In theory, the Under-17 World Cup is football’s crystal ball. It is supposed to give a glimpse into the game’s future. But if that was really the case, Nigeria should have won a World Cup, or at least made it to the semifinals by now.
The Golden Eaglets are the best-performing nation at under-17 level, with four titles and three runners-up medals to their names, but they are not the only African team to do well at the age-group event. Since its inception in 1991, there has been an African team in the semis in all but three editions of the tournament. The continent made up for its absence in the final four in 2003, 2005 and 2011 by having two teams in the semis on three other occasions: 1993, 2001 and 2007.
Other than Nigeria, Ghana have won the event twice and been in the semifinals three other times, while Burkina Faso have also appeared in the final four. The 2015 semis include Nigeria and sees Mali making its maiden appearance at this stage. The best news for the continent is that they will avoid each other in the semis and could set up an All-African final.
It would be even better, though, if the players could translate success at this tournament to something substantial later on, especially for Nigeria. The Super Eagles have been threatening higher honours for more than two decades, since they reached the knockout stages of the 1994 World Cup, but have not followed through. They have won an African Nations’ Championship since but faded on the global stage and will hope the likes of 16-year-old Victor Osimhen will help turn that around.
Osimhen is the leading striker at the tournament, with double the number of goals of his nearest competitor. He has netted eight times to Germany’s Johannes Eggestein’s four, and with Germany out of the tournament, it is unlikely Osimhen will be caught. His value is not just in quantity, but consistency. Osimhen has scored in all of Nigeria’s games at the tournament.
His prolific form will bring its own pressures, which coach Emmanuel Amunike is being careful to manage. “The expectations will be high for him to go to do well on a bigger stage. Hopefully he can keep his head and stay calm,” he’s quoted as saying in the BBC. “He has to embrace the moment and make the most of it for his country and for himself.”
Whatever happens, Nigerians will hope Osimhen does not go the same way as his countryman Macauley Chrisantus, who was the top scorer in the 2007 Under-17 World Cup. He scored seven goals and was rewarded with a contract at Hamburg but never made it as big as his U-17 reputation suggested he would. He was loaned to a second-division club, Karlsruher SC, moved to the Turkish Super Lig and currently plays for AEK Athens but has never received a senior national call-up.
While Nigeria have been a one-man show, Mali’s performances have been more communal, which may bode better for the country’s football in the long term. They have a group of players who could graduate together and could eventually take over from the Seydou Keita generation and crack the ceiling Mali seem to have reached. They finished in third place in two of the past three ANCs, but cannot seem to get any further. Perhaps in a few years, with some of these fresh faces who have already tasted glory at this year’s CAF Under-17 African Championships, that could change.
Mali’s U-17 crop have shared success, with goals spread among them. Sidike Maiga, Ally Malle and Amadou Haidara have scored two each and could be the country’s future strike force. Maiga and Malle already play first-division football in their home country, and Malle has even spent time at Bundesliga club Cologne. Although Malle did not get a contract this year, he will stay in the mind of manager Peter Stoeger.
“He made a really good impression. Technically he is very good, fast and strong in one-on-one situations,” Stoeger said. “However, it will take some time before he is ready to play at the highest level.”
Before Malle thinks of any of that, his focus will be on Belgium, who Mali have already played at this tournament. The two teams played out a goalless draw in their opener, although Mali dominated significant swathes of the game and had their attacking prowess on display but failed to finish. They have since fine-tuned with victories over Ecuador, Honduras, Croatia and North Korea.
Arguably, Nigeria have the tougher task. They will take on a spirited Mexican side. If both African teams emerge on the right side of their semifinals, the future of the continent’s game could be bright.
– ESPN FC
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