‘Don’t cry for Flying Eagles’
From late 1970 till 2015, there were, perhaps, no more beloved and famous African U-20 teams than the Flying Eagles of Nigeria and Black Satellites of Ghana. The Nigerian U-20, which is the feeder team for the senior team, no doubt, played a large role in the development of the nation’s football.
Though Ghana is the only African country to win the FIFA U-20 World Cup at Egypt 2009, where they defeated Brazil 4-3 on penalties, the Flying Eagles still lead the table as the most decorated team in Africa. While the Ghanaians are three-time African Champion (1995, 1999, 2009) the Flying Eagles won the African U-20 championship seven times: 1983, 1985, 1987, 1989, 2005, 2011, and 2015. The Nigerians were runners-up in 1999 and 2007 and finished third-place in 1995, 2009, and 2013. Nigeria is also a two-time silver medallist at the FIFA U-20 World Cup.
Perhaps, one match that made many African football fans to fall in love with the Flying Eagles was the Dammam Miracle at Saudi ‘89 FIFA U-20 World Cup, where the Nigerians made history by defeating the then USSR on penalties after coming from 0-4 down in the quarterfinal.
Painfully, the once conquering Flying Eagles have become a laughing stock in African football. From 2017 till date, the team has failed to make an impact in global football. In fact, the Flying Eagles could not defend their African title in 2017. And shamefully, the team failed to make it from the WAFU U-20 in Porto Novo, Benin Republic, last month.
The Flying Eagles, led by returnee, Coach Ladan Bosso, drew 0-0 against Cote d’Ivoire and lost 0-1 to Ghana to fall out in the race to Mauritania 2021 African U-20 championship, which has been expanded to 12 teams instead of eight. The top four teams will qualify for Indonesia’s 2021 FIFA U-20 World Cup, and Nigeria’s flag will be missing.
The inability of the Flying Eagles to qualify from WAFU zonal tournament in Porto Novo came as a rude shock to many Nigerian football enthusiasts.
Former Green Eagles winger, Adegoke Adelabu, says the team’s performance in Porto Novo is a clear indication that Nigeria has a ‘fragmented philosophy’ of sports development.
“Our approach to the competition doesn’t reflect any form of expectations with reference to national objectives,” Adelabu told The Guardian. “We just parade players to participate and no matter how they perform, the handlers are not accountable to anyone. If something like this should happen to Brazilian junior national teams or England that we compare ourselves with, heads will roll,” he said.
Bosso was the coach of the Flying Eagles to Canada 2007 FIFA U-20 World Cup, where Nigeria suffered a humiliating 0-4 defeat to Chile in the knockout stage. The ridiculous scoreline sent many Nigerian football fans to an early bed. But 13 years later, Bosso was brought back to head the same U-20 team.
For Adelabu, a sports scientist, there is still more to be done in the area of coaching in Nigeria. “Our coaches need to be teachable and should be chosen on merit to handle national teams. There is an urgent need for the country to have more education on sports intelligence, even at the club level and the soccer academies, where most of the players are scouted. Our coaches should be professionally monitored.
Adelabu, who played club football with the then IICC Shooting Stars of Ibadan, continues: “You need to understand that we do not have the tradition of deliberately preparing the Flying Eagles to succeed the Super Eagles. They only get there by chance or through a quota system. When the time comes to form the national team, we scout the whole of Europe to look for players. That is our tradition.
“Through the principle of natural selection, players will always emerge because we have the population. They may not be necessarily fantastic, but over time, they will get better even with an average coach in charge.”
Adelabu says: “The strength of the country nation is our youths, but they are participating in crimes because there is no proper developmental programme to prepare them for life in sport. For us to fail woefully at the junior level shows the lack of seriousness on the part of the government’s vision for the future of our youths.”
And at the FIFA U-20 World Cup level, the Flying Eagles were third in 1985 and came close to winning the title on two occasions, in 1989 and 2005. Till this moment, Oleg Salenko has not forgiven the likes of Mutiu Adepoju, Nduka Ugbade, Sam Elijah, Chris Ohenhen, Philip Osundu, Peter Ogaba, Mike Onyemachara, Angus Ikeji, and Bawa Abdullahi for the painful defeat, which the then Soviet Union suffered in the hands of Nigeria at Saudi ’89.
Recall that at Dammam Miracle, the Soviet Union had raced to a four-goal lead within 46 minutes with a brace from Sergei Kiriakov in the 30th minutes and 58th minutes with two more goals from Bakhva Tedeev and Oleg Salenko in the 45th and 46th minutes respectively. With 30 minutes to full-time, the Flying Eagles responded through a brace from Christopher Ohenhen in the 61st and 75th minutes. Samuel Elijah scored the third goal in the 83rd minute before team captain, Nduka Ugbade, completed the remarkable comeback in the 84th minute to end the game 4-4. Nigeria eventually won on penalties. The Flying Eagles will have to wait till 2023 to begin another journey.
Former chairman of Gombe State FA, Ahmed Shuaibu Gara Gombe, has questioned the competence of NFF’s Technical Department. He attributed Flying Eagles’ poor performance in Porto Novo as well as other Nigerian teams to the incompetence and inefficiency of the personnel in the technical department of the NFF. “The Amaju Pinnick-led board is not interested in the development of our football, and it lacks a blueprint,” Gara Gombe stated last week.
He continues: “As far as the appointment of coaches for the national teams are based on political consideration instead of competence and development, Nigeria will go nowhere in the development of football.
“You will agree with me that in recent times, Nigerian football has been witnessing embarrassing performances from both the national teams and club level in continental competitions. These are happening because NFF has no plans to develop the game. Their main focus is on competitions because of the money involved.
“I have said several times that, as much as NFF continues to appoint coaches based on political consideration for competitions instead of development, we are going nowhere in football development. In the last 15 years, I do not think there is a blueprint or roadmap that was produced that was sustainable or implemented by NFF. It has been trial and error.”
Speaking further, the former Gombe State FA boss said: “We have to look at the quality of the people in the NFF technical department. Who are these people? NFF has never had a functional technical department. We have people who are knowledgeable, but they can’t come closer because of the corruption and policy somersault in NFF.
“For instance, Ladan Bosso was the coach of the U-20 national to Canada 2007 World Cup, and 13 years later, you brought the same Bosso to coach the U-20 team. Also, Fatai Amoo, coached the U-23 team at the 2003 All African Games, and 17 years after, you appointed the same Amoo to coach the U-17 team. So, are we progressing or retrogressing?” Gara Gombe asked.