The most successful side in the history of Under-17 FIFA World Cup, five-time champions and holders Nigeria (did not qualify) will not be part of the 2017 edition of the biennial tournament, scheduled to be held between October 6 and 28 in India.
Instead, Africa will have a landlocked country, with not much football history, among one of its four representatives. Niger, just like hosts India, are making their FIFA World Cup debut at the U-17 showpiece event.
Drawn along with three-time champions and heavyweights Spain and North Korea in Group D, Niger have a tough road ahead of them, but a group of 21 boys from the African nation has already put their country on the global football map.
The craze for the sport picked up in Niger when the senior team made its debut at CAF Africa Cup of Nations as recently as in 2012. The team failed to win a single match in the group stages, but it has inspired the young boys to help the country realise their World Cup dream.
Niger stun giants Nigeria
Coached by former captain Soumaila Tiemogo, who was fondly called as "The Emperor", Niger stunned Nigeria 3-2 in U-17 Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers last year. The Junior Menas lost the first leg 1-0 to the African giants, but stunned the latter, thanks to a 90th-minute winning-goal from Abdoul Karim Sanda.
Niger then went on to beat Gabon in the third round of the qualifiers 4-3 to book their place in the Africa U-17 Cup of Nations, which acted as the qualifying tournament for the World Cup.
Tiemogo's side were beaten by Mali in the group stages, but Ibrahim Marou, who helped them sink Gabon, came up with the winner against Tanzania to help them qualify for the semi-final and the World Cup.
Having sealed the ticket to India, Niger came up with a spirited show against heavyweights Ghana before going down on penalties in the semi-final. They were beaten by Guinea in the third-place match, but Tiemogo's men had already achieved the unprecedented target.
Tiemogo behind Niger's rise
A lot of credit for the young boys' rise is being given to coach Tiemogo, who became a physical education and sports teacher after retirement. The 56-year-old has a vast coaching experience as he had attended camps in Europe and Brazil. He also served as national director of football before serving as the head coach of the national team in 1990s.
Tiemogo concedes that playing against the likes of Spain and Brazil in their maiden World Cup appearance is a tough task, but the team is confident of impressing the football fraternity with their performances in India.
"Unlike senior level, when you know who the star players are, it's harder to judge in youth football. If you asked Niger to knock out Ghana or Gabon at senior level, you'd doubt they could do it. But that's just what we did at junior level. There's a lot of talent in Niger," Tiemogo was quoted as saying by FIFA.com.
He added: "I can't guarantee that we'll go on and win the competition but I can guarantee that we'll make people talk about us, just like we did in Africa. Maybe we can't work miracles, but we can do our best."
Niger's fixtures in the upcoming U-17 FIFA World Cup
|Match||Date and Time||Venue|
|Niger vs North Korea||7 October, 8pm IST/2:30pm GMT||Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, Kochi|
|Niger vs Spain||October 10, 5pm IST/11:30am GMT||Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, Kochi|
|Niger vs Brazil||October 13, 8pm IST/2:30pm GMT||Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, Kochi|
Full squad [Coach - Soumaila Tiemogo]
|Yacine Wa Massamba||MF|