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The Nigerian under-17 soccer team is ready to take the next step towards defending its Youth World Cup crown, as the knockout phase of the tournament kicks off.
Games in the elimination round of the FIFA Under-17 World Cup begin Wednesday afternoon in Nigeria, with the hosts set to take the field Thursday night in Abuja.
The 16 teams that remain in the tournament, after a tightly contested first round, all have ambitions of taking home the trophy. And, the round of 16 will go a long way toward sorting out the pretenders from the legitimate title contenders.
Nigerian coach John Obuh said after a rocky start in the first game against Germany - in which the team fell behind by three goals before coming back to tie - his squad has improved in each of its three matches, since.
"We played the first game with a little bit of anxiety and fear, considering the fact that the first time of everything is always like that," said John Obuh. "Time was on our side to make them recover as quickly as possible after the disaster, and in fact that was the match that gave us the confidence to persecute the rest of the matches. Second match was also good, at least better than the first one, and the third match better than the second one."
Nigeria's opponent Thursday will be upstart New Zealand, which has advanced to the elimination round for the first time in its history at FIFA events.
Nigerian forward Stanley Okoro says his team is not focusing on their good luck in drawing what is considered to be the weakest team remaining in the field.
"I shoot to play anybody," said Stanley Okoro. "I can shoot to play anybody now, anybody. We are ready to play anybody."
The Golden Eaglets return to Abuja, where Nigeria has already drawn capacity crowds for its home matches in the group stage. The winner advances to the quarterfinals, to be played Saturday and Sunday.