Minnows Niger dream big at FIFA U-17 World Cup ahead of opener vs North Korea
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.
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.
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