KOCHI: When the Niger team came out for training at Fort Kochi Veli ground on Wednesday evening, a huge crowd had gathered.
Making their debut in the FIFA U-17 World Cup, the Africans never expected such a turnout and the players were instructed by team officials to greet the crowd as a mark of respect. Little did they know that the crowd had actually assembled hearing rumours that Brazil was going to train.
“We know that people here like Spain and Brazil. They adore these teams. When they turned up to watch us, we felt so good. Our players greeted the public as a gesture of thanks and respect,” said Abdel Malik A Koudizé, Niger’s media officer, still in the dark over the reason behind the buzz.
And even if they knew what it was about, they would have taken it, for their footballers are not used to such adulation even back home.
Situated near Libya and Nigeria, Niger has lived through a collapsing economy, desertification, poverty and poor healthcare. Football doesn’t feature on the top of their priorities. Eighty percent of Niger is covered by Sahara desert and it is one of the lowest-ranked countries in the United Nation’s Human Development Index (187).
Football is concentrated in urban pockets. Of 14 premier division clubs, 10 are in capital Niamey. No club from anywhere else has won premier division titles and leading players are based in and around the capital city, although a majority of the population lives in rural areas. The country depends a lot on foreign donations to tide over the financial woes.
In the backdrop of concerns, footballers often find it tough to make a living out of playing. “It’s difficult to earn a living from football. Not much money is associated. It’s just passion that keeps players going,” said Malik.
However, he felt a wind of change is blowing after Colonel Major Djibrilla Hima Hamidou took over as president of the football federation in 2009.
“His emphasis was on developing a team for the future. In 2010, we hosted and won the UEMOA tournament between nations, who are members of the West African Economic and Monetary Union. The senior team qualified for the African Cup of Nations twice,” Malik said.
When Niger qualified for the African Cup of Nations for the first time in 2011, each player was awarded 3 million CFA francs (roughly $5359 or `3.5 lakh). All the players of the current U-17 team study in a Turkish school in Niamey. Malik said this was done to create bonding among the boys.
Their pre-competition preparations were held in Niamey and in Morocco, the only foreign stopover, where they played two friendlies. Still, they believe they can overcome handicaps with collective effort. The new few days will tell.