The best yardstick to measure the standard of sports in a country is to evaluate the development going on at schools and grassroots level. Only during the week, the Athletic Federation of Nigeria announced that the All Comers event will be staged this weekend in Akure, Ondo State.
This is a way of starting the calendar year from the grassroots and looking at the prospective athletes who could join the elite ones in the nearest future. Interestingly, plans are also at an advanced stage to organize the National Principals’ Cup football competition for all secondary schools in the country. The ministry of sports in collaboration with HideaPlus Limited is planning big to make the event entertaining.
There are also plans by Pace Sports Entertainment Marketing Company to stage the Higher Institution Football League involving all tertiary schools in the country. The National Sports Festival and the Youth Games are also being planned to come up depending on the approval of the Presidential Task Force for COVID-19. With a good template for development and catch them young initiative, football coaches especially in the Nigeria Professional Football League are expected to feast on these competitions to boost the strength of their teams or to inject fresh blood that could grow with their teams.
If the system works well with these competitions just as we have them in the past, the NPFL will enjoy supply of raw talents on a regular basis. The inclusion of home-based players in the senior national team has always been a big issue. Current manager, Gernot Rohr, has been heavily criticised for not bringing in players from the domestic league into the Super Eagles. People have different views about this especially because almost 95 per cent of players invited for the last international match against Sierra Leone came from abroad.
However, earlier in the New Year, the African Nations Championship for home-based players started in Cameroon and Nigeria was absent from the list of finalists. Nigeria also failed to qualify for the first two editions in 2009 and 201. Cameroon, Zimbabwe, Mali, Burkina Faso, DR Congo, Congo, Rwanda, Uganda, Guinea, Namibia, Niger, Tanzania, Togo, Libya, Morocco and Zambia qualified for the competition. Togo edged Nigeria out in the qualifiers.
The home-based Eagles lost first leg 4-1 in Togo before winning 2-0 at the Agege Stadium, thus crashing out 4-3 on aggregates. In 2014, Nigeria finished third in South Africa and in 2016, the country failed to progress from the group stage in Rwanda after losing the last group game 1-0 to Guinea. The country got to the final in 2018, losing to hosts, Morocco, in the final In the 2014 CHAN, Ejike Uzoenyi was voted the best player of the tournament. He went ahead to make it to the World Cup in Brazil with the Super Eagles.
Others who were in the 2014 team were Dele Alampasu, Shehu Abdulahi, Kunle Odunlami, Gbolahan Salami, Azubuike Egwuekwe. At Rwanda 2016, striker Chisom Chikatara of Abia Warriors emerged highest scorer in the competition with four goals. He recorded a hat-trick in the 4-1 victory over Niger in the first game and one goal in 1-1 draw against Tunisia in the second game. Ezekiel Bassey who at one time signed for Barcelona was part of the 2016 team.
It is really bad that the country was unable to take part. It also gave Rohr the justification to further neglect the domestic league players. The system also has a big fault. The domestic league has no calendar. The league starts anytime the organisers, League Management Company, deem fit.
This has been the case even before the challenges COVID -19 is giving the entire world. The inconsistencies in the organisation of the domestic league are also having a huge effect on the continental representatives every year. Plateau United and Enyimba, representatives of Nigeria in the CAF Champions League, crashed out early without making it to the group stage.
This was largely because while leagues in other countries are running, Nigerian league will be on break. In some cases, continental teams resume even with the league on break. The Nigeria Football Federation and the LMC will have to double their efforts and bring out a template to help improve the domestic league, make it attractive and rewarding for the players and coaches. Home-based players are also expected to up their game in the domestic league and continental games. They should be focused on how best to make a statement with every opportunity they have to showcase their talents.