1 in the round of 16, followed by Uruguay’s 2-0 defeat in the semi-finals. The Eaglets met Sweden and Mexico again and triumphed.
Sweden fell 3-0 in the semi-finals, the same scoreline by which Mexico succumbed in the final, giving the Nigerians their fourth trophy on Asian soil.
Kelechi Iheanacho, who scored six goals, was adjudged the most valuable player of the tournament, while Taiwo Awoniyi and Musa Yahaya also stood out.
Chile hosted the 2015 edition of the FIFA U-17 World Cup, and the Golden Eaglets succeeded in winning the title back-to-back for the first time. It was also their first trophy outside Asia continent.
After coming fourth at the African U-17 Championship and barely scraping through to the World Cup, many football fans wrote off coach Emmanuel Amuneke and his boys.
But with Victor Osimhen in full flow, the Eaglets became the toast of many fans.
They started by beating USA 2-0, before annihilating hosts Chile 5-1 in their second group game.
However, having already won their group with a game to spare, the Eaglets lost 1-2 to Croatia in a dead rubber.
Amuneke and his boys bounced back with a 6-0 bashing of Australia in the round of 16, then swept aside Brazil 3-0 in the quarterfinals.
The Nigerians beat Mexico 4-2 in the semifinals, before claiming a historic victory over Mali in an all-African final.
Like Iheanacho just two years ago, Osimhen was the team’s shining light, setting an all-time goals record of 10 goals and becoming the first player in the tournament’s history to score in every game he played.
To cap a wonderful tournament for the Nigerian youngsters, captain Kelechi Nwakali was named MVP.
In 2016, the Golden Eaglets were again the subject of age cheating accusations when a total of 26 players from the 60-strong squad were sent home from their training camp after failing compulsory MRI scans used to test age ahead of an African Cup of Nations qualifier.
As it happened in 2011, the Golden Eaglets failed to defend their title in 2017. However, they qualified for this year’s tournament in Brazil after finishing fourth at the African Championship in April.
Amidst all the age cheating accusations, the Golden Eaglets have never been found guilty of fielding overage players in any competition. All the players accused of being overage were all caught at the Abuja training camp and sent home before they played any game for the team.
Today, the Golden Eaglets will battle Hungary in the opening match at Estadio Olympico in the city of Goiania, Brazil.
The young football ambassadors from Nigeria had touched down in Goiania on Tuesday from Sao Paulo, the city they had their training tour.
Coach Manu Garba and his assistants say the team is fully ready for today’s battle against the East European nation.
“Winning the opening game is crucial in building the confidence level in the team,” Garba stated on Thursday. “We are looking forward to the game against Hungary with great expectations of having a good game and winning the maximum points at stake.
“Any team from Europe that qualified for a tournament like this must definitely be a good side, but we will approach the game with every seriousness it deserves to give Nigerians back home something positive to cheer at the end of 90 minutes.”
Both teams are not new to each other as the Golden Eaglets beat Hungary 3-1 at the quarterfinal stage of the maiden edition of the tournament in China ‘85 en route to becoming the first country to win the tournament.
Nigeria will also play against Ecuador and Australia in the latter phase of group B fixtures.
If the Golden Eagles go on to win the title in Brazil, it will be the second for the Amaju Pinnick-led NFF board, having won the title in Chile 2015, in another South American country.
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