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Draw vaults Japan into Group F supremacy

Japan 0 * Nigeria 0

It was hello and goodbye all rolled into a noisy and exuberant cauldron of football fanaticism yesterday as Japan and Nigeria played to a scoreless draw before a capacity crowd of 11,400 at Royal Athletic Park in the battle for Group F supremacy in the FIFA 2007 Under-20 World Cup.

The result gave Japan the group title and perk of staying in the genteel embrace of the B.C. capital, where it will meet Group E runner-up Czech Republic in a Round of 16 playoff game at 8:15 p.m. Wednesday in RAP.

But the green Nigerian party machine -- the army of trumpets, drums, cymbals and ardent supporters -- has packed its bags as the party is headed to Ottawa.

Swartz Bay ferry terminal and Victoria airport may never be the same after today when these guys pass through on their merry way to the nation's capital. That's where their beloved Flying Eagles, as Group F runners-up, will play Group B runner-up Zambia on Thursday in an all-African Round of 16 match-up between Commonwealth rivals at Frank Clair Stadium.

"I'll say 'hi' to Stephen Harper for you," quipped Pete Songhurst of Victoria, the Nigerian team liaison officer, who will accompany the squad to Ottawa.

"The Nigerians loved Victoria and wanted to stay. But they needed a win to do that and they got a tie, but that's sports."

Both Japan and Nigeria finished with two wins and a tie in the Group F standings. The first tiebreaker, goal differential, was also tied at plus-three. Japan took the group title on the second tie-breaker, 4-3 on goals scored.

"Victoria was a very hospitable host and supported us well and we hope to see you again," said Yusuff Waheed of Lagos, national president of the Nigerian football supporters club.

All of us [hundreds of green-clad Nigerian supporters] will follow the team to Ottawa. This is a passion for us."

Japan plays a suffocating style -- they don't allow the opposition much time on the ball -- but yesterday's game was still decent for a scoreless match.

"It was a good match . . . it showed that both teams are good," said Nigerian head coach Ladan Bosso.

Yet it wasn't so much the game, but the fervency and energy of the crowd, that made the afternoon so unforgettable as Japan did what it needed to do to avoid travelling three time zones.

"The talk in the dressing room was we needed at least a tie," said Japan head coach Yasushi Yoshida.

"Now we get to continue playing where we are comfortable and where we feel we will be able to prepare very well for our next match [Wednesday against the Czechs]."

"The winner of the Japan-Czech Republic game, which closes out play in Victoria, will advance to the quarter-finals at Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton.


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