Eaglets’ Niamey Failure: Need For Clubs Youth Programme
I sat there, hands on cheek, wondering what had gone wrong. A group of journalists from different countries at the recently concluded Africa Junior Championships in Niamey, Niger Republic were discussing Nigeria’s loss to South Africa in the semi finals.
They were unanimous in asserting that something was right about the squad Nigeria presented at the championships. They were convinced Nigeria could have done better if those right things were in place.
Then the questions started raining towards me: How do you scout players in Nigeria? Does Nigeria run a developmental league? Why is this team different from the 2013 set? Are these players attached to club sides in Nigeria?
My answers didn’t do justice to their questions (apparently) and I kept pondering as my thoughts wandered from basics to the near impossible.
Granted Nigeria has qualified for Chile 2015, which was the target set for the squad, there are still the question of a near absence of structured youth football development in the country.
The Nigeria Professional Football League (NPFL) season will start this weekend in centres across the country and despite the excitement, Niamey 2015 has thrown in some salient questions that is begging for answers. How does the elite league in Nigeria help in growing youth football? Have we implemented systems in place where talented youngsters can have a league that is structured to aid their development? Do our clubs have proper feeder teams and youth sides, which admits and trains players from adolescence to mid teenage years?
Findings show that of all the club sides in the NPFL and Nigeria National League (NNL), only City of David (COD) Football Club of Lagos have a structure that includes a ladies team, a reserve team and U-18s through to U-10s.
Lobi Stars is also believed to have a youth football team, which campaigns in the Nationwide League and this has translated to the Makurdi side being able to give a lot of the youngsters first team chances. However, theirs is simply a set-up to at times accommodate relatively young players, who failed to make it to the first team. The age categorization doesn’t seem to have formed a basis in their structure and neither has it been tailored to provide room for off-field formal education to very young players of school age.
All the other clubs are known to operate junior teams they call Feeder Teams, but which doesn’t necessarily translate to direct affiliation to the first team.
In South Africa, the Multichoice Diski Challenge was formed to provide a platform for players less than 21 years to have a league that can nurture them for first team football. This league comprises 16 teams that are representatives of the clubs in the Premier Soccer League. They are divided into two groups of eight and they play each other to qualify for the quarterfinal and semifinal stages.
Winners get all expenses paid trip to Holland for residential camping and exhibition games against teams from Germany and other European sides. But that is just grease off the surface.
The benefits are immense, as South Africa has shown the way forward in this regard. For the first time in their history, South Africa has qualified for virtually all the major competitions on the continent. This wasn’t by mistake; it was a carefully planned initiative that has started producing results.
The South Africa senior men’s team, the Bafana Bafana, stopped Nigeria from qualifying for the 2015 Africa Cup of Nations after we barely scratched a 2-2 draw with them in Uyo. The signals have been there for sometime, but we didn’t take notice.
The South Africa team that beat Nigeria in the semifinals of the Africa Junior Championships in Niamey had six players drawn from teams in the MultiChoice Diski Challenge. The team’s media officer, Nahmla Mphelo, explained that this was a carefully designed template to get the country back on track in football terms after the country suffered some bad losses over the years.
“This has started bearing fruits, the Amajimbos (U17) were in Niamey and played the final and will be going to the World Cup for the first time,” she said.
The Amajitas (U-20) recently won the Peace Cup in Finland and are in Senegal for the Africa Youth Championship.
“It is unprecedented in our country that all our junior teams have qualified for major championships in the same year. It shows we are making progress,” she added.
The benefits of league football at youth level cannot be over-emphasised. The kids get to learn the basics of the game at an early age, which guarantees a smooth transition as they continue their development.
Nigeria’s Golden Eaglets coach, Emmanuel Amuneke, bemoaned his team’s inability ‘to defend and convert’ as one of the reasons for their lackluster performance at the recently concluded championship.
This writer was at their last training session before the game with South Africa. Amuneke took aside the four starting defenders and was putting them through a defending regime on how to hold their lines, when to fall back and run out, who to go for this first ball and who to pick up the second ball.
Unfortunately, that didn’t translate as intended on match day as the same ‘basics’ the defenders were taught led to the only goal they conceded in that semifinal match.
It really did sink on me that we need to get back to the basics and rejuvenate our game least we are left behind. Our successes have blinded us to the realities on ground. The game is changing and evolving and we must move with that tide.
European Football Association has also seen the light and have formed a Uefa Youth League where teams participating in the Uefa Champions League put out teams that compete against each other at Under-19 level. These teams play each other in a round robin format just like the first team and they play a day before the first teams play each other.
This format has thrust the likes of Munir El Hadadi, Sandro and Chuba Akpoms into the limelight and a shot at first team football because of its attendant benefits to the youngsters. They garner experience and have an early start to organised football, which can only put them in good stead when first team opportunities come knocking.
English football has also seen the need for developmental league as the FA and the Barclays Premier League reached an agreement for an U-21 Premier League to be set up, instead of reserve team football, which had been the norm for years. They have understood that if progress was to be made, then a league where youngsters could compete like the regular league could be a catalyst to change England’s fortunes in the future.
The Primavera league in Italy is another example on how a youth league can churn out talents for the national teams and club sides alike. Most of the teams in Serie A and Serie B have teams, who compete in a league format for honors.
Having a production line has proven to be the way forward for sustainable football development and is a template, which Nigeria can do well to relate to.
The game can thrive in the country and more successes gained if the structure is tailored towards utilising the abundant human resources. Cases like Emmanuel Iwu of Heartland and Wisdom Magbisa of Nembe City shouldn’t be an exception but the norm in our climes.
Suffice to say, the youth football set up in Nigeria needs to be reinvigorated. Clubs should endeavour to tow the lines and imbibe the ideas set forth by the LMC for youth sides as part of their organisations.
Nigeria has a huge reservoir of talent waiting to be harnessed and one can only imagine how much can be gained if Nigerian clubs run a proper youth programme that can help develop players, instead of the usual conveyor belt that rotates players, who rely only on natural instincts.
A well-structured NPFL youth league can only be beneficial to clubs and the national teams in the long run. One cannot begin to imagine the depth of talent that will be unearthed if we get this system right. I believe we can do it. It is achievable, but can we pick up the gauntlet?
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