Just like hosts India at the U17 World Cup, Niger are making their first-ever appearance in a FIFA competition. No wonder coach Soumaila Tiemogo has a sense of pride when talking about the team's participation in the tournament as he meets the press for the time before their opener against DPR Korea.
"This will improve the image of Niger as a country playing football," he says. Though they have been drawn in the same group as Brazil and Spain, Tiemogo says his team will fight with "rigour".
At first sight, the Junior Mena, as they are called, seem to have a fair number of big players -- which should help them make up a bit for what they lack in creativity and finesse. The players looked raw in training. Loose first touches and wobbly passes showed a casual approach that left one feeling that for them this tournament could be more about cherishing the occasion than competing.
"We will enjoy our very first World Cup, which is already historic, and continue our dream that will lead us to the title we hope," Tiemogo told ESPN. A former captain of the senior national team, he took up coaching after retirement and was Niger's director of football in 1995. He also heads the Atcha Academie training centre these days.
Niger surprised many by making it to this World Cup, which they did by virtue of reaching the semi-finals of the African qualifiers. Along the way they eliminated Nigeria -- the African powerhouse who have won the U-17 World Cup five times, including the last two editions, and reached the final eight times. It was seen as quite an achievement, especially since Niger's senior team are yet to make it past the FIFA qualifiers. They also failed to qualify for the last two Africa Cup of Nations.
A French-speaking, football-loving country, Niger has been plagued with financial insecurities. And the predominantly desert terrain makes it hard for football to blossom. All of which only shows how impressive Tiemogo's work has been with this young team. "The passion for football is growing and it goes beyond the vagaries of the climate," he says. "Nigerien youth are very motivated and love football."
As they were about to board their flight to Kochi, all the players formed a circle and said a prayer. They will do the same before taking on DPR Korea on Saturday. And though these players will need more than prayers to progress in the World Cup, all they want to do at this moment in time is to play.