Nigeria or do we say Super Eagles have been to six World Cup tournaments with the respective footballers as youngest squad members. Sunday Oliseh 19 years in USA ’94, Celestine Babayaro 19 years in France ’98, Femi Opabunmi 17 years in Korea/Japan 2002, Lukman Haruna 20 years in South Africa 2010, Kenneth Omeruo 20 years in Brazil 2014 and Francis Uzoho 19 years in the recently concluded Russia 2018 World Cup.
How far the retired trio of Oliseh, Babayaro and Opabunmi went we all know….and how far Lukman, Omeruo and Uzoho will go or are going we are watching or waiting to see. But truth remains that those whose true ages we knew before they got into the national were exceptional in their careers both at club and national team.
Few days ago, the National U-15 male football team, popularly called “Future Eagles” won silver in the just concluded African Youth Games in Morocco.
Those who were present in the Magreb country and witnessed the performance of the boys say truly they will be ready and good for the Super Eagles in few years time. But will they be allowed to fulfil this dream or “prophecy”? Certainly not. They will likely go the way other teenage sensations with potential of featuring in the Super Eagles went. Get blown away by the dirty and ugly tsunami of our system and football.
Few days ago, Yours Sincerely started a campaign on CATCH THEM YOUNG with a question in post demanding commentators to name any Nigerian footballer who played the U17 World Cup, U20 World Cup, Olympics, AFCON and the World Cup. The whole idea is to remind those running our football of the progression of teenagers discovered early enough to form the nucleus of the senior national team. Interestingly, yet shockingly just two names were mentioned by most of the respondents. They are Super Eagles captain, John Obi Mikel and Chinedu Ogbuke-Obasi. The rest either didn’t get the chance of playing in the U-20 World Cup or the Olympics or the AFCON. This most times naturally rules them out of playing at the World Cup. The end result is that Nigeria don’t get to parade talents who can help the nation excel in the mundial.
The world saw Kylian Mbappe and what he did in Russia. At just 19, he helped France to rule the world. His blistering pace, athleticism and talent propelled Les Bleus as he anchored every counter-attacking move resulting to great goals leading his team to triumph.
Mbappe succeeded in telling the world or rather reminding the world that the future of football lies on the feet and energy of teenagers. He was simply outstanding and too hot for defenders to handle. He had so much energy, passion and talent to spare thus, out-smarting bigger, more muscularly-built and older opponents cum defenders. He was indeed a handful. That is what youthfulness brings to the sport.
Sadly, Nigeria has had the privilege of producing great kids who get swallowed by the system. Nduka Ugbade led his colleagues at age 15 in 1985 to China ’85 FIFA Cadet Tournament triumph. He was at the FIFA U-20 World Cup in Saudi ’89 four years later at age 19. The team won silver in that championship. By 1994 when Ugbade was ripe enough for the World Cup in USA which Nigeria was debuting at, he was ignored. He was swallowed by the system. He would have placed Nigeria on football world map as the first country to produce a footballer to play the U-17, U-20 and senior World Cup but the country threw the opportunity away.
Yes, blame should go to the system which throws up all sorts of cobwebs and potholes depriving talented kids the opportunity of playing up to the zenith of their careers. The bribe scandal of Super Eagles assistant coach. Salisu Yusuf as revealed by an undercover reporter buttresses this point. It is part of the potholes and cobwebs hindering the growth of football by way of encouraging progression of talents and teenagers discovered.
In a situation whereby a 15-year old or his guardian is asked to provide two million naira (N2m) to be invited into the age grade teams cannot yield anything good for football. If they can’t afford such amount, the talent is wasted. He starts roaming the streets and tempted by societal vices and ills.
Sadly, players who even excel at age grade tournaments or championships are dumped immediately after such competitions. The senior national team coaches often times give “inexperience” and “too young” as excuses for such unprofessional and unproductive act.
But when Kelechi Nwakali the captain of Golden Eaglets to the victorious FIFA U-17 World Cup in 2015 (displayed the kind of performance the world applauded Mbappe for in Russia) in the international friendly against Congo DR even Gernot Rohr asked his staff and scouts why and how they missed the Arsenal player.
There is also Victor Osimhen who dazzled the world at the U-17 World Cup in 2015. The young chap is with VFL Wolfsburg in the Bundesliga but was seen as immature for Russia. Truth is players like Nwakali and Osimhen should have been part of the Russian party.
This shows the manner young players are left out in the cold while the national team suffers of lack of talented youths to drive the team to greater heights. We have heard tales of how Obafemi Martins was ignored when he went for open trial with the Golden Eaglets years back. He was literally chased away on ground that he was “too small”. Same story was told by Nigeria-born Togolese international, Emmanuel Adebayor when he went to the Golden Eaglets camp. It was the anger that led him to take up Togo nationality but still adores Nigeria.
We however cannot hide from the fact that most of these youth team players are overaged and by the time they are coming into the senior national team, they are non-productive because diminishing return sets in. Their ages pop up all manners of issues especially injuries. Most injuries they sustain at that point are career threatening. Once they get injured, that’s the end of their careers. It happened to Phillip Osondu who many looked up to after his form at Canada ’87 U-17 World Cup and in the U-20 World Cup in Saudi ’89. After that he went into a cooler.
Chrisantus Macaulay of the 2007 U-17 World Cup and Sani Emmanuel of the 2009 U-17 World Cup got blown away.
Ironically, Macaulay who is 27 now just signed another one year deal with a Finnish side for the new season. This is a player who is supposed to be part of Super Eagles campaign in Russia given his age.
So who is to blame for throwing up these kind of players who will shine at U-17 level but fizzle out when they are supposed to anchor the Super Eagles? Of course, those who take bribe to bring in overaged players at the cadet level and those who make it mandatory for the Golden Eaglets coaches to win the U-17 World Cup if they must remain on the job or move up.
We must remember that CATCH THEM YOUNG must be our watchword if we want to make any meaningful impact in Qatar 2022 or in the 2026 World Cup to be co-hosted by USA, Mexico and Canada.
Many forgot that the French U-20 team that won the FIFA U-20 World Cup some five years ago had three players in the all conquering Les Bleus squad of Russia 2018 FIFA World Cup. They are Paul Pogba, Samuel Umtiti and Florian Thauvin. That is the real essence of CATCH THEM YOUNG and allowing a progression of the players from cadet level to senior team.
Let’s CATCH THEM YOUNG…..Let’s allow the progression!
By Desmond Ekwueme