In the past seven years, there has been a sharp decline in the fortunes of the country in age grade football. Administrators at the level of the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) and the Ministry of Sports come in and go without impacting positively on transition of players and sustenance of a system.
We believe there is a disconnect in the organisation of school football competitions at national level just as grassroots football is not taken seriously in the country. It is sad that some naturally gifted players in the streets of Warri, Delta State, Benin, Edo State, Ajegunle and Agege in Lagos State and other places rot away with their enormous talents without being identified and given exposure to get to the next level by the appropriate authorities.
We can recall that the declining fortunes saw the Eaglets and the Flying Eagles missing out of the FIFA World Cup at the U-17 and U-20 levels in 2020 for 2021 but as fate would have it the two tournaments were cancelled due to COVID-19. Qualifiers that used to be a smooth sail for the country’s youth teams had become something the players toiled and struggled to win no matter the quality of the opposition.
However, this year, there is a semblance of resurgence in the country’s national youth teams. The U-20 team, under the tutelage of Coach Ladan Bosso, travelled to Niger Republic for the WAFU B competition and emerged champions. The Flying Eagles defeated Ghana 2-0 and played 2-2 draw with Burkina Faso to book a semi slot where they defeated Cote d’Ivoire 2-1 to book a place in the final which was won 3-1 against Benin Republic. The team will now compete at the U-20 AFCON in Egypt next year to seek a ticket to play at the FIFA World Cup in Indonesia the same year.
A few weeks later, Nduka Ugbade led the U-17 team, the Golden Eaglets to Cape Coast, Ghana for the WAFU B contest for that cadre in the sub-region. The tournament turned out to be another huge success for Nigeria as the Eaglets recorded 100% performance by winning all their games.
The Ugbade boys defeated host Ghana 4-2 and whipped Togo 3-1 to book a place in the semis where the country defeated Cote d’Ivoire 3-1. In the final, the Eaglets came back from a goal down to pip Burkina Faso 2-1 and qualify for the U-17 AFCON slated for Algeria next year. The boys will be seeking to pick a ticket to play in the FIFA U-17 World Cup slated for Peru. However, the Eaglets coaches will have to work on the defence which concedes goals easily. While the NFF, the Ministry of Sports and the two teams should be praised for the seeming resurgence, we hereby point out that the task of picking a World Cup ticket is supreme.
We make bold to say that so many other factors should come into play now. There should be a database to keep records and monitor these players such that they could be exposed to become future superstars at club level and future World Cup stars in the national team. This time, efforts must be made to create a template for the next U-17 and U-20 teams while there should be a policy on how and when these players can start their professional careers. The NFF must be fully involved. No doubt, Nigeria is noted for her strong prowess in youth football across the world. The exploits of the country’s U-17 national team, the Golden Eaglets are enough indication. The Eagles have won the FIFA World Cup a record five times and till date Nigeria is the number one country in the all-time table of participating countries in this cadre of global football.
At the U-20 level, Nigeria has won silver twice and bronze as well but yet to win the trophy but the U-23 team has won gold, silver and bronze at the Olympic Games. These feats at youth levels should count for something in terms of development but it is not working that way over the years because players who come to limelight through the U-17 in most cases fail to go all the way to excel at the senior level especially in the Super Eagles. There are few exceptions in players like Nwankwo Kanu, Jonathan Akpoborie, Victor Ikpeba, Mobi Oparaku, Nduka Ugbade, Celestine Babayaro, Wilson Oruma, Kelechi Iheanacho, Taiwo Awoniyi and the most recent one is Victor Osimhen.
A greater percentage of players show so much promise from the cadet and U-17 level without making it in the U-20, U-23 teams or the Super Eagles. The problem of transition is a big one just as the country’s football and sports generally is being administered without a policy or template to be followed.
Going forward, we call on the football authorities to get the states and zones busy with grassroots tournaments good enough to identify hidden talents and expose them for future national assignments. The victories of U-17 and U-20 teams are enough to show the talents Nigeria possess in youth football. It is important to take it beyond this level and make the talents count at the senior level such that Nigeria would be among the best in the round leather game at the global stage.