Nigeria’s Flamingoes are hoping to overcome the quarter-final jinx at the Women’s U-17 World Cup in Costa Rica, reports ’TANA AIYEJINA
Nigeria’s women U-17 side, The Flamingoes, will be hoping to be fourth time lucky when they begin their Costa Rica 2014 FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup campaign on Sunday (today) with a tricky tie against China at the Estadio Alejandro Morera Soto, Alajuela.
Nigeria, who qualified from Africa without kicking a ball, after their opponents pulled out of the qualifiers, are in Group D of the tournament— alongside China, Colombia and Mexico—which started on Saturday.
The other African teams in the competition are Zambia, who are in Group A alongside hosts Costa Rica, Venezuela and Italy; and Ghana. The Ghanaians, who hold Africa’s best record (third place at the last edition) in the competition, are in a tough Group B that comprises North Korea, Germany and Canada.
Together with South Africa, the Flamingoes received a bye into the final round of the qualifiers, where they were drawn against South Sudan, who had advanced to the second round after Morocco withdrew from the competition.
However, the East Africans pulled out of the competition, giving Nigeria a place at the finals without the chance to kick a ball.
The Nigerians are one of seven teams that have taken part in all four editions of the U-17 Women’s World Cup. The other six are Canada, Germany, Ghana, Japan, Korea DPR and New Zealand.
The Flamingoes, who reached the quarter-finals in the last two editions in Trinidad and Tobago (2010) and Azerbaijan (2012) after failing to do so the first time they participated in 2008 in Switzerland, are now hoping to reach the semi-finals for the first time in Costa Rica.
Hard luck played a role in the Flamingoes previous quarter-final exits. First, they were painfully eliminated in 2010 by Korea Republic in an 11-goal thriller that went into extra time in Marabella.
The Nigerians had better possession and more shots at goal in the 6-5 defeat, but they had themselves to blame for their inability to convert the begging chances that came their way.
Two years later in Baku, eventual champions France held the Nigerian girls to a 0-0 draw in full and extra time, but triumphed 5-3 on penalties.
Unlike in the past when poor preparations had been the bane of Nigerian teams for major competitions, the Flamingoes embarked on a training tour that spanned almost three months before the commencement of the competition.
The team kick started their preparations with a 2-1 win over top side, Nasarawa Amazons 2-1 in Lafia on January 23.
They proceeded on a further tour of Europe, where they played male and female sides in Portugal and Belgium, before coach Bala Nkiyu selected his squad for the tournament last week.
Nkiyu has retained seven players from the squad that reached the last eight in Azerbaijan. Chinwendu Ihezuo, who won the Adidas Silver Boot two years ago, will alongside Ugochi Emenayo, Ihuoma Onyebuchi, Joy Bokiri, Aminat Yakubu, Eluemunor Ijeh and captain Tessy Biahwo be competing in their second consecutive U-17 World Cup in the South American country.
During preparation in Portugal, Nkiyu raised concerns over the inability of his strikers to convert chances, admitting that his side may pay for it, if they are complacent at the World Cup.
He said, “We are not still good enough at converting chances when we create them, knowing that at the World Cup such chances are not easy to come by.
“Winning the friendly games is not the issue, but watching the games and knowing where we are lacking, seeing lapses and improving on them is what I’m after. We had several scoring chances (during friendly games) but lost them. We will continue to work on improving and creating chances and also converting them.”
The strikers seemed to have upped the ante with their performance in front of goal in subsequent friendlies after Nkiyu read the riot act.
In attack, the squad is brimming with talents. Ihezuo, who scored a hat-trick in the 3-2 defeat of Spanish side Sporting Huelva in Faro on February 27, is complemented by the brilliance of Cynthia Aku and Rasheedat Ajibade, two strikers who can wreak havoc on any defence on their good day.
Captain Tessy Biahwo has a commanding influence in midfield along with Joy Bokiri and Eluemunor Ijeh. In defence, Esther Elijah, Mary Ologbosere and Patience Dike have proven their worth during preparation.
Barring any last minute hitch, goalkeeper Mercy Vincent is a sure bet in goal ahead of Fubiana Briggs and Onyinyechukwu Okeke.
However, against women football giants China today in Alajuela, the Flamingoes must ensure they get a favourable result to kick start their mission to reach the semi-final or even beyond for the first time ever in the competition.
“Nigeria will do well against China; with the level of preparation the team had in Portugal, they won’t have any problem progressing from the group,” former Super Falcons star, James Johnson (Iyabo Abade), said.
“I followed their preparations and they won most of their friendly games. So, we don’t have any cause to be afraid, the girls will give their best on Sunday.”
Johnson, once a hermaphrodite but now lives as a man after surgery in 2004, added that Mexico would give the Flamingoes problems in the group.
He said, “Mexico will give our girls some tough time. When I was in the US, I saw their junior players; they are very good. We may have problems in that area.
“The Mexicans are just like Nigerians, they have so much passion for the game but I don’t know much about Colombia. However, they are not a big deal as far as women’s football is concerned.”
But assistant captain of the side, Uchenna Kanu, is already looking ahead of the China game, and believes the Flamingoes can become champions of the competition.
She said, “I believe we can do it this year. With the hard work of everyone in training, the mood and performances in friendly matches, we will bring home the World Cup. If our boys can bring the World Cup (U-17) to Nigeria, we can also do it because what a man can do, a woman can also do. I don’t think any team can stop us from bringing the trophy to Nigeria.”
Pelican Stars forward Ihezuo holds the record for the most goals scored in a single U-17 Women’s World Cup fixture, having scored five goals in the 11-0 victory over Azerbaijan in 2012.
She may not know much about China and Mexico, but she played against the Colombians when the Flamingoes won 3-0 in their final group game at the last edition.
“We played against Colombia the last time. They play very fast football,” she told FIFA.com.
Though coach Nkiyu has refused to give his team a target at the competition, he is not ruling out his squad from getting far at the tournament.
“The 16 teams in the competition won’t field angels or prophets. So for the World Cup, I think we are prepared,” he said.
But Nkiyu knows his team needs a guardian angel to chart the thorny road to success in faraway Costa Rica.
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