Golden Eaglets Hunt For Third AFCON Title In Algeria
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The world’s best U-17 boy’s national team, the Golden Eaglets of Nigeria will begin the search for a third Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) title tomorrow when they take on the Young Chipolopolo of Zambia in the opening match of Group B at the ongoing U-17 AFCON in Constantine, Algeria.
Apart from Zambia, other countries in the same group with the Golden Eaglets who have won the trophy on two occasions in 2001 and 2007 are Morocco and their perennial rivals South Africa.
Group A hosts Algeria, Senegal, Congo and Somalia while Group C is hosting defending champions Cameroon, Mali, Burkina Faso and South Sudan. The championship in Algeria is serving as qualifiers for the 2023 FIFA U-17 World Cup. Therefore, the best four teams will automatically qualify to represent the continent of Africa at the world stage.
To reach Algeria, the Golden Eaglets emerged winners of the West African Football Union (WAFU) Zone B qualifiers after edging Burkina Faso 2-1 in the final match of the competition. Playing in Group A, the Eaglets defeated Black Starlets of Ghana 4-2 in the opening match and thrashed Togo 3-1 to reach the semi-finals where they triumphed 3-1 over Ivory Coast to set up the final with Burkina Faso.
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At the end of the qualifiers Ghana hosted, Nigeria and Burkina Faso as winners and runners-up respectively qualified to represent the zone at the 2023 U-17 AFCON which kicked off yesterday with the opening match between the host and Somalia at the Nelson Mandela Stadium in Algiers.
As stated earlier, the Golden Eaglets are the most successful U-17 national team in the world having won a record five world titles in 1985, 1993, 2007, 2013 and 2015. In fact, they became only the second team since Brazil to win the trophy back-to-back when they emerged champions in 2013 and 2015.
However, they have not been dominant in Africa as their record in the U-17 AFCON does not match their performance on the world stage where apart from five titles, they are thrice runners-up in 1987, 2001 and 2009.
In 13 editions of the U-17 AFCON, the Golden Eaglets have featured in nine editions beginning from 1995 and have failed to qualify for four editions in 1997, 2009, 2011 and 2017. On two occasions, the 1999 and 2005 editions, they couldn’t progress from their group. But they were runners up twice, in 1995 and 2013, finished third once in 2003 and placed fourth twice in 2015 and the 2019 edition which was staged in Tanzania.
Many are of the opinion that such performance is not befitting of a country like Nigeria which is blessed with abundant football talents at all levels of the game. Therefore, the ongoing edition offers the Golden Eaglets the opportunity to win their third continental title and justify their rating as the most successful cadet national team in the world.
Interestingly, inspiring news just came out of the camp of the Eaglets in Algeria that all the 26 players on the provisional list have passed the MRI test and the coach is going to be spoilt for choice. The success of the players is good news because the cadet national team was becoming notorious for failed MRI tests.
It will be recalled that less than two months to the start of the 2013 U-17 World Cup in the UAE, the camp of Nigeria was thrown into disarray when key members of the team failed the MRI test. However, the squad led by coach Manu Garba went on to win the fourth title for Nigeria. Curiously, the team has been subject of age cheating allegations but has never been found guilty of fielding over-aged players at any competition.
Another thing of immense interest and motivation is that the Head Coach of the squad of 2023, Nduka Ugabde, was the captain of the victorious team that won the first ever FIFA U-17 World Championship in China in 1985. By virtue of his position as the captain of the team, he became the first to lift the coveted trophy. He went on to play for the U-20 national team and the Super Eagles making him one of the few players who have represented Nigeria at all levels of the national teams.
Apart from that, Ugbade has spent almost all his years as a coach serving the U-17 national team. He assisted Manu Garba in 2013 when Eaglets won the fourth world title. He also served as assistant to Emmanuel Amuneke to win the fifth title in 2015 in Chile after which he was promoted to assist Manu Garba in the Flying Eagles.
It was after his assignment with the Flying Eagles that he was appointed substantive Head Coach of the Golden Eaglets which offers him a rare opportunity to win the trophy as a player in 1985 and coach in 2023.
Expectedly, the vastly experienced former coach of now defunct MFM is optimistic that his team will qualify for the next FIFA U-17 World Cup.
Speaking ahead of the 2023 AFCON, Ugbade said “We have been preparing for the past 10 months and we’ve done so well in Ghana (WAFU B qualifiers) we did very well, coming first and winning the trophy.
“And as you know Nigeria has participated in World Cup competitions at this level and I was the first in the world to be captain of Nigeria that won it for the first time in China 1985.
“Our aim is to at least qualify for the World Cup and win the trophy if possible.”
The Media Officer of the team, Francis Achi, is also optimistic that Nigeria will pick one of the tickets to represent Africa at next FIFA U-17 World Cup.
“The good news is that none of the players we brought to Algeria failed the MRI test. Personally, this is not a surprise because the NFF and the coaching crew went for the right players. Some of these boys are still in secondary school. Others are young and talented academy players.
“The boys have done very well in the series of tough friendly matches they played in the final phase of camping in Abuja so I can tell you that morale in camp is really high,” he said.
Achi, therefore, solicited prayers from Nigerians on behalf of the team ahead of tomorrow’s opening group match against Zambia.
“I know that Nigerians are prayerful people so they should continue to pray for the team. Prayer is the master key that can open all doors. With their prayers, I believe God will give the team victory against Zambia,” he said.
All said and done, Nigerians will be waiting eagerly beginning from tomorrow, April 30 to see how the squad of 2023 will produce the breathtaking skills that made their predecessors the toast of football fans around the world.