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NPFL U-15 Tourney: Curbing age cheating, ensuring sustainability

By Gowon Akpodonor
15 May 2022   |   4:09 am
Successful football playing nations have a culture that ensures that they produce quality players from unfettered children, who, in their innocence, just want to play the game in the first place. These youths, when taught the basics and structure of the game that early in life, grow to become international stars.

• MTN/NPFL/La Liga Partner To Improve Game
Successful football playing nations have a culture that ensures that they produce quality players from unfettered children, who, in their innocence, just want to play the game in the first place. These youths, when taught the basics and structure of the game that early in life, grow to become international stars.

In advanced countries, where football is seen as more than a sport, clubs, governments and schools create avenues to make the best use of children’s talent through a culture that deliberately build these kids in all aspects of the game.

This culture, anchored on development programmes fashioned, in most cases, by football associations for clubs, creates a conveyor belt of talented and educated footballers, who move seamlessly from through the age grades until they become big stars.

When Germany failed to cross the group stage of Euro 2004 hosted by Portugal, the leaders of the country’s football knew it was time to do something drastic to return the then three-time world champions to the top of the global game.

They set out to do so with their youth development programme, which ensured that every club in all tiers of the Bundesliga, adopted a youth development project that created a steady supply of talents from the grassroots.

With this project, Germany became world champions at senior level 10 years later in 2014, semifinalists at EURO 2016, U-21 champions in 2009, U-19 title winners in 2014, and made four final appearances at U-17 EURO level, including one win, in the last eight years.

In a recent interview granted bundesliga.com, immediate past Germany manager, Joachim Low, who led the team to World Cup glory in 2014, said after the failure in Portugal, “we said, ‘we have to invest more in the education. So, we are technically better.’ This is the result of that work, beginning with Jürgen Klinsmann.”

Another key facet of Germany’s success is the country’s far-reaching scouting network. There are currently more than 300 centres nationwide aimed at spotting and encouraging young talent, potentially providing Bundesliga clubs with players they can develop into internationals in a merry-go-round of mutual benefit.

Like Germany, Spain, which dominated world football from 2008 to 2013 with its tiki-taka brand of the game, also took drastic measures to change from a country with so much potential, to European and world champions within 10 years.

For instance, homegrown players trained within La Liga clubs accounted for 16.3 percent of minutes played in La Liga Santander last season, the highest percentage in any of Europe’s top five leagues.

In some other established leagues across the globe, players from the youth teams are key to a club’s long-term success, with a productive academy system offering stability on the pitch and, at the same time, financial rewards.

While there are clubs that have little history of producing top-level footballers themselves, there are also those who have a long tradition of nurturing their players from the U13, U15, U17 to first-team level.

When leaders of Nigerian football bought into the idea of building the game from the grassroots, they compelled clubs within the league system to adopt youth teams, who, it was expected, would become feeder sides to the main squads. But like some other aspects of life in the country, the system was soon abused such that clubs harboured players older than regulars in the first teams in their youth sides. It simply became another avenue to create employment for politicians’ wards.

However, in 2017, the League Management Company (LMC), which organises the Nigerian Professional Football League (NPFL) set out to sanitise the system. It sought and signed a partnership with La Liga to ensure continuous local and international exposure for Nigerian youth football. The partnership was also for capacity building for players and coaches, which ultimately contributed to the advancement of developmental football in the country.

Although this partnership, which created the youth development league christened NPFL/LA Liga U-15 Football Tournament, has not been as phenomenal as the German model in terms of result, it has helped Nigerian clubs to source their players from within. It has also thrown up some quality players for the national teams, including Super Eagles midfielder, Akinkunmi Amoo, who plays for F.C. Copenhagen in the Danish Superliga. Amoo was in the maiden class of 2017 squad of the NPFL/La Liga U-15 football tournament.

Within three years, Amoo’s football career has risen so fast. He was in the Golden Eaglets’ squad to the 2019 Africa U-17 Cup of Nations, where he scored in his debut, a 5-4 group stage win against Tanzania. He was also at the 2019 FIFA U-17 World Cup.

Early this year, Amoo was invited by coach Austine Eguavoen, to the Super Eagles as replacement for Odion Ighalo, ahead of the AFCON tournament in Cameroun, but the Confederation of African Football (CAF) did not grant the call-up. He returned to the group in the build up to the Qatar 2022 World Cup qualifier against the Black Stars of Ghana, a ticket Nigeria lost in Abuja.

Apart from Akin Amoo, some other players, who participated in the first and second editions of the NPFL/La Liga U-15 football tournament, have also featured for the U-17 national team (Golden Eaglets) and the U-20 national team (Flying Eagles). Some others now play for European clubs.

Super Eagles’ failure to qualify for the Qatar 2022 World Cup notwithstanding, NFF Second Vice President, Shehu Dikko, feels the NPFL/La Liga U-15 youth tournament has yielded enough dividends within its short period.

Speaking on the programme after its last edition in Ikenne, Ogun State, Dikko, who is NFF’s second vice president, as well as Chairman of the League Management Company (LMC), said players discovered at the tournament would be monitored and nurtured to become the next generation of national team players.

“If you want a sustained success, you have to build the foundation for it. This MTN/NPFL/La Liga U-15 tournament is to discover the young stars that will graduate into the U-17 team. I am happy that we have discovered a lot of them here. The duty of the NFF now is to ensure that these boys are well monitored for them to become the Okochas, Kanus and Musas of tomorrow.”

To Remo Stars U-15 head coach, Olawale Olowookere, whose team won the tournament in Ikenne, the MTN/NPFL/La Liga U-15 has thrown up some quality pitches for youth football across the country.

Speaking with The Guardian, Olowookere said the quality of facilities at ‘Beyond Limit Academy’ in Ikenne, which is run by the proprietor of Remo Stars, Kunle Soname, played a huge role in the victory.

“Beyond the commitment and resilient, which my players demonstrated on the pitch, the support we got from our proprietor and the quality of facilities we enjoyed here contributed to the success,” Olowookere said.

Beyond Limit Academy in Remo, Ikenne, was established a few years ago by Kunle Soname, who is the proprietor of Remo Stars, one of the clubs playing in the NPFL. Unlike some football academies in some parts of the country without adequate facilities to cater for needs of the players, Beyond Limit Academy is in a class of its own.

With four standard football pitches, hostel facilities for U13, U15 and U17 teams, as well as two-bed room apartment each for the coaches, Beyond Limit Academy also has a standard hotel for visitors, scouts, administrators and teams willing to use facilities. Also located within the complex is a standard swimming pool, tennis court and gymnasium for the players and their coaches for fitness exercise.

Soname told The Guardian that the success recorded at the 2022 MTN/NPFL/La Liga U15 tournament has laid the foundation for the career of the young players.

“This is part of efforts to have a sustainable structure in our football,” he said. “Now that we are getting it right at the U-15 level, I am sure a solid foundation is being laid for our U-17 team, the Flying Eagles and the senior national team. And I am sure this will address this issue of today we succeed, tomorrow we fail,” Soname said.

Some of the young footballers, who emerged from the 2022 edition, include Remo Stars’ Ohamesi Chimezie, who was named the Most Valuable Player of the tournament, Highest Goals scorer, Arierhi Kparobo, also of Remo Stars, Samuel Ajayi of Shooting Stars and Chris Yusuf of Plateau United.

As expected, the players are in cloud nine. Tournament’s MVP, Chimezie, spoke with The Guardian saying that his dream is to play for the Super Eagles. “One day, I want to play for the senior team, Super Eagles. This is the beginning of my journey.”

Top scorer, Kparobo, who netted five goals, said: “Even before the competition started, my roommate kept telling me that I would emerge the top scorer going the rate I was scoring goals. To me, if you really love football, you have to work hard. I am glad we won the trophy.”