opinionBy Aminu Maigari
The setting is right for a sweet start to an important eight (8) days in Nigeria football when the Flying Eagles take on their counterparts from the Republic of South Africa in a final qualifying match for the 2013 African Youth Championship in Ilorin, capital of Kwara State, tomorrow.
I am talking about an important 8-day situation in which the Flying Eagles must earn a ticket to travel to Algeria next year to defend the African Youth Championship trophy; the Super Eagles must earn a ticket to return to the African Cup of Nations and; the Golden Eaglets must continue their good run in the qualifying race for the 2013 African U-17 Championship by beating Guinea well.
I arrived in Baku, capital of Azerbaijan on Tuesday afternoon to cheer the U-17 girls in their quarter-final clash with France at the FIFA U-17 World Cup finals on Thursday, and it was an interesting, though in the end sombre, experience.
It is not as much about how the game went on Thursday but about the atmosphere in the camp of young girls and their trainers and keepers looking to do everything to bring glory to the nation.
I saw an excited group of players, Coaches abd backroom staff committed to the national cause but lack of expertise in penalty-taking denied the Flamingos.
Back to the Flying Eagles' match in Ilorin, it is important to point out that the U-20 Team of South Africa, nicknamed Amajita will not prostrate on the pitch of the Ilorin Township Stadium to be flogged to submission.
However, I have received assurances from Coach John Obuh that his team has prepared hard for the match on Sunday and that he definitely looks forward to victory.
All through the team's screening period and the first round fixture against Tanzania, the Nigeria Football Federation made it clear that as defending champions, every effort must be made to see that the Flying Eagles qualify to travel to Algeria to defend the title in March next year.
Next year's finals will be the 18th edition of the competition that started in 1977 and it is remarkable that this is the only tournament at the men's level that Nigeria has won SIX different times.
The FIFA World Youth Championship was inaugurated in Tunisia in 1977 but our country first participated in the qualifying series for the 1979 finals in Japan when Sylvanus Okpala (now Assistant Coach, Super Eagles) led a band of promising academicals but the team faltered against Guinea.
Franklin Howard and Stephen Keshi (now Super Eagles' Head Coach) led the 1981 team but after sending Tunisia packing in the first round, failed to make it to Australia following goalkeeper's howlers against Cameroon at the National Stadium, Lagos.
The 1983 set, captained by Ali Jeje, made history, becoming the first Nigerian team to qualify to play in a FIFA tournament, after
dismissing the likes of Ghana and Guinea. The team also lifted the continental trophy after dismissing fellow African falg-bearers Cote d'Ivoire on aggregate.
The 1985 set skippered by Andrew Uwe also lifted the African trophy and qualified for the FIFA World Youth Championship, finishing third (thereby picking up the bronze medals) after beating host USSR on penalties.
Led by goalkeeper Willy Okpara, the 1987 set also retained the African title, dismissing the likes of Somalia, Zambia and Togo. But the talented squad fared miserably at the global finals in Chile.
In 1989, the team skippered by Bawa Abdullahi stunned host Saudi Arabia in the opening match and went on to defeat then world superpowers USSR and USA to reach the final. The match against USSR was a spectacle with the Flying Eagles coming from four goals down with 15 minutes left to win on penalties. That team also retained the continental title.
A FIFA ban in 1989 broke our stride but the Flying Eagles soared again in 2005 in Benin Republic, with the team led by Samson Siasia conquering all before them to win. That team also finished as runner-up at the FIFA U-20 World Cup in The Netherlands, losing narrowly to Lionel Messi and Argentina in Utrecht.
Last year, John Obuh and his boys made us happy again with a standout performance at the finals staged in South Africa, stunning Cameroon to become the champions of Africa.
For us at the Nigeria Football Federation, that victory was very sweet and we are determined to provide everything necessary for the team to not only qualify for the finals in Algeria, but to retain the African title and travel to the FIFA U-20 World Cup in Turkey next summer as African champions.
I watched a recorded version of the match between the Flying Eagles and the South Africans in the first leg in Nelspruit and have no doubt whatsoever that a tough game awaits at the Ilorin Township Stadium on Sunday.
The Amajita, as the visitors are called, does not look like a push-over and I dare say that Obuh and wards have to give more than their level best to conquer.
Sunshine, This Is Your Chance...
Today in Ijebu-Ode, Sunshine Stars FC of Akure, the only Nigerian Club left in the hunt for honours in Africa this year, go up against veterans and several times-winners Al Ahly FC of Egypt in the first leg of the semi final of the prestigeous CAF Champions League.
Ever since the start of this year's competition, the Nigeria Football Federation has made it a point to give the team maximum support, as we always give other teams flying Nigerian flag internationally. Although they also made it to the semi finals of the CAF Confederation Cup last year, Sunshine FC's story this year, in the more coveted and more lucrative CAF Champions League, is somewhat more interesting.
Hard work and perseverance appear to be backed by fortune as members of the team were stranded in Bamako in a preliminary match against Djoliba of Mali following a military uprising, and then Etoile du Sahel of Tunisia, which was contesting for a semi final slot from Group A as well, was ejected by the Confederation of African Football (CAF) following violence at one of their matches.
Stories that end well do have a way of starting and evolving.
Something tells me that Sunshine Stars FC are onto a good thing. All they need is to play an all-out attacking game against Ahly and earn a good result today, and they could be helped by fortune in the return leg in Cairo, as the Reds have to play behind closed doors at home.
So, go in there and take your chances, Sunshine Stars FC, and a place in the Final may just be 90 minutes away.