Minnows Niger dream big at FIFA U-17 World Cup ahead of opener vs North Korea | fifa-u17-world-cup-2017 | Hindustan Times
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Minnows Niger dream big at FIFA U-17 World Cup ahead of opener vs North Korea

North Korea and Niger are rank outsiders as far as qualification from the Group D of the FIFA U-17 World Cup, where Brazil and Spain are favourites.

fifa u17 world cup 2017 Updated: Oct 06, 2017 19:31 IST
Bhargab Sarmah
Niger qualified for their debut FIFA U-17 World Cup after the reaching the semifinals of the African U-17 tournament, beating defending World Champions Nigeria en route.
Niger qualified for their debut FIFA U-17 World Cup after the reaching the semifinals of the African U-17 tournament, beating defending World Champions Nigeria en route.(FIFA)

When Brazil take on Spain in Kochi on Saturday, in the opening Group D match of the FIFA U-17 World Cup, the result of the match would, in all probability, decide who tops the group. (FIFA U-17 World Cup schedule)

North Korea and Niger aren’t quite the heavyweights compared to Brazil and Spain, and the Asian and African sides will be rank outsiders as far as qualification from the group is concerned.

The Niger camp, however, is full of positivity ahead of their campaign opener against North Korea.

Despite the presence of two pre-tournament favourites in the group, midfielder Abdoul Karim Sanda says his side is eyeing the top prize.

“Yes, we have drawn big teams in the group stages, but we don’t know much about each other. As for us, we are a team. Our common objective as a group is the World Cup trophy,” Sanda told Hindustan Times.

LOOK BACK IN WONDER
The FIFA U-17 World Cup has been a breeding ground of champion footballers for the future. As many as 12 players, including Alessandro del Piero, who played here went on to win the FIFA World Cup.
1985
Venue: China, Winner: Nigeria
MARCEL WITECZEK (GER)
He won the golden boot for scoring eight goals as Germany finished runners-up. He went on to play for Bayern Munich and won one UEFA Cup and two Leagues.
1987
Venue: Canada, Winner: Soviet Union
MIRDJALAL KASYMOV (USSR, LATER UZB)
He scored two goals in six matches as erstwhile USSR won the title. He later played for Uzbekistan. He won the 1994 Asian Games for Uzbekistan. He is the second Asian after Korean Cha Bum-Kun to score in UEFA competitions.
1989
Venue: Scotland, Winner: Saudi Arabia
LUIS FIGO (POR)
Figo scored twice as Portugal went on to finish third. With Portugal, he finished fourth at the 2006 World Cup and runners-up at the Euro 2004.
1991
Venue: Italy, Winner: Ghana
ALESSANDRO DEL PIERO (ITA)
Del Piero had a forgettable tournament, scoring just one goal in three matches. He, however, went on to become one of the greatest forwards ever and won the FIFA World Cup in 2006.
1993
Venue: Japan, Winner: Nigeria
FRANCESCO TOTTI (ITA), Nwankwo Kanu (NGR), Hidetoshi Nakata (JPN)
Kanu scored five for Nigeria, who emerged champions. Totti and Nakata scored only once as Italy and Japan went home early.
1995
Venue: Ecuador, Winner: Ghana
ESTEBAN CAMBIASSO (ARG), Julio Cesar (BRA)
Cambiasso was instrumental as Argentina finished third. Cesar was keeper as Brazil went on to play the final, where they lost to Ghana. Cambiasso later won the Champions League with Inter Milan.
1997
Venue: Egypt, Winner: Brazil
Ronaldinho (BRA), Iker Casillas (ESP), Xavi Hernandez (ESP)

Ronaldinho scored twice as Brazil won the title. Casillas and Xavi helped Spain finish third.
1999
Venue: New Zealand, Winner: Brazil
Landon Donovan (USA)
Donovan’s USA finished fourth. He scored three goals in six matches and won the Golden Ball. He prospered for the senior team too.
2001
Venue: Trinidad & Tobago, Winner: France
CARLOS TEVEZ (ARG), Fernando Torres (ESP), Andres Iniesta (ESP)
Tevez scored twice as Argentina finished fourth. Torres and Iniesta were part of Spain who did not make knockouts.
2003
Venue: Finland, Winner: Brazil
CESC FABREGAS (ESP), David Silva (ESP)
Fabregas top-scored with five goals for Spain to win the Golden Boot and David Silva scored three. Spain finished runners-up to Brazil. Both went on to win the 2010 World Cup, 2008 and 2012 Euros.
2005
Venue: Peru, Winner: Mexico
MARCELO (BRA), Giovani Dos Santos (MEX), Carlos Vela (MEX)
Marcelo played a crucial role as a defender as Brazil finished second. Carlos Vela ended as the top-scorer with five goals. He and Dos Santos helped Mexico win the title. Marcelo is now an integral part of the Brazil senior team and also Real Madrid.
2007
Venue: South Korea, Winner: Nigeria
TONI KROOS (GER), James Rodriguez (COL), Eden Hazard (BEL)
Kroos won the Golden Ball scoring five to help Germany finish second. Rodriguez did not score as Colombia went out early. But in the 2014 finals, Rodriguez won the Golden Boot. Hazard did not catch the eye as Belgium were out early.
2009
Venue: Nigeria, Winner: Switzerland
NEYMAR (BRA), Isco (ESP), Mario Goetze (GER), Alvaro Morata (ESP), S Mustafi (GER),
The present football scenario is headlined by the boys of this batch. Neymar, costliest player ever, however, scored only once in three ties.
2011
Venue: Mexico, Winner: Mexico
RAHEEM STERLING (ENG), Memphis Depay (NED)
Sterling played four matches and scored one as England lost to Germany in the quarter-finals. Depay’s Netherlands went out in the group stages.
2013
Venue: Arab Emirates, Winner: Nigeria
Kelechi Iheanacho (NGR)
Nigeria won the tournament and Iheanacho won the Golden Ball for scoring six goals. He was part of Man City for two seasons and now plays for Leicester.
2015
Venue: Chile, Winner: Nigeria
Nigeria finished champions for the fifth time, after defeating another African nation Mali 2-0 in the final. Nigeria’s Victor Osimhen was the top-scorer with 10 goals.

Like Sanda, Niger head coach Tiemogo Soumalia is unfazed by the task ahead of him. He gives a gentle reminder on how his side made it to the tournament.

“Do not forget that we eliminated the defending champions Nigeria on our way here,” he says. “We will enjoy our very first World Cup, which is already historic, and continue our dream that will lead us to the title we hope. We are ambitious, and whoever our opponents are, our objectives do not change.”

Back in Niger, Soumalia enjoys the status of a hero among the country’s football fans. A former centre back, he had gone on to captain the senior national team at a time when the sport hadn’t yet managed to grab a professional foothold in the country.

Things have changed since his playing days, and a World Cup debut, albeit in the U-17 age group, is a pointer to that, he says. “It is an honour for our football and Niger sport in general (to have qualified).”

Since retirement, Soumalia has gone on to make a career in coaching, and quite famously, led Niger side to the semifinals of the U-17 African Cup of Nations earlier this year.

One of the stars at that tournament was medio Sanda, who scored two goals for his side in their run to the last four, where they bowed out, losing in penalties to Ghana.

“It was an unforgettable experience for us. We had never competed at such a level prior to that tournament. Each one of us benefited individually,” he states.

Sanda, who idolises Niger national team striker Moussa Mâazou, dreams of playing in Europe in the future, and says the World Cup is a great opportunity for Niger boys to get noticed.

“As future professionals, we all aspire to have successful careers, and the World Cup is a great starting point for that. For me, personally, the dream is to one day compete in the biggest championships in Europe,” Sanda says.

With four of the best third-placed teams from the six groups moving to the knockout stages, even a single win could help teams seal a Round-of-16 spot. The importance of picking full points will not be lost on Soumalia and his boys when they take the pitch against North Korea Saturday.