BY KUNLE SOLAJA.
On 21 May, the day FIFA clocks 119 years, Nigeria’s Flying Eagles begin a quest to win the U-20 World Cup for the first time after having missed the title twice in their best outings in 1989 and 2005.
In 1989 they lost the the final game against a Luiz Figo propelled Portugal in Saudi Arabia. In 2005, it was Lionel Messi inspired Argentina that beat Nigeria in The Netherlands.
This time, they begin their 13th appearance with a clash with debutants, Dominican Republic.
On the same day, Brazil and Italy will clash in the opening game of Group D. Nigeria
The Flying Eagles will be hoping to reach the knockout stage from the group.
Overall, Nigeria have reached the knockout stages in ten of their previous 12 FIFA U-20 World Cup campaigns. The last time they featured at the finals and failed to qualify from their group was all the way back in 1987.
As for the Flying Eagles’ first opponents, Dominican Republic it is the first time that the CONCACAF team will feature at a FIFA tournament across all levels.
The Caribbean nation secured their landmark qualification via the 2022 Concacaf Men’s U-20 Championship in Honduras last June, where they triumphed over El Salvador, Jamaica and Guatemala in the knockout stages en route to their first final, which they subsequently lost against a strong USA team who claimed their third successive title.
Not only did their exploits at the tournament see the Dominican Republic seal their spot at Argentina 2023, but they also clinched a place at the Men’s Olympic Football Tournament Paris 2024 courtesy of a thrilling penalty shoot-out win over Guatemala in the semi-finals.
Midfielder Edison Azcona and forward Ángel Montes De Oca were both key to their memorable campaign on Honduran soil and are men that the Flying Eagles will have to watch out for.
Flying Eagles’ next match comes up on 24 May when they face Italy. On that same day, Brazil will play against Dominican Republic.
This is Italy’s third consecutive qualification. But overall, this is their eighth appearance in the global showpiece U-20 event.
They secured a spot by reaching the semi-finals of the 2022 UEFA European U-19 Championship.
The Italians made it through to the final four in each of the last two editions of the FIFA U-20 World Cup, losing out to the eventual champions on both occasions; England in 2017 and Ukraine in 2019.
Italy have qualified from their group in each of their last five appearances at the U-20 finals. The last time they failed to make it beyond the group stage was in 1981.
The first goal in the history of the tournament was scored by Italy’s Luigi Capuzzo in a 1-1 draw against Côte d’Ivoire in 1977.
The only previous encounter of Nigeria and Italy was at Chile ‘87 when Nigeria stumbled 0-2 at Concepcion.
Nigeria will wrap up their group matches with a duel with Brazil on 27 May. The Flying Eagles did not win any of their previous encounters with Brazil, dating back to 1983 when they stumbled 3-0 after a soul lifting 1-0 defeat of the then Soviet Union.
Subsequent matches were lost 2-0, 4-0 and 4-2 in 1985, 1987 and 2015. The only respite was the 0-0 draw of 2005.
NIGERIA’S GROUP D FIXTURES
21 May: Nigeria vs. Dominican Republic
24 May: Italy vs. Nigeria
27 May: Brazil vs. Nigeria
The two teams finishing first and second in each group and the four best teams among those ranked third will qualify for the round of 16.