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Not everything at the FIFA Under-17 World Cup in Nigeria has gone according to plan. However, visiting players and coaches unanimously agree that Nigerians have received them with open arms.
The Nigerian accommodations and facilities are generally not of the level that FIFA executives, journalists and traveling international soccer teams from around the world expect. Communications services in the stadiums and hotels have been constantly out of order. The country is large and travel is difficult and time consuming.
The list of reasons why teams coming from abroad were not thrilled at the prospect of several weeks in Nigeria for this year's Under-17 World Cup is long. But, just past the tournament's midpoint, one thing the players and coaches of the visiting teams all agree on is the warmth and hospitality with which they have been received by the Nigerian people.
Officials from the team from the United Arab Emirates have been emphatic in voicing their concerns - in particular about the facilities in their base city, Kano. The country even threatened to pull out of the tournament, but eventually gave in to FIFA's demands that they attend. But, despite team manager Jamil Bahindi's long list of complaints, he says the team is impressed by the reception given by the people of Kano state. "There is the environment here, as you see outside, the accommodation, the street as you see. The people is very nice here, the people is very nice. We like them and they like us also, so that is why we love this area here, because of the people, nothing more," he said.
The teams have run into various problems. Many of the training fields were never completed, forcing teams to share facilities and practice at uncomfortable hours. Scheduling decisions made well before the tournament have forced some teams to travel long distances and play on short rest.
But, although the logistics of putting together an international soccer tournament may be complicated, Nigerians seem to be experts at making their guests feel welcome. John Kaputa, coach of the Malawian youth team, says his group felt welcome from the moment they stepped off the plane. "We were warmly welcomed at the airport in Abuja. Everything was proper arranged. Immigration department was ready to help with the visas and the like, and the people of Kano are very friendly. We have good guiders [host guides] who are really taking care of us," he said.
Many players from abroad have had the opportunity to see a part of the world they might never have visited, had it not been for the tournament. And, each player's observations and interactions with the local people vary greatly, depending on his background.
Italian Marco Fosatti, who plays professionally for internationally renowned Inter Milan, says he was shocked by some of the things he observed from the window of the team bus on the trips between the hotel and the practice fields.
Fosatti says he had no idea of the level of poverty that existed outside the developed world. He says he has been inspired to undertake some sort of social project with his teammates for the benefit of Nigerians.
Other players had a different perspective. Boyd Okwuonu is an American of Nigerian descent. In his first trip to his parents' homeland, he says he is enjoying many aspects of Nigerian culture, and would not mind living in the country. "One of the things I like about this place is that everybody is outside and together, one, everybody is doing stuff together. But the thing I do not really like is that everyone is in the darkness all the time," he said.
Perhaps the aspect of Nigerian society most admired by the coaches of the teams in the competition is the universal passion for sport demonstrated by Nigerians. Spanish coach Gines Melendez says the crowd support for his team, at stadiums that have routinely filled for the evening matches, has been sensational.
However, not all teams have been as fortunate as Spain, in terms of fan support. American Coach Wilmer Cabrera laments that the Nigerians have never gotten behind his team in their four matches, as the Americans took on popular international powers Spain and Italy, and African side, Malawi. "Anywhere we were in this tournament, the fans were supporting the other teams, but that is okay. That is not our problem. They do not play, they did not defend, and they did not stop the chances for us to score," he said.
Despite the lack of support for the American team on the field, the U.S. players were quick to point out that the Nigerians had been very friendly to them, as well. Forward Alex Shinsky says the image the players will take home with them is that of the jubilant fans waving at them as they made their way in and out of stadiums in Kano, Ijebu-Ode, and Kaduna. "They have been very nice and everything has been well organized. It has been nice to see them waving and just being very friendly. They are very friendly to me and it has just been a great experience," he said.
Midweek elimination-round matches have further pared the field at the competition, which began with 24 teams on October 24. The final will be played on November 15 in Abuja.