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Age Grade Misadventure, Poor Management… The Dark Side Of Nigerian Football

By Gregory Austin Nwakunor, Samuel Ifetoye and Alex Monye
23 May 2015   |   11:27 pm
FOR a country of about 160 million people choked by perennial mix of darkness, noise of fuming generators and screeching brakes in traffic, eerie silence could mean a lot. This, perhaps, was the situation on a particular Wednesday evening, when South Africa shut the door of Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) 2015 on Nigeria.

NFF president, Amaju Pinnick



FOR a country of about 160 million people choked by perennial mix of darkness, noise of fuming generators and screeching brakes in traffic, eerie silence could mean a lot. This, perhaps, was the situation on a particular Wednesday evening, when South Africa shut the door of Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) 2015 on Nigeria.

Somewhere, the name of Taiwo Awoniyi was on the lips of Nigerians, as Ahmed Musa and his compatriots kept fluffing chances. Many believed he would have done better. Their assumption was proven right, sort of, at the last African Youths Championship in Dakar, Senegal. The young talent, who combined pace and strength was instrumental to Nigeria’s victory.

A sports commentator wrote on his facebook page, “Taiwo Awoniyi is definitely ripe for the Super Eagles and needs to be included in the team now, rather than wasting him in U-20 and U-23. We always want to keep wasting our young prospects in the junior teams.”

Another wrote, “that’s why the Super Eagles’ players don’t last long, they spend too much time playing junior football. Ahmed Musa was playing for U-20, U-23 and Super Eagles at the same time. We need to take the chance when we find them. Michael Owen was already playing and scoring for England at 18 in the 1998 World Cup.”

Considering the poor run of the Super Eagles of late, fielding Awoniyi seemed to be a bright idea. For years now, the country has been searching for a quality striker in the mould of the late ‘goals father’, Rashidi Yekini. Beside Brown Ideye, Emmanuel Emenike, Ike Uche and Osaze Odemwingie, the country has not been able to get the right player for the central striking role. But the question that seems to dominate sports discussion now is, will players of Awoniyi’s age last the distance?

The Guardian’s investigations reveal that since the beginning of age grade tournaments, Nigeria has produced a lot of players, who quickly fizzle out and end their careers in junior teams because they are often older than the age they claimed. Very few Nigerian players have made it big in Europe: From Victor Igbinoba to Bella Momoh, Peter Ogaba to Joseph Fapetu, Phillip Osondu to Fatai Atere and Tony Emodofu, the list is endless.

It seemed like the dawn of a new era for Nigerian football when the country won the first FIFA U-16 (now U-17) championship in 1985, and followed it up with a bronze medal effort at the U-20 World Youth Championship same year. These two successes provided Nigeria a chance to be rated as a force in world football.

Instead of catching up with Europe and America, Nigerian football has continued to dip further behind rivals in Africa, despite the billions of Naira of public and private money that have been sunk into the game.

Field Of Shattered Dreams
THE Guardian’s checks reveal that age cheats have seized control of youth teams in the country, as desperate kids connive with equally desperate parents and corrupt football officials to do anything for a win.

When FIFA introduced age grade competitions in 1977, it was strictly to help identify talents who will be nurtured to play at the senior level. Diego Armando Maradona, Lionel Messi, Oleg Salenko, Luis Figo, Emil Kostadinov, Proscineski, Boban, Rui Costa and Marco Van Basten were spotted in the U-20 competition and they have gone on to prove their mettle in senior football.

But many Nigerian players who excelled at the junior level never made impact at the bigger stage. For example, Nigeria’s Chrisantus Macaulay, who won the Golden Boot at the 2007 tournament in South Korea, has since faded out. Meanwhile, Bojan Krkic, who played in that same tournament, won the Champions’ League with Barcelona, while Toni Kroos had gone on to win the World Cup and Champions League. Kroos was 20 when he made his debut for Germany. He won the Golden ball at the U17 World Cup in Korea, in 2007, that Nigeria won.

Nigeria’s Oladele Ajiboye’ who saved two penalties in the final match of the same competition, is no longer relevant in Nigerian football, while his opposite number in that final, David De Gea, is Manchester United’s goal keeper.

Figo played Under-20 in 1991 and only just retired in 2013. Xavi, Casillas, Robbie Keane, Ashley Cole, Santa Cruz, Seydu Keita, Ronaldinho, etc. played in Nigeria 99, but one wonders what has happened to the Nigerian players at the tourney, such as, Pius Ikedia, Julius Aghahowa, who won the silver and bronze balls. Both ended their senior careers in 2002? Only, Yobo was able to make it to 2014.

In the Nigerian squad that conquered Korea, it is only Lukman Haruna, who has been able to break into the Super Eagles, but somehow, he is still struggling to maintain a regular shirt in his club.

Remember Sani Emmanuel, who was voted the best player at the FIFA U17 tourney in Nigeria, in 2009? While Ogeyi Onazi and Kenneth Omeruo, who were initially fringe players in that team, have now flourished to become regulars in the senior team.

Angry about the situation, in 2000, when Anthony Kojo Williams was head of the Nigeria Football Association, he had said, “I don’t see Nigerian football getting out of the quagmire, the problem it is in, today, is because corruption is getting deeper and deeper. From time to time we get flashes where we do well in some competitions with overage players and we celebrate. That was one of the issues I looked at; we can’t keep using overage players. We used over-age players for junior championships, I know that. Why not say it? It’s the truth. We always cheat. It’s a fact. When you cheat, you deprive the young stars that are supposed to play in these competitions their rights.”

A former national player and football administrator, Adokie Amiesimaka, has also been unequivocal in condemnation of cheating in age-grade football tournaments.
In 2009, he accused the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) of being complicit with age-cheats, because it gave the nation a competitive advantage. Amiesimaka had what he considered as proof that some players were overage, but the NFF was not interested in taking his complaint seriously.

Adokiye lamented, “Stanley Okoro, for instance, has no business in that team, which every body knows, he cannot be any thing less than 33 or 34. Olarenwaju Kayode was also my player in the Sharks feeder team in 2002, he played alongside Fortune Chukwudi, both of them were mates, he too cannot be less than 29 or 30. Abdul Ajagun was one of the highest goal scorers in the league. He was also in Command Secondary School in Kaduna or so, he dropped out of school in SSS2 in the 1990s and so cannot be U-20.”

The 1980 AFCON winner said, “age grade teams are meant to help develop a serious senior national team, but we are not doing that. I passed through the age grade level, I played for my secondary school, played for the Lagos team in the National Sports Festival, I played for the national academicals team, and I played for the university and the senior national team. I went through a process and that is how it should be, that is the truth.”

However, former Super Eagles’ coach, Christian Chukwu, has a contrary opinion. He sees the issue beyond age cheating. He said the reason players, who distinguish themselves in cadet championships, in recent times, don’t mature into world class is because NFF has not put viable programmes in place to discover and monitor talents in the country.

In 2013, nine players, three each from Cote d’Ivoire, Congo and Nigeria were kicked out of the U-17 championship in Morocco, after wrist scans showed them to be over the limit of MRI wrist scan.

Medhat Shalaby, media officer of the Egyptian FA, once accused West African teams of being deeply involved in this.

“Age cheating has become a cancer to African football,” Shalaby said. “Junior tournaments are running the risk of being inconsequential to the development of African football. Countries like Nigeria, Ghana and Cameroun were fond of fielding over aged players in international youth tournaments.”

Chukwu said, “Nigerian players have not risen to stardom like their counterparts in Europe, because the country lacks the basic football administrative structures that will give attention to nurturing and discovery of talents. Nigerian players also need to be blamed for the anomalies. Most of these players only focus on the money they would make in the game without working hard to meet the standard of future challenges. Those who have succeeded to make their mark in Europe right from their tender age, train day and night to achieve success. If NFF puts its house in order, especially in the area of creating a well organised structure to revamp the development of football in the country, our younger generation of players will attain greater heights in the course of pursing their career in soccer.”

Though, he noted that some players who represent Nigeria in youth championships avoid declaring their true age to football authorities when invited to the national team, the one-time Harambee Stars of Kenya coach blamed domestic coaches, who he termed lazy sweat merchants seeking professional players outside the shores of the country, without helping to expose the talents that have been discovered on the local scene.

Lamenting the poor situation, another former coach of the Super Eagles, Chief Festus Adegboye Onigbinde, said many of the players, who made the cadet team of Nigeria in the past were advanced in age, and in the process, faded when the world expected them to explode after their exploits at the junior level.

According to him, “the age grade competition is something that is affecting our nation. Have we been sincere in the selection of our teams? When FIFA started the age-grade competitions that was the intention, that players will move from lower level to higher one. Has that been happening in Nigeria? Are we sure we don’t have players who should have retired from the higher-level play at the lower level?”

He added, “there was a case of an Under-17 goalkeeper in this country, who already had two children in the secondary school. Where do you want him to move into, that was some years ago? Then apart from that, even when these boys are good, everybody wants to have his own contribution into the national team. In some cases, even the good ones are sidetracked, and the favourites are brought in. We have a lot of problems! And at any rate, are we developing our football from the grassroots?”

Onigbinde recalled, “in the 60s, 70s and 80s, each club in Nigeria used to draw players from secondary schools. In fact, where is football in secondary school today in Nigeria, let alone, primary schools?”

The former FIFA technical committee member and coach of Trinidad and Tobago said, “here are other factors, the abolition of Teacher Training Colleges Sports destroyed sports in Nigeria.”

Ex-Super Eagles midfielder, Friday Ekpo, asked: “Are they really under-age. Are they really the age they claimed for a particular age competition? How did we get them? Is it from the grassroots, starting from the Under-13 competition to the Under-17 before graduating to the Under-20 and the rest.”

Ex Super Eagles goalkeeper trainer, Joe Erico, however, attributes the failure to laziness on the part of some players who don’t identify their areas of strength; neither do they train hard to keep form.

He stressed, “their foreign counterparts are more committed to deliver in their chosen career, rather than focusing on the monetary aspect.”

Erico corroborated Chukwu’s assertion that Nigeria coaches neglect home grown players for their foreign-based counterparts when inviting players for international engagements, saying that such move derails the development of the country’s youngsters.

According to ex-Super Eagles player, Henry Nwosu, “during our days, you would see the eagerness of a young player to mature to the senior national team. Reverse is the case now. Our players are lazy, and they don’t work on themselves. This problem is now affecting the Super Eagles. I worked hard from the secondary school to get to play at the senior level. Success does not come on a platter of gold; it comes with hard work.”

For Ekpo, what will save the situation is when the right things are done. “We should do the right thing at the right time. We had some 17 years old players two years ago and most of them have graduated into the Under-21, they could still be in Under 19 and 20, the coach is monitoring them, he knows how they fare during match situations and we should begin to integrate them into the senior national team, one, at a time.”

He remarked, “if you get them in a very genuine way, to know their age and their status, you will be able to keep track of these players when they get to 25 years. At least if they don’t play well, you will know it’s not their day. But when you pick a player who is in the national league playing for an Under-20, what does that tell you? It shows that he is an over-aged player, which we don’t like to hear all the time in Nigeria.”

Ekpo continued, “we take the good ones and try to give them exposure like we did to Kanu Nwankwo and co. Kanu did not just start straight from the Super Eagles, he was in the Under-17, Under-20 and he was in and out of the Super Eagles. But he was having more playing time with the Under-17 squad, but when he came to the senior team, he started having the feel of the big boys.”

According to Ekpo, “today, Kanu can talk big because he will tell you how he started. We should do the right thing by going to the grassroots, keeping track of their age, what they are doing, thereafter, and we keep monitoring to see them maturing until they become ripe for the senior national team.”

He added, “the ones that are maturing rapidly can be given that opportunity based on their own ability and skill. It doesn’t really matter the person’s age, as long as he has the capability to play for the senior national team. The good players need to be encouraged and giveng that opportunity. It’s what is in a player that matters.”

To the NFF Technical Director, Kashimawo Laloko, “it’s very clear, the age group players that we are using are all over-aged! That’s the truth. But when you find one fantastic player, who is good, we should put him on. Don’t you see that our development is short of productivity?”

Laloko continued, “Manu Garba is doing a very good job there, and after this, he can then move with the team to the Under-23. By the time they get there, those boys would have become mature players until they go to play in Europe. That is when we will now know where we are. But those playing in Europe are already professionals. We are the ones to make up our mind about how we want to develop our players.”

Management By Corruption
HOWEVER, if you think age cheating is major problem facing Nigerian football, then you’re wrong. The country has myriad of them, each one contributing to the non-consistent performance.

The Guardian gathered that the tale of the game in Nigeria is full of controversies and complex problems involving missing funds, election rigging, under paid players and poor infrastructure. There is really no difference between civil servants and football administrators in the continent. A position in the FA, a committee or a club, is usually very profitable. People fight to get positions in football administration because there is billions of Naira to be embezzled.

Government in Africa is the biggest sponsor of national teams. It is also involved in infrastructure development that impacts on the game, yet the same government cannot question football leaders over corruption charges.

FIFA cannot expect governments to invest in the game, and yet, not have a say over how the money is being spent. In Nigeria, after the 2010 World Cup, President Goodluck Jonathan suspended all national team participation in international tournaments, in a bid to clean out corruption within the NFF.

The world football body gave Nigeria three days to reverse the decision or face a ban and the government reversed its decision and on October 5, 2010, it announced a ban on Nigeria after the government controlled commission on sports forced the acting general secretary of NFF to step down and the national courts took actions against football administrators.

Poor Facilities, Little Investment In Grassroots
LACK of investment in grassroots football is putting the future of the game in jeopardy. Football infrastructure remains in dilapidated state, yet a lot of money continues to flow into the game at home.

In the 80s, stadiums in Nigeria were always filled to the brim during league matches, because it was well organised and teams were well managed. However, when the standard of football declined, people lost interest.

Everywhere you went in the country, you were bound to see youngsters kicking around the leather ball, even if, like in rural Africa, that ball is made up of old plastic bags tightly bundled together. But today, the same cannot be said.

According to sports analysts, football, like every other business, should not be funded and controlled by the government.

Private investors should be encouraged to make the necessary investments in the game and make it more commercially viable to run football clubs and attract fresh talents.

When Amaju Pinnick was elected in August 2014 as NFF president, he said the vision of his administration is in three categories: “The short, long and medium terms. We (NFF) are not concerned only about winning, because that does not define success. Victory is not all about winning, it’s all about creating and sustaining a football culture and that is what we want to do in Nigeria.”

To the NFF president, all the processes are meant to facilitate the rapid development of Nigerian football.

He added, “taking a look at England as an example, they have the best football culture. We hope for a situation whereby youths will see the game and build a career and also see football as business. For instance, to look at the various clubs in Nigeria and see how they can be quoted in the stock exchange.”