Nigeria’s ‘Deceptive’ Youth Football Development

LAGOS – There is something very no­ticeable between Nigeria and Brazil. Both countries have the bragging rights of being the most successful Na­tions in the FIFA U-17 World Cup and the main World Cup respec­tively.

But one thing that is strikingly remarkable about the South Amer­ican nation is that while they hold sway as the best country in the FIFA World Cup, they achieved the feats without commensurate success in the FIFA U-17 World Cup and even U20.

And incidentally, virtually all the players that helped the Samba nation achieved the toga of serial world champions since the 80s, fea­tured at the cadet World Cup for the same country.

What is the difference? Brazil fully understood and still under­stand the place of FIFA age group competitions as a platform for nur­turing future stars.

Put differently, Brazil and other countries in South America and Europe hold firmly to the main reason FIFA came up with age group competitions.

The U-17 and U20 World Cups were introduced by FIFA to bridge the deficit occasioned by dearth of players for both clubs and na­tional teams. To countries who understand this fact, the empha­sis is not solely to win these age grade championships but to dis­cover players that would replace the aging ones.

But contrary is the case with Nigeria. While Nigeria are the most successful nation at the U-17 tournament, the primary stage of FIFA developmental programme, with five titles, Brazil is not.

The recent awful performance of the Flying Eagles and, to a very large extent, the Golden Eaglets at the WAFU tournament has thrown up more questions than answers on the sincerity of Nigerian youth football policy as regards the true ages of player.

This position is premised on the fact that the country’s dominance at the youth level both in Africa and the world has not impacted much on the Super Eagles, which should be the final beneficiary of the advantages accrued from the age grade competitions.

In fact, when Edson Arantes do Nascimento, popularly known as Pele, predicted in 1985, after Nige­ria’s first U-16 World Cup win, that at the turn of that century, Africa would win the World Cup, little did he know that his prediction will not come to pass almost half a century when it was made. Ni­geria has even won four more U17 titles, but these successes have not impacted positively on the Super Eagles.

Like said earlier, the reason FIFA introduced age grade com­petitions in 1977 was to develop the game through the discovery of tal­ents early in life who will then be nurtured to play at the senior level.

In line with the ideal of the underage tournaments, several players have been spotted and have gone ahead to make waves at the senior cadre. The likes of Argen­tina legend, Late Diego Armando Maradona, and his countryman, Lionel Messi, Oleg Salenko, Luis Figo, Emil Kostadinov, Proscine­ski, Boban, Rui Costa and Marco Van Basten, among others, were spotted at the age grade compe­titions, even as some, if not all of them, did not win anything at those developmental levels.

WhatsApp CTA

Andre Iniesta, Fernando Tor­res, Xavi, Ike Casila, all Spanish nationals were all product of un­derage championship who won the World Cup in 2010 in South Africa.

These countries believe that the reason for the introduction of age grade tournaments was for discov­ery of talents, hence no emphasis on winning.

Of the 23 players that conquered the world for France at the World Cup in Russia in 2018, only a few of them have not played at any under­age tourney. It should be noted that France won their first and only U17 and U20 FIFA World Cups in Trinidad and Tobago and Turkey in 2001 and 2013 respectively.

Hugo Lloris, their first choice goalkeeper in Russia, debuted for his country at the U-18 team on 11 March 2004 in a friendly match against Germany. Later, he played for the U-19 team that won the 2005 European U-19 Cup. But he never won the FIFA World Cup at those levels. Samuel Umtiti, who won the World Cup in Russia, was a product of the U-17 having repre­sented France at the U-17 to U-21 levels.

Benjamin Mendy was an inte­gral part of the French U-16 and U-17. He was a member of the France U-17 team that reached the quarter-finals at the 2011 FIFA U-17 World Cup. Blaise Matuidi has represented France at U-19 and U-21 levels but not even a global title at that level he could boast of.

Other players that won the 2018 World Cup like Oliver Giroud, Ky­lian Mbappe, Antoine Griezmann, N’golo Kante, and Steven Nzozi, among so many of them, played for France at the cadet levels without any title to show for their exploits because France didn’t lay empha­sis on winning but on developing future talents for the Less Blues and various clubs in Europe. And rightly too, these players are the ones making waves at major clubs in Europe.

One wonders why they rule the waves while Nigeria with sever­al successes at the youth cadre, which best outing was a second round performance at the World Cup.

France, like other European countries, understand that age group tourneys are avenues to dis­cover talents and expose them to international football early in life.

Eye brows have been raised as a result of Nigeria’s successes from within and outside the country.

Raul Gutierres, the coach of Mexico, whom Nigeria defeated twice in 2013 to win their fourth FIFA U-17 title, expressed serious reservation about the true age of Golden Eaglets players, saying that they were doing things no real U-17 could do.

“It’s the same with the Nigeria team, so with Mali, that beyond their physical development, deci­sions made by many of their play­ers are not of an U-17 player,’’ the coach told then.

Lending credence to Gutierres’ position, a look at how the success of the Golden Eaglets has not im­pacted on the Super Eagles, or even the Flying Eagles and the U23 Eagles will throw more light on the ugly part of Nigerian football.

With five triumphs at the U17 level, it will be unthinkable to re­alize that Nigeria is still search­ing for its first gold medal at the U20 level, even as all the countries deploy virtually the same set of players used at the cadet level to the U20 level.

According to SUNDAY INDE­PENDENT research, ninety per­cent of Nigerian players’ peak at the time they play the cadet cham­pionship, meaning that the players start experiencing diminishing returns when their performance should have been at awesome level.

Adokie Amiesimaka, former Super Eagles winger, said more on these sometimes ago, while ac­cusing the Nigeria Football Feder­ation (NFF) of complicit because age cheats, he noted, give the coun­try advantage.

“Stanley Okoro, for instance, has no business in that team (2009 U17 World Cup in Nigeria), which everybody knows; he cannot be anything less than 33 or 34,” Ame­siemaka, while criticizing the age of Nigerian players at the World cup.

“Olarenwaju Kayode was also my player in the Sharks feeder team in 2002, he played alongside Fortune Chukwudi, both of them were mates, he too cannot be less than 29 or 30. Abdul Ajagun was one of the highest goal scorers in the league.

“He was also in Command Sec­ondary School in Kaduna or so, he dropped out of school in SSS2 in the 1990s and so cannot be U-20.”

The 1980 Africa Cup of Nations winner said further: “age grade teams are meant to help develop a serious senior national team, but we are not doing that.

“I passed through the age grade level, I played for my secondary school, played for the Lagos team in the National Sports Festival, I played for the national academ­icals team, and I played for the university and the senior nation­al team. I went through a process and that is how it should be, that is the truth.”

Anthony Kojo Williams, former NFA chairman, spared no words in condemning the trend when he granted interview on the issue sometimes ago.

“I don’t see Nigerian football getting out of the quagmire, the problem it is in, today, is because corruption is getting deeper and deeper.

“From time to time we get flash­es where we do well in some com­petitions with overage players and we celebrate.

“That was one of the issues I looked at; we can’t keep using overage players. We used over-age players for junior championships, I know that. Why not say it?

“It’s the truth. We always cheat. It’s a fact. When you cheat, you de­prive the young stars that are sup­posed to play in these competitions their rights.”

A player cannot play beyond a certain age and that has been the case with Nigeria moving from the U17 to the Super Eagles via the Fly­ing Eagles and the U23 Eagles.

Chrisantus Macaulay, who won the Golden Boot at the 2007 U17 World Cup in South Korea, for example, has since faded out. Meanwhile, Bojan Krkic, who played in that same tournament, had won the Champions’ League with Barcelona; while Toni Kroos had gone on to win the World Cup and Champions League. Kroos was 20 when he made his debut for Germany. He won the Golden Ball at that U17 World Cup in Korea in 2007, which Nigeria won.

Nigeria’s Dele Ajiboye’ who saved two penalties in the final match of the same competition, is a fringe goalkeeper of the Super Eagles, even as his opposite num­ber in that final, David De Gea of Spain, is Manchester United’s very dependable goalkeeper and Spain first choice at the last World Cup in Russia.

Of that squad that played and won the 2007 U17 World Cup, it was only Lukman Haruna, who was able to break into the Super Eagles, but later struggled and eventually eclipsed by real young­er players.

Figo played Under-20 in 1991 and only just retired in 2013, even though he did not excel at the U17 level.

Xavi, Casillas, Robbie Keane, Ashley Cole, Santa Cruz, Seydu Keita, Ronaldinho, etc. played in Nigeria ‘99 U20 World Cup where they emerged champions but none of the players had earlier won the U17.

But Nigerian players at the Nigeria ’99 fizzled out as quickly as they appeared. Players such as Pius Ikedia, Julius Aghahowa, who won silver and bronze ball, ended their senior careers in 2002, even though Joseph Yobo was able to make it to 2014.

Sani Emmanuel, it will be re­membered, was voted the best player at the FIFA U17 tourney in Nigeria, in 2009. While Ogenyi Onazi and Kenneth Omeruo, who were initially fringe players in that U17 team, found their ways into the Super Eagles, the Nigeria 2009 MVP lost it all, supposedly due to poor age management.

The cases before or after these ones also look quite startling and discouraging.

Going further, Phillip Osondu was the best player at the 1987 U-17 World Cup, after which he was signed by Anderlecht, only to drift out of the game after ques­tions were raised about his age.

What then is the problem? “Righteousness exalts a nation: but sin is a reproach to any peo­ple,” admonishes the Holy Bible in Proverbs 14 v 34.

Chief Adegboye Onigbinde, a two time former Super Eagles coach and a former FIFA and CAF technical committee mem­ber blames the Nigeria Football Federation for it.

Onigbinde described adminis­tration of Nigerian football as a disaster on the premise that those running it were the ones ruining it, premising his assertion on the deliberate action of the adminis­trators to see to the nonexistence of the Technical Department.

“We are not developing our foot­ball,” he said in an interview with Saturday Independent sometimes ago.

“There is no developmental programme in this country, yet we want to qualify for every com­petition and also do well.

“All we need to do now is start developing our football and you cannot do that without a function­al technical department.

“Football is a technical matter and in this country, we have rele­gated the technical aspect to the background.

“Developmental football has become a thing of the past in Ni­geria. The Glasshouse is no more interested in raising players for the future, which is why we only have tired legs in our national team today. What we have today are average players; none of them is exceptionally good like we had in the past.

“Our football administrators are only after what gets into their pockets,’ he continued. ‘I stand to be corrected, but I can’t remember the last time the NFA sent our na­tional team coaches on training.

“A country like Egypt has sent well over 560 of her coaches on training and Ghana has sent more than 200 in recent time, yet we ex­pect Nigerian coaches to perform magic.

“Nigerian football has no foun­dation, there’s no developmental programme, you cannot get it right unless you do it the right way, the administrators should sit down and re-organise their admin­istrative set up,” he said.

The win at all cost syndromes have been blamed for the use of over aged players at the age grade tourneys.

“When the only thing the NFF understands is winning, how will the coaches not go for players that he knows will win him the title,” said a coach who pleaded anonym­ity.

“Until we de-emphasise win­ning at the age grade and see them as avenues for discovering and de­veloping talents, we will continue to witness such failures at the se­nior cadre.

“The press is also not helping matters. When the media start giv­ing these players too much public­ity when they have not achieved anything, when parents see the national team as an avenue of escaping poverty, then the rest is better imagined,” the coach noted.

“The ownership structure of the football clubs has to a great extent not helped matters. These clubs are owed by state govern­ments and they are not interested in developing talents. The clubs are supposed to have feeder teams but how many of them truly have it?

“The governors want the clubs to achieve success at the shortest possible time because they are an avenue of shoring up the gover­nor’s image.”

True to this position, those ap­pointed by the governors are to a great extent neophytes in foot­ball administration. Their only interest is lining their pockets and travelling so as to get their estacodes.

It is obvious that Nigeria, over the years, has been celebrating mediocrity over excellence. The country has deployed all strengths to celebrate its inability to see be­yond its noses and learn from the mistakes of the past, particularly when Nigeria was banned in 1989 over the same issue.

In every U17 World Cup we won, we pop up champagnes and cele­brate 22 men, who muscled their way over who should ordinarily be their juniors. Consequently, the Super Eagles, which should be the eventual beneficiary of the Golden Eaglets’ conquest, have been left even more miserable due to dearth of quality players.

Read the Source post on Independent Newspapers Nigeria.