Perennial campaigners, Nigeria are seeking a record eighth title as the Total U-20 Africa Cup of Nations gets underway in Niger in a few days.
Winners in 1983, 1985, 1987, 1989, 2005, 2011 and 2015, the West Africans failed to defend their title the last time in Zambia after a shock elimination by Sudan via away goals after a 5-5 tie on aggregate.
This time under experienced coach Paul Aigbogun, the Flying Eagles held their nerves with a near perfect campaign and saw off both Guinea Bissau and Mauritania to book their 12th appearance at the biennial event being hosted in Niger for the first time.
“The U-20 Nations Cup is a tough competition because most of the players are already playing at club levels some even in Europe,” Manu Garba who supervised Nigeria’s last triumph in Senegal four years ago told CAFOnline.com.
“In 2015, when we defeated Senegal in the final in Dakar, most of the Senegalese were already playing in Europe but we had the bulk of a young 2013 FIFA U-17 World Cup winning team, though Kelechi Iheanacho and Success Isaac were not released by their clubs”.
This time, the Flying Eagles have in their mix four foreign-based players including tough tackling defender Igoh Ogbu who plies his trade with Norwegian side Rosenborg BK. There are also slots for striker Yahaya Nazifi of Sonderjyske FC as well as Afeez Aremu of IK Start and Vaxjo United FC‘s striker Onyekachi Durugbor Paschal who was a last minute replacement for injured Victor Boniface Okoh.
Meanwhile, the Flying Eagles already have their work cut out in Niger where they are pitched in Group A along with hosts Niger, Burundi and South Africa.
The seven-time African champions Nigeria open their account against South Africa at the Stade General Seyni Kountche on 2 February, to be followed with two key ties against South Africa on 5 February before wrapping it up against perennial rivals and neighbours Nigeria three days later.
“We don’t need to underrate any team; South Africa is a very good team as well because they defeated us in the U-17 AFCON in 2015 and that was an experience (for me),” noted goalkeeper David Udoh who featured for the Golden Eaglets four years ago at the U-17 AFCON hosted by Niger in 2015. “We would need to fight till the very end because our target is qualification for the World Cup.”
Unlike their predecessors that won in 2015 on the back of a solid preparation including top friendly matches against Morocco and Ghana and winning the novel Super Six tournament that included the country’s national U-23 team as well as four other domestic premier league sides (Kano Pillars, Enyimba, Warri Wolves and Dolphins); the Aigbogun-led side had the luxury of attending only the sub regional WAFU U-20 Tournament held in Togo last December where they were beaten 2-0 by Senegal in the final.
Nevertheless, Garba said the Flying Eagles have what it takes to excel in Niger: “The Flying Eagles chances in Niger are bright because most of the players are playing for top Nigerian clubs and they are in good shape.
“We are hoping they will qualify from their group and make it to the FIFA U-20 World Cup. I wish them a successful outing in Niger and praying they will qualify to the World Cup as African Champions.”