Nigeria and Mexico’s focus firmly on bringing home U17 World Cup trophy

Players willing to put personal ambitions on hold to secure national glory

Chidera Ezeh scored the final goal of Nigeria's 3-0 defeat of Sweden in the Fifa Under 17 World Cup semi-finals. Despite the crowds of scouts watching the tournament, players for Nigeria and Mexico said they were more focused on winning the World Cup than securing a contract. AP Photo
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Taiwo Awoniyi, the Nigeria striker, says victory in the Fifa Under 17 World Cup final against Mexico is more important than earning a professional deal at a leading team.

Talent scouts from a variety of the world’s top clubs have set up base in the UAE during the past month in the hope of unearthing a gem.

The potential rewards at this competition are likely to last beyond Friday’s final for many of the leading teenaged footballers. But which should take priority — the chance to win the trophy, or the possibility of securing a contract at a major club?

“Let me just say that winning the World Cup is very important — but they are both very, very important,” Awoniyi said after scoring the opening goal in the 3-0 semi-final win over Sweden on Tuesday.

“You are not winning a World Cup for yourself. You are winning it for your family, your nation at large. When you win the World Cup, your name goes down in history.”

Fortunately for Awoniyi and his colleagues, the compelling nature of Nigeria’s play to date will have caught the eye of even the least observant scout.

Awoniyi, who turned 16 in August, has scored four goals in six games; his team have weighed in with 23 overall in that time.

“As a human being, you always have to try your best, you have to put everything into it,” he said.

“I believe what the guys in this team have done so far in this competition, we have done a lot for the scouts to see from us. By the special grace of God, it is our ambition to play for a big club.”

Nigeria beat Mexico 6-1 when they met in the opening game of Group F on the second day of the tournament, but Ivan Ochoa is confident the Mexicans will not lose again.

Ochoa scored twice in the 3-0 semi-final win over Argentina on Tuesday. Like Awoniyi, he said personal ambition was irrelevant compared to winning the tournament and retaining it for Mexico.

“Right now my focus is only on Friday’s final,” he said. “The team comes first for me and the all other things later, because if the team wins, everyone is a winner.”

Ochoa also said Nigeria hold no fear for Mexico as they prepare for the final. The Nigerians beat Mexico 6-1 in their first group game, but Ochoa said they had learnt from that loss.

“It was a game full of mistakes for us when we met Nigeria in the first game. In a way, we are glad this defeat came early in the competition and we can say we learnt from that game. Now we have another opportunity to prove ourselves.”

Raul Rudino, the goalkeeper, whose third-minute penalty save proved vital to helping Mexico beat Argentina, also put the team ahead of his own personal performances.

“My save may have changed the game for us, but we still wouldn’t have won had we not scored,” he said. “The penalty save provided us the confidence. Now it is all about the final and we will play a different game against Nigeria.”

* With additional reporting by Amith Passela