November 14, 2009

Paul, Eaglets’ dimunitive goal-tender

Dami Paul does not cut the most impressive figure between the pipes. Quite short for a goalkeeper, at only 173cm, he looks all at sea in the large white frame of the goal. However, Nigeria’s No1 has proven himself to be a top shot-stopper at these finals. His spring-loaded reflex saves kept the Spaniards at bay on two occasions in particular, making him every inch the unsung hero of the crucial 3-1 semi-final win in Lagos.

While sumptuous attackers Sani Emmanuel and Stanley Okoro are the ones grabbing all the headlines in the local media, the soft-spoken custodian is doing more than his fair share for the cause.

“We are a very offensive and aggressive team and we create a lot of scoring chances,” the diminutive net-minder told deep in the cement bowels of the Teslim Balogun Stadium. “We can still do a little better at taking our chances and we will need to be a little more clinical in the final,” he adds, stoking the fire for his colleagues in attack.

Spain’s finishers had been quite ruthless in their games leading up to the semi with the hosts, scoring a then tournament-best 16 goals. But it took the previously prolific La Rojita a full 83 minutes to finally find a way past Nigeria’s athletic and acrobatic net-minder. At that point the game was already beyond the Spaniards thanks, in large part, to a pair of reflex saves by Paul, first on Isco from close range and then from Pablo Sarabia. On both occasions, this spring-loaded little man between the pipes appeared to have thwarted odds-on goals. “I’m really glad to have made these saves, because if they managed to draw level or get an early goal it could have given them confidence.”

While the Nigerians have become renowned for their scintillating attacking play, the back line has been equally impressive, conceding only four goals in the last five games. Much of that is down to Paul and his stodgy mate in the centre-back position, captain Fortune Chukwudi. “We are very strong in defence, it’s true,” says Paul, who plays for Ousford Academy and admits to idolising Manchester United and Netherlands icon Edwin van der Sar. “We work very hard on it. It’s a matter of communication. We talk all the time and make sure we know where we need to be and where our teammates are. When we communicate well, we are very difficult to score against.”