‘There are more Osimhen’s waiting to be discovered at the grassroots’
Over the years, Nigerians have almost always been counted among the best footballers in the world by those who keep the tabs. Even before FIFA merged its end of the year reckonings with France Football’s Ballon D’Or, such players as Finidi George, Victor Ikpeba, Austin Jay Jay Okocha, Kanu Nwankwo, Daniel Amokachi and Sunday Oliseh were at different times listed among the world’s best stars by these bodies.
Although no Nigerian has gone on to win the ultimate prize at the end of the day, their nominations show that just like Brazil when it comes to football, Nigeria is one country that produces talents in all areas of the game.
It also lays credence to the late football king, Pele’s belief that Nigeria is one country brimming with talents and needs just the right environment to rule the world in the game. Pele also declared that Nigeria would win the FIFA World Cup before the end of the last century if the country got its acts together. Sadly, that did not happen despite the huge number of talents the country has been producing since the late Brazilian made the declaration in 1989.
The recent nomination of Victor Osimhen and Asisat Oshoala for the men’s and women’s categories of the 2023 Ballon d’Or is a new African record as before now, no other country from the continent had produced candidates in both categories either in the Best FIFA Awards or the Ballon d’Or.
Echoing Pele’s declarations, stakeholders in Nigerian football say the country is just a system’s change away from becoming one of the greatest football playing nations of the world.
The change, according to the stakeholders, has to start from the grassroots, with administrators jettisoning the win-at-all-cost syndrome to develop young talents from schools and the streets, who will be trained for the national teams.
The change also demands that the Nigerian Football Federation (NFF) and such other organs of the game must develop coaches, do away with corrupt trainers, who demand monies from players to put them in the system; and also create an environment that ensures that no talent, no matter how far removed from the cities, is allowed to waste.
Former Nigerian internationals, Bright Omokaro and Dimeji Lawal, who say they are excited by Osimhen and Oshoala’s Ballon d’Or award nominations, told The Guardian that the country can produce more of such talented players if the authorities paid adequate attention to grassroots development.
Omokaro said the players’ trajectory from youth footballers to global stars is evidence of the abundance of talents in the country, adding that all Nigeria needs is a system that ensures that coaches in the cadet teams scout the entire nation for the best talents, who will be trained for stardom irrespective of their academic or financial background.
He said: “Grassroots development is the way forward for growth in the country. The achievements of Osimhen and Oshoala have reignited the fact that there are many talents in Nigeria that need to be discovered. Thank God the two players were not born or grew up abroad. They were discovered and groomed to stardom here in Nigeria.
“The country needs to focus more on talent hunt programmes at the grassroots to fish out more stars. This is the only way to go.”
To Lawal, Osimhen and Oshoala’s nomination is a call for football stakeholders to revive grassroots development of the country’s football.
“It has put Nigeria in the map of world football. It should push us to keep promoting youth football development across the country to pick and nurture more talents. Grassroots development is the key to success for any country in sports.
“Children need to be engaged in sports early in their lives by providing more playing grounds for them to hone their talents. Osimhen and Oshoala’s remarkable performances at the cadet level earned them the opportunity to become the world stars they are today. So, more should be done to source for talents in Nigerian football academies and the domestic leagues.”
Former Super Falcons’ coach, Godwin Izilien, advocates a system that ensures youth development across the six geopolitical zones of the country. He said Osimhen and Oshoala’s achievements have given Nigerian football stakeholders the challenge to invest more on grassroots development and pay more attention to the cadet national teams.
“These nominations have posed a challenge to the NFF to work more in talent discovery. There is money allocated to the NFF by FIFA for such projects and it should be used for such purposes. We have quality coaches that can groom and discover players if given the platform.”
Izilien dismissed the allegation that some talents are allowed to waste by coaches, who demand gratifications from them before picking their teams, saying “no coach worth his salt will do such to spoil his career.”
Rather, he said the NFF should be more careful in selecting coaches for youth teams. “Cadet teams are the foundation of the senior teams so enough investment must be put to assemble outstanding young players for such teams. We should also be careful in selecting those to manage the teams,” he said.
Another former Super Falcons’ coach, Edwin Okon, said there are more Osimhens and Oshoalas in the country’s secondary and primary schools and “there should be a football development programmee to catch children young at a tender age.”
He said: “When Osimhen and Oshoala were announced for the Ballon d’Or Award, I was happy. I am a grassroots football coach and I know that Nigeria would be brimming with many talents If a well-structured programme is put in place in the country.
“I am proud that the two players started their journey in football here in Nigeria. Their nomination is a call to all stakeholders to do more to keep churning out quality talents. We have so many future great footballers waiting in the streets to be nurtured to stardom and our cadet national teams should be a place of exposing these talents to the world.”
Investing in youth development programmes across the country is another way of ensuring the nation does not lack quality players at any level, according to former Super Eagles goalkeepers’ trainer, Ike Shorunmu.
According to the former Super Eagles star, many talented players, who would have done as mush as Osimhen and Oshoala, or even more, have watched their dreams die because the country lacks the environment to aid their growth.
He said Nigeria would return to the days it was rated as the world’s fifth best footballing nation if it returned to such programmes as YSFON and the Academicals, which featured primary and secondary schools’ students.
Get the latest news delivered straight to your inbox every day of the week. Stay informed with the Guardian’s leading coverage of Nigerian and world news, business, technology and sports.