The ongoing U-20 African Cup of Nations has been most revealing in many ways. Only eight countries qualified for the competition which has already produced the four African representatives. They are Nigeria, South Africa, Burundi, Niger, Senegal, Mali, Ghana and Burkina Faso.
The Senegalese have been amazing in the competition by recording three wins in three preliminary games including the 2-0 win against Ghana which earned them a ticket to the FIFA World Cup in Poland and the 5-1 win over Burkina Faso in the last Group match. No doubt, the Senegalese are the most consistent so far and they are in pole position to emerge the champions of Africa in a competition Nigeria has won eight times, more than any other country on the continent. The Flying Eagles under coach Paul Aigbogun, have not been consistent.
After a good start of 2-0 win over Burundi, the team played a goalless draw against South Africa and in the last match, it was a lacklustre 1-0 win over host Niger. We know Nigeria is a strong force in age grade football at global level but over the years the country is yet to join the big guns at the senior level.
The best effort was the feat achieved by the golden generation of Eagles in 1994 when the Super Eagles were named as the 5th best team in the world and also the most entertaining team in the world. Stephen Keshi, Emmanuel Amuneke, Samson Siasia, Celestine Babayaro, Alloy Agu and Mutiu Adepoju were some of the products of age grade football that contributed greatly to the success of the ’94 team that won the Nations Cup in Tunisia and took the world by storm at the World Cup in USA. However, the objective of the Federation of International Football (FIFA) for age grade tournaments is secondary in Nigeria and most African countries.
FIFA’s objective is to provide a template for a smooth transition into the senior cadre of the respective age category. For example, the U-17 team players should graduate to the U-20 cadre while U-20 should move to U-23 with ease and also to the Super Eagles. FIFA’s objective works well in Europe and other parts but not so in Nigeria. Ronaldinho, Messi, Neymar, Isco, De Gea, Hazard are some of the top players who excelled at age grade level and transited into the senior team in style.
Top junior players in the country’s age grade football history like Godwin Okpara, Bawa Abdulahi, Jimoh Balogun, Philip Osondu, Isaac Success, Kelechi Iheanacho, Chris Ohenhen, Chris Nwosu, Dimeji Lawal, Nosa Osadolor, Adeolu Adekola, Cristansus Macaulay, Taiwo Awoniyi and Victor Osihmen did not flourish as expected at senior level. We recall football legend, Pele, years back predicted that Godwin Okpara of Nigeria would rise to become one of the best defenders in the world.
This did not happen just as many other promising stars failed to make it to the senior level or global limelight. The ongoing U-20 African Nations Cup is a case study. Senegal has a very rich football culture that embraces transition from one cadre of the national team to the other.
Football in recent time has developed in Senegal and Morocco because of the emphasis placed on grassroots development. It was not a surprise that Morocco won the last edition of the African Nations Championship (CHAN). We make bold to say that the sad aspect of the country’s age grade football system is that when the team fails to win at African level or fails to do well at global stage, the entire generation of footballers are abandoned. The U-20 players handled by Emmanuel Amuneke failed to make it to the World Cup and today we do not even hear about all the players again.
There should be a system in place such that win or lose, the talented players in the age grade teams are noted to play roles in top flight national team football. Coach John Obuh who handled the U-17 team that lost in the final to Switzerland in 2009 when Nigeria hosted the FIFA U-17 World Cup stressed that emphasis should be on development. We appreciate the qualification of the Coach Aigbogun boys for the U-20 World Cup slated for Poland later in the year, but it is clear that the team is not ready for the tournament.
The attack is weak and the midfield is not creative enough to help the forward line. We are not looking at the semi-final outcome of Nigeria against Mali or the Senegal vs South Africa fixture or the eventual winner of the tournament, rather, we charge the football authorities to fortify the team for the World Cup and also monitor the matches to ensure the talented ones move to the U-23 team. There should be deliberate effort to get the best players in the age-grade teams to move up and be useful to the country.
For example, we believe the players at the ongoing U-20 Nations Cup in Niger should be monitored and groomed to take over the Super Eagles in the next three to four years. That is the ideal situation. Nigeria is blessed with abundant talents at all levels but the management of these players to be among the best in the world is the problem the Nigeria Football Federation will have to figure out.