By Ben Efe
As Nigeria begins the defence of the FIFA Under-17 World Cup today in Abuja, football fans hereÂ are anxious to see the team that has been assembled by coach John Obuh. Sink or swim, one player Nigerians are eager to see perform is Stanley Okoro.
Having been certified â€˜true under-17â€™ on two occasions by the Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) testing, Okoro has everything to prove to the world of football, most especially when he is the onlyÂ player that has achieved national recognition. Moreso he has a power packed left foot, which has earned him the sobriquet â€˜Little Messiâ€™.
Perhaps this is the real reason fans are looking out for this lad who was pivotal to the success Heartland of Owerri enjoyed in their local and continental campaigns. Okoro has three CAF Champions League goals to his credit.
Okoro, born and breed in Benin City, is a crafty left winger who cut his pro-football teeth with the famous Bendel Insurance FC, a club that has rich tradition and has produced players of international quality.
So fans who watched Okoro grow, had no problem concluding that this young lad is another Humphrey Edobor in the making. Edobor is a sleeky left side midfielder, who cuts through opposing defences like a knife through hot butter, then produces tailor made pull-outs and at some occasions, buries the ball with easy grace.
And so when last season, Heartland officials saw the huge potentials of this Okoro lad, they wasted no time in signing him and rightfully, he has produced some of the best football artistry in the local league, much to the admiration of home fans.
Today Okoro comes faces to face with reality as he leads Nigeria out to tackle Germany in the Group A opener of the FIFA Under-17 World Cup. It is like the weight of the world on the shoulders of the young blood, but he feels like he is equal to the task.
â€œIt is my wish to make a name for myself in this tournament. Nobody said it is going to be an easy task, because other teams are here to do their best too, but we wont let Nigeria down,â€ said Okoro after the Eagletsâ€™ warm-up friendly against Julius Berger last Tuesday in Lagos.
Eaglets assistant coach, Monday Odigie acknowledged the prowess of Okoro, who also has a brother Osaze, who is a regular with Bayelsa United.
Odigie a former youth international at the Chile 87 FIFA Under-20 World Cup, said that the Eaglets are banking on Okoro to produce magic in the tournament.
â€œOkoro has been very impressive, which is quite good for the team. We have hope that he and other experienced players can influence the rest of the team in the competition,â€ Odigie said.
Heartland officials are already basking in joy following the attention focused on their striker and they have backed the choice of Okoro as captain of the team.
â€œHe is an excellently gifted player. He is capable of inspiring the team to a good campaign at the Nigeria 2009 tournament. Like the rest of Nigerians, we are looking forward to seeing him do well,â€ said Heartland spokesman, Cajetan Nkwaopara.
However, skeptics are doubtful about the true age of the player even as the MRI test have proved that Okoro indeed is under-17. This is because of the high level of his soccer understanding. But Okoroâ€™s coach John Obuh dismissed such insinuations with the argument that Okoroâ€™s birth certificate and the MRI test are enough evidence to put to rubbish claims of him being overage.
The coach reasoned that if the great Pele of Brazil and Michael Owen of England at 17 years of age could break in and make impact with the senior national team, what is stopping Okoro from soaring at the Nigeria 2009 tournament where he would be contesting with his age group.
â€œI donâ€™t want to duel on such issues. It is my wish that these young players break into the national team in the next five years,â€Obuh said.