The FIFA Under-17 World Cup is set to begin in Nigeria on Saturday, after months of speculation over whether the country would be ready in time to host the biennial youth football (soccer) tournament.<!-- IMAGE -->
The second major FIFA youth football tournament of the year will kick off Saturday in Nigeria when the host Golden Eaglets play Germany on the opening day of the Under-17 World Cup.
But rather than celebrating Nigeria's status as not only host nation but also defending champion of this event, local organizers and FIFA officials alike will instead be holding their collective breath, hoping that the country pulls through the three-week long tournament without any major problems.
In closing the Under-20 World Cup in Egypt last Friday, FIFA President Sepp Blatter sounded less than assured in wishing the best to Nigeria as host of the Under-17 event, in what he described as the African year of football.
"We made a special effort for Africa because it is really the African year. We made a special effort towards the World Cup here in order to really have Africa in the focus," said Blatter. "And I only hope, and I express good wishes, that your friends and brothers in Nigeria, they will do us the same superb job that Egypt has done in the U-20, and they should do it in the Under-17, and it will be at the same level, the right African level."
Blatter's doubts about Nigeria's hosting capacities have been made explicit in recent months, based over a year of debate and threats of moving the tournament, during which the country did just enough to avoid the embarrassment of being replaced as host.
Throughout the more than year-long preparatory process, FIFA reports indicated that the Nigerians were well behind schedule in assuring that the proper infrastructure would be in place to host the event. As recently as two weeks ago, FIFA was still suggesting that the tournament might have to be moved.
During the Under-20 World Cup in Egypt, FIFA vice-president Jack Warner warned that Nigeria was not ready.
"This will serve as a catalyst to help Nigeria to be ready, to improve itself, to look at the organization, to look at the quality of the facilities, and therefore I hope this will serve as a kind of stepping stone for Nigeria to be ready," he said. "Because as I speak to you, Nigeria is not yet fully ready, so I hope some of this will be passed on to Nigeria to force them to be ready in time."
Major concerns over delays in the construction of facilities, including stadium updates and practice fields at a number of the eight venues spread across the country, seem to have been resolved at the last moment. But security is still an issue after a warning in June by the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta rebels suggesting that the safety of visiting teams and fans could not be assured.
Despite the worries, the decision was made to press on with Nigeria as host. FIFA's hope is that the off-field problems will not affect play, and that the tournament can proceed with some semblance of normalcy.
Participating teams, in the meantime, are trying to focus on football, and hoping not to be distracted by the environment off the field. Wilmer Cabrera is the coach of the American Under-17 team.
"We are prepared to go to Nigeria. We have been talking about Nigeria since two years ago when I came over here," said Cabrera. "We have been talking about Nigeria and we are going to go to Nigeria. It is a lot of words about moving, moving, but we are prepared to go to Nigeria. We are mentally ready to go to Nigeria and we are going to be OK because we are going to go to play soccer. That is our job. That is what we love and we are happy to do. Because FIFA is going to take care of the rest of the things around and we are just go to play."
Nevertheless, off-field issues will prevent the tournament from becoming the international celebration that FIFA World Cups usually represent. Spectators, including members of the players' families, are largely expected to stay away.
American player Earl Edwards says the security situation is particularly foreboding for the families of the American players.
"I think the issue with Nigeria is more something the parents and other people have focused on, and the coaching staff," said Edward. "But from the standpoint of the team I think all of us really are not worried about where we are going to play. We are all going to perform no matter where it is and we really have not let that get to us at all."
Despite all the controversy and concern, FIFA executive Warner says he hopes for the best in Nigeria, as part of the series of events designed by FIFA to test African organizational capacities leading up to the World Cup in South Africa next year.
"FIFA has agreed that in 2009 and 2010, the African continent will have its major competitions, and therefore each competition is designed to assist the other, and to build over the African image," added Warner.
The 2009 FIFA Under-17 World Cup begins Saturday, when Argentina takes on Honduras in the opening match in Abuja, immediately followed by Nigeria's opener against Germany. The final of the 24-team tournament will be played November 15 in Abuja.