Nigeria 2009: A Decade on from Hosting the U-17 World Cup
‘They came. They saw. We conquered’, said a banner ahead of the final game in Abuja. After 22 previous days, the FIFA Under-17 World Cup in Nigeria in 2009 was coming to an end on November 15, with the host nation playing Switzerland. But we’d be stopped in our tracks, as a Haris Seferovic header midway through the second half was enough for the Swiss to be crowned champions. ‘The praise was Nigeria’s but the prize was Switzerland’s’, Jonathan Fadugba wrote for Just Football afterward.
It was heartbreak for Nigeria, but it could have been much, much worse. Not just the start of the tournament, but the tournament itself. 2009 was set to be quite monumental for African, Nigeria hosting the Under-17 tournament would come after Egypt hosted the Under-20 World Cup (won by Ghana) and South Africa helmed the Confederations Cup, as we all awaited the FIFA World Cup in SA the following year.
But in the middle of 2009, despite reports and tours and visits from Vice-president Goodluck Jonathan commending the readiness of the hosting states, FIFA showed Nigeria a Yellow Card for unpreparedness ahead of a tournament which, according to letter by Nigeria in American Solidarity Movement for the Emancipation of Niger Delta (NIASOMEND) published on Sahara Reporters, they shouldn’t be hosting. The NIASOMEND highlighted issues of security and safety, as well as the potential problems in Kaduna – a hosting city – which was in a Sharia state (also Kaduna) that outlawed public drinking, and where they had been attacks on motels and hotels, not a good omen for incoming foreigners. There was also the budget issue – money is also a/the problem in Nigerian sports – with the budget for the tournament first set at N35 billion, then slashed to N9 billion, then taken up to N12 billion.
Nigeria was to host the tournament in nine cities – Lagos, Abuja, Enugu, Ijebu-Ode, Bauchi, Kano, Warri, and Calabar – including Kaduna, but there was the threat from armed rebel group, Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), who warned FIFA against the tournament in this country. The militants were, however, offered amnesty in exchange for laying down their arms, and the tournament would take place, although Warri – a popular city in Delta State – would no longer host any games. These setbacks and challenges meant the original kick-off date of the tournament would be moved from October 10 to October 24 (meaning it would end on November 15, rather than the previous date of November 1)
Nigeria 2009 was the first Under-17 tournament in which the MRI scans were introduced, due to constant noise about African and South American teams supposedly use overage players (wonder how that turned out). The tournament itself began with Argentina narrowly beating Honduras in Abuja, thanks to Sergio Araujo, just before the hour-mark.
Nigeria’s first game would come later on, as Abuja was also the location against Germany. The players are obviously different in every Under-17 tournament and making references to previous tournaments is rather unnecessary, but Germany’s U-17 side of 2007 – comprising one Toni Kroos – lost to the late Yemi Tella’s Dream Team in the semi-finals, and a few Nigerians had that in mind ahead of this meeting.
But by halftime, the Golden Eaglets were two down, goals from Lennart Thy and Shkodran Mustafi had defeat on the cards. And when Mario Gotze headed a third for Germany two minutes after the break, it seemed like game over. Except it wasn’t, as three goals in seven minutes, a Stanley Okoro penalty was followed by goals from Kenneth Omeruo and Edafe Egbedi, and having been dead and buried two minutes after the interval, were level and had the wind in their sails, although they were helped by the 53rd-minute red card for German defender Robert Labus, which led to Okoro’s penalty.
3-3 it would finish in the game, and that set the tone for the pattern of Nigeria’s group games, frustration and outrage meeting elation and euphoria; a tight game against Honduras on October 27 was settled by Abdul Jaleel Ajagun just after halftime, then three days later the Eaglets came from behind to beat Argentina in Bauchi, with Sani Emmanuel scoring the winner 18 minutes from time.
One of the great things about Under-17 tournaments is the emergence of youth talent, whether or not it gets replicated at higher, the cliché ‘burst onto the scene’ is almost always used. Phil Foden in 2017, Kelechi Iheanacho in 2013, Toni Kroos and Bojan in 2007, Anderson in 2005. Youthful talent doesn’t always translate to top-tier success, and sometimes those players have their time in the spotlight only in these tournaments, making them all the more special.
Sani Emmanuel was one of those players in 2009, the player who took the term super-sub to quite another level. Emmanuel was mostly introduced from the bench, but scored five times – following up his winner against Argentina with braces against New Zealand in the last 16, and Spain in the semi-final – to end up joint top-scorer and win the Golden Ball. There was always something reassuring and enlivening about seeing Emmanuel getting ready to come on. The signal of that number 14 was a sign of Nigeria’s fortunes turning around. Which is why it was of little surprise that a few pointed out that Nigeria lost the final because coach John Obuh started Emmanuel in the final, despite a few initially clamouring for him to start games as a result of his goal returns.
But that was as good as it got for Emmanuel in the spotlight. He went with the Flying Eagles to the Under-20 World Cup in Colombia two years later, part of the Nigerian side that lost to France, but his club career is notable for his bad spell with Lazio, which involved loans to Switzerland and Albania. He was last known to be at Swedish lower division side Oskarshamns AIK. Not that Emmanuel was the only Eaglet to have disappeared from the limelight since then.
Stanley Okoro, dubbed ‘Little Messi’ during the tournament, produced dazzling performances at the tournament, and was recognised as the best player in the tournament by Fadugba. But a failed spell at Shakhtar Donetsk was the peak of his club career, and he was last seen strutting his stuff for Abia Warriors in the domestic league. In fact, of the entire squad, only Omeruo and Ogenyi Onazi have a quite prominent club career, the former currently at Leganes after various loan spells with Chelsea, the latter in Turkey after a quite fruitful time with Lazio, and both appeared at the 2018 World Cup with the Super Eagles. Others had fleeting times – like Olanrewaju Kayode and Ramon Azeez – but have faded.
Then again, that’s how football works. The promise of youth never transforms into sustained success. In the same tournament, Emmanuel shared the golden boot with Uruguayan star man Seba Gallegos and Spain’s Borja Baston. Baston, barring decent spells with Real Zaragoza and Eibar, has had an underwhelming, while Gallegos has managed 17 league goals in the past 10 years.
The likes of Thy, Turkey’s Muhammet Demir, and Silver Ball winner, Nassim Ben Khalifa (of Switzerland) also shown in Nigeria but haven’t done much since, while the goalkeeper of the tournament, Swiss goalie Benjamin Siegrist is finding his feet in Scotland after not quite making the grade at Aston Villa. Hindsight doesn’t always agree with potential in football, and the little moments in the sun are sometimes all one can have.
But many players still make the grade and hit the heights in the future. Mario Gotze needed less than five years after the tournament to become a match winner in a World Cup final, although his career looks to have run its course despite being 27. Brazil’s Alisson is currently dubbed the best goalkeeper in the world, a tag that could also befit fellow Nigeria 2009 alum Marc-Andre ter Stegen. Casemiro and Isco have won four Champions League titles with Real Madrid, while Neymar is the world’s most expensive footballer. Then there’s also the likes of Philippe Coutinho – who dazzled in 2009 – Koke, Sergi Roberto, Bernd Leno, and Alvaro Morata.
Morata wasn’t a key fixture for Spain in 2009, but Isco and Baston were, as were Iker Muniain and Marc Muniesa, as the reds found their way to the semi-final, a run that involved that epic shootout win in the quarter-finals against Uruguay in Kaduna, while Sergi Roberto scored hat-trick in the last 16 against Burkina Faso. But their race was run, as they fell to the Eaglets in the last four, in front of 24,000 fans in Lagos.
It’s been 10 years since the U-17 World Cup happened in Nigeria, and one of its biggest positives was the atmosphere and experience. Banners and vuvuzelas dominated the streets, as billboards did the roads. On a personal note, it’s worth remembering meeting the technical staff of the United Arab Emirates national team, before watching them lose to USA in Ijebu-Ode, thanks to Jack McInerney, as over 13 thousand watched in the stadium, or Federico Carraro’s beautiful free-kick for Italy in their quarter-final defeat to Switzerland in Lagos. Nigeria’s love for football and sport is quite palpable, and the perhaps the greatest plus of hosting the U-17 World Cup, ten years on from hosting the U-20 tournament, was a chance to not just watch and experience a football tournament, but actual live it. It’s almost in your everyday life.
But it’s been 10 years Nigeria 2009, and no one can say it has been a catalyst for sports and youth development in this country. The Super Eagles currently have a rather young setup, and have won two U-17 World Cups since 2009, but that’s frankly despite those charged with developing sports rather than because of them. Nigeria’s knack for not building on anything, for looking at the springboard and then shattering it, is almost unparalleled, which is why there should be some sense of trepidation ahead of the U-20 Women’s World Cup this country is due to host next year. What will it lead to? Will it spell a kick in the arse the federation to take youth sports – particularly female youth sports – seriously, or will it be another tournament that will come and go, live in its own time and have little impact on the future of sports?
But perhaps, like sport itself, everything is meant to live in its own moment. The joy and bliss of the present doesn’t equate to growth or sustenance in the future. Perhaps all we can do, in the midst of the chaos and backwardness, the mediocrity and the ennui, is simply bathe in the little moments of joy, and see them live in the memory. Sometimes it’s all we have.
Kunle Ajao121 Posts
Kunle Ajao is a football writer and columnist for spotkick. Having made a toss of himself trying to actually play the game, he knew better and got a pen instead of boots. Spends a bit of his time with the game, and thinks he's a bit like Sid Lowe. He's not