A Thinking Fan’s Guide to the U-17 World Cup in Nigeria

Nigeria U-17 World Cup

I love a World Cup (any World Cup) for the rare opportunity of putting whole imagined nations on public display.  Though the main event in South Africa is still eight months away, one junior version (U-20) just finished in Egypt and another (U-17) is just about to begin in Nigeria.  The fact that all these events are in Africa is an extra bonus for the inquiring mind; Africa represents so much that is powerful and so much that is perplexing about both soccer and society.

Some of this was on display in last Friday’s U-20 World Cup final from Cairo, where Ghana’s ‘Black Satellites’ defeated Brazil in penalty kicks after playing a man down through 83 scoreless minutes.  Like many things to do with world football, the game was not pretty but it was symbolic.  As the FIFA English commentator proclaimed enthusiastically at the dénouement: “African winners on African soil!”  It was the first time an African team had won a U-20 World Cup.

Ghanaian coach Sellas Tetteh immediately claimed the victory for the continent: “This is a wonderful historic event for Africa.  Now Africans can believe in themselves that they can do it… We’ve shown them the way. Africa will surely have a lot of hope and confidence (at the World Cup) that they can do it like we did here.”

Although Tetteh was referring to next summer’s feature event in South Africa, the general question of whether belief, hope, and confidence are enough to win major tournaments is interesting to consider approaching the start of the U-17 World Cup in Lagos and Abuja on Saturday October 24th.  My own less sanguine suspicion is that talent and resources matter quite a bit more.  Unfortunately, Ghana itself won’t be in Nigeria to find out.  But 24 other teams will be playing in eight different Nigerian cities through the final on November 15th.

As I did last month in an alternative preview of the U-20 World Cup in Egypt, I’m taking advantage of the opportunity of the U-17 World Cup to look at the world through a mix of soccer and armchair geography.  The idea is best encapsulated by Eric Hobsbawn’s eloquent words: “The imagined community of millions seems more real as a team of eleven named people.”  It also draws inspiration from Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey’s excellent edited collection of essays and miscellany related to the participants in the 2006 World Cup.

So, below I offer impressions of Nigeria and Malawi (the African nation closest to my heart—having been a Peace Corps volunteer there for two years in the 90’s) as examples of two “imagined communities,” and then draw on an idiosyncratic collection of ratings and rankings to create a statistical miscellany on the groups in the tournament.   At the end of this post is a table of the draw with FIFA rankings for the full national teams, population numbers, human development rankings, Gross Domestic Product per capita, per capita alcohol consumption, life expectancy, and infant mortality.  The only system here is to try and raise unlikely questions about soccer and society, and what else is a World Cup good for?

Some Stories

Nigeria map

The Host: In its soccer and its society Nigeria, the most populous nation in Africa, represents both the potential and the perils of the continent.  Nigeria has won three of the twelve U-17 World Cups, been a finalist in two others, won the gold medal in the 1996 Olympics, achieved what I believe to be the highest ever FIFA ranking for an African team (5th in 1994), and is the only sub-Saharan African nation to host a FIFA World Cup: the 1999 youth tournament (then called the “FIFA World Youth Championship”).  It has also been the subject of much controversy regarding the “real age” of its youth players, and there have been many questions as to whether it will be ready to adequately host this 2009 U-17 tournament (the 1999 tournament hosted in Nigeria was actually a make-up after FIFA had controversially revoked Nigeria’s hosting the 1995 tournament, taking it to Qatar because of uncertain fears).

Beyond soccer, Nigeria is home to many of Africa’s most brilliant minds, including a stunning collection of writers such as Wole Soylinka, Chinua Achebe, Ken Saro-Wiwa, Ben Okri, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Chris Abani, and Uwem Akpan.  But it also has a controversial reputation for corruption, it has struggled to manage vast oil wealth to the benefit of broader development goals (as have many oil-rich nations the world-over), and has suffered dramatic religious violence as it negotiates a national population split nearly equally (and regionally) between Muslims and Christians.

Deserved or not, the reputation of Nigerians across Africa is that they are intense and clever—in ways that can be used for good or for ill.  The recent critically acclaimed movie District 9 was telling in this regard; in a science-fiction version of Johannesburg South Africa aliens are locked into a segregated township where their potentially nefarious interests are catered to primarily by savvy Nigerian gangsters.  In the movie’s disturbing allegory about xenophobia, purposefully set in South Africa, the people most negatively stereotyped are the Nigerians.  This implication was not beyond the notice of the Nigerian government, who asked the makers of the film for an apology as part of their own effort to “rebrand” the nation.

Nigerians are also infamous the world over for internet scams—known as ‘419’ fraud with that number referring to the relevant article of the Nigerian Criminal Code.  Also called “advance fee fraud” the scam has become the brunt of many jokes about Nigerian princes who will share their wealth if only a small advance is sent to the right bank account.  But the not so funny reality is that the scam became popular because it worked: some clever Nigerians bilked some not-so-clever others for a good deal of money.  There is a fine line between the “swindler” and the “entrepreneur.”

If national teams do reflect national culture, then all this must make for some confusing on-field tactics.  Combing immense talent, uncertain motives, and an intense edge would seem to be an explosive brew.  But, in many ways, it also sounds like a lot of fun—and watching Nigeria’s Super Eagles is often just that.  Nigeria is not only the host of this U-17 championship, they are also the defending champion (having won the 2007 title in South Korea over Spain through penalty kicks).  Though their preparations seem to have been somewhat tumultuous, that is often the way the Super Eaglets roll and I wouldn’t be surprised if they still take home advantage.  While there is sure to be some drama and some criticism, as Nigeria Football Federation president Sani Lulu Abdullahi recently responded when questioned about recent Nigerian performances: “I don’t give a damn, because I am serving my God and Nigerians.”

Football in Malawi

The Junior Flames: Malawi’s national team is known as “the Flames”—but you’d have no reason to know that since this U-17 World Cup in Nigeria will be the nation’s first ever FIFA tournament.  In fact, most people have few reasons to know Malawi for much of any reason (though Madonna’s odd interest in the place along with books about windmills have raised its profile some).  The beauty and the tragedy of Malawi is that it’s been a relatively peaceful, stable country with little significant infrastructure and few valuable resources other than its warm hearted people.  In fact, in the statistics I compiled below Malawi only stands out for having the lowest per capita annual income (around $800 per year—which is dramatically little compared to $47,000 per year for group mates the USA) and the second lowest life expectancy at 48 years (second only to hosts Nigeria).  In many ways Malawians have had little of what may be the most undervalued quality in both soccer and national development: luck.

When I lived in Malawi between 1996 and 1998 it was just emerging from 33 years of autocratic rule by “His Excellency the Life President of the Republic of Malaŵi, Ngwazi Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda”—an idiosyncratic dictator and anglophile who kept his people relatively safe and well-fed as long as they did not cause any trouble.  In fine “big man” style Kamuzu had managed to name virtually everything in the country after himself, including the national stadium in Blantyre.  But when “democracy” arrived much of his cult of personality was dismantled and the national stadium was renamed Chichiri for its relatively bland neighborhood.  And then in 2004 it was re-re-named after Kamuzu—a seeming reminder that the more things change the more they stay the same.

In 2009, however, Malawi’s luck—at least in the ways of world football—seems to have changed.  First, the Junior Flames qualified for the U-17 World Cup due to the good fortune of Niger being disqualified for using over-age players.  And now, the senior Flames are on the verge of qualifying for their second ever African Cup of Nations (their only previous appearance was in 1984) based on being positioned third in a group of four.  Though their recent tie with Ivory Coast was mostly noted internationally for securing Ivory Coast’s place in South Africa, Malawians celebrated the fact that Didier Drogba and friends only needed one point.  As it stands, both the junior and senior Flames will have qualified for their respective tournaments after winning a single game in group play (the senior team needs just one point in their final game at the wonderfully alliterative Ouagadougou Burkina Faso on November 11th).

While Malawians have long been passionate about football, these fortuitous circumstances arguably constitute the greatest year in their sporting history.  And when the Junior Flames take the field to play the US U-17’s on October 29th in Nigeria at Kano’s Sani Abacha Stadium (another curious tribute to a former president identified as one of the world’s most corrupt leaders), I hope luck is again on their side.  In fact, I owe a debt to Malawian soccer for reminding me about the importance of luck: in an otherwise unremarkable academic paper I once wrote comparing American and Malawian mentalities towards soccer, among my main conclusions was that Malawians have a much better appreciation for the inevitabilities of the game.  Where Americans tend to have a deeply internalized sense that soccer is about self-improvement and competitive merit, Malawians tend to recognize that sometimes stuff just happens.  Luck matters more than we like to admit, and here’s hoping that Malawi starts getting all it needs and deserves.

Some Statistics

The Group of Death: Apparently the term “group of death,” now ubiquitous in any group based tournament, was originally coined by Uruguay (Group F in Nigeria) manager Omar Borrás to describe his team’s group at the 1986 World Cup.  Borrás went on to get himself banned from a second round match due to his team’s ”ungentlemanly conduct” and reports that ”the referee was molested and even threatened.”  While molesting referees would seem to be quite a damaging habit, Borrás more awkward legacy may be the never-ending debates about which teams actually have to suffer through the “group of death.”

To avoid subjective questions about the quality of U-17 teams from diverse parts of the world, and at the risk of sounding morbid, the sobriquet could be taken literally.  Doing so is admittedly depressing.  Looking at statistics such as life expectancy and infant mortality highlights the injustices of a world where children born in rich countries such as Spain (Group E in Nigeria) and Italy (Group F in Nigeria) can expect to live an average of 80 years (where only 4 out of 1000 children will die before age 5), yet reside on the same planet as children born in poor countries such as Burkina Faso (Group D in Nigeria) and Malawi (Group E in Nigeria) who will be lucky to live past 50 (where approximately 200 out of 1000 children die before age 5).

So for me talking metaphorically about the “group of death” offers a helpful reminder that soccer is just a game—none of the groups in a FIFA tournament are actually a matter of life or death.  And, frankly, I have no idea which group will actually be most competitive on the field.  But I do have some other more lighthearted statistics…

Overachievers and Underachievers: The most basic statistic for any FIFA tournament is a team’s world ranking; despite all the problems with their ranking system, it does offer a standardized gauge of how all the world’s teams compare.  And while much goes into national footballing excellence, the most basic factor I’ve been able to discern for success is disappointingly simple: population.  The more people, the more potential players, and the better chance of putting forth a pretty good eleven.

For me this uninteresting equation becomes more interesting when considering outliers—the countries that seem to do either much better or much worse than their player pool should allow.  Of the countries in Nigeria, the three that stand out as overachievers in this regard are Uruguay (which ranks 132 in population but 25 in FIFA and is in Group F in Nigeria), Switzerland (which ranks 94 in population but 13 in FIFA and is in group B in Nigeria), and the US’s new BFF Honduras (which ranks 96 in population but 35 in FIFA and is in Group A in Nigeria).

On the other side of things, there are few countries in Nigeria with significantly lower FIFA rankings than might be predicted based on population—most of those guys probably didn’t bother to qualify.  The only two that seem to be of any note are Iran (which ranks 17 in population but 62 in FIFA and is in Group C in Nigeria), and Japan (which ranks 10 in population but 40 in FIFA and is in Group B in Nigeria).  If I had to guess I’d say the lesson here is that hard-line Islamic governments and aging populations with long life expectancies and low birth rates are bad for soccer success.  But that’s just a guess.

The Designated Drivers: A World Cup is often described as an international party, which made me curious about the relative popularity of that nearly universal party lubricant: alcohol.  Though the players in Nigeria should be too young to partake, in many parts of the world adult fan culture is defined partially by drinking and carousing—something which is alternately a point of pride and shame.  Just looking at the statistics, it appears fans who like alcohol with their soccer may find good company at this U-17 World Cup: in terms of per capita consumption of alcohol Nigeria slightly edges New Zealand (Group D in Nigeria), only trailing Switzerland, Spain, and grand “champions” Germany.

In fact, the data would suggest that few travelling fans in Group A should plan on driving home or operating any heavy machinery: with the slight exception of Honduras it seems the Nigerians, Germans, and Argentines all like to get their drink on.  In fact, those looking for peace, fellowship, and designated drivers may be best served watching games in the groups with teams from the Islamic world: Algeria and the United Arab Emirates report miniscule amounts of alcohol consumption, while Iran just reports absolute zero.  Come to think of it, maybe that’s why they underachieve in the FIFA rankings?

There is, believe or not, a significant correlation for the teams in the U-17 World Cup: for these 24 nations, the more a country drinks the higher its FIFA ranking.  But there must be some confounding variables—so back to the stats!

The below statistics are from the following sources:
- FIFA rank is based on the “FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking” updated October 16th 2009
- Population and population rank is rounded from estimates drawing on various sources in Wikipedia.
- GDP and GDP per capita is in US dollars and based on 2008 list by the International Monetary Fund “derived from purchasing power parity (PPP) calculations.”
- Life expectancy is based on the 2009 list from the CIA World Factbook for “overall life expectancy at birth.”
- Under-five mortality rate is based on the number of deaths per 1000 live births based on data available through the World Health Organization Statistical Information System.
- Per capita litres of pure alcohol consumed annually is based on consumption among adults based on data available through the World Health Organization Statistical Information System.

FIFA rank

Pop.

Pop. rank

GDP per capita

GDP per capita rank

Life expectancy

Under-five mortality rate (deaths per 1000 live births)

Per capita litres of pure alcohol consumed annually

Group A

Nigeria

32

155 mil.

8

2100

139

46.9 yrs

191

10.57

Germany

5

82 mil.

14

35000

21

79.3 yrs

5

11.99

Honduras

35

7.5 mil.

96

4300

117

69.4 yrs

27

2.92

Argentina

6

40 mil.

32

14400

57

75.3 yrs

17

8.4

Group B

Brazil

1

192 mil.

5

10500

77

72.4 yrs

20

5.76

Japan

40

127.5 mil.

10

34100

24

82.1 yrs

4

7.59

Mexico

18

107.5 mil.

11

14500

55

76.2 yrs

35

4.57

Switzerland

13

8 mil.

94

43200

7

80.9 yrs

5

10.83

Group C

Iran

62

74 mil.

17

11000

73

71.1 yrs

35

0

Gambia

122

1.7 mil.

147

1400

155

55.4 yrs

114

2.59

Columbia

30

45 mil.

29

8200

87

72.8 yrs

21

5.68

Netherlands

3

16.5

61

45000

9

79.4 yrs

5

9.68

Group D

Turkey

39

71.5

18

13100

61

71.9 yrs

26

1.37

Burkina Faso

55

16 mil.

63

1300

159

52.9 yrs

204

5.01

Costa Rica

43

4.6 mil.

118

11000

76

78.8 yrs

12

5.65

New Zealand

83

4 mil.

123

27000

34

80.2 yrs

6

9.68

Group E

U.A.E.

115

4.5 mil.

117

39000

14

78.7 yrs

8

.02

Malawi

90

15 mil.

65

800

170

48.3 yrs

191

1.41

Spain

2

46 mil.

28

31000

28

80.5 yrs

4

11.68

USA

11

307 mil.

3

47000

6

78.1 yrs

8

8.61

Group F

Uruguay

25

3.4 mil.

132

13000

64

76.3 yrs

15

7.74

Korea Republic

48

48 mil.

26

28000

33

78.6 yrs

5

7.87

Algeria

29

35 mil.

35

6700

96

72.3 yrs

38

.15

Italy

4

60 mil

18

31000

27

80.2 yrs

4

8.02

Andrew Guest writes weekly for Pitch Invasion. He is an academic social scientist and soccer addict living in Portland, Oregon. Having worked (and played) in Malawi and Angola, he has a particular interest in Africa. He can be contacted at drewguest (at) hotmail.com.

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