Time to bridge the gap
The next two years will be dark for Nigerian football – this period will see its male national teams at all levels absent from competitive football on the continent.
The country has typically excelled at youth tournaments; at under-17 level, they have been world champions a record five times, while at under-20 level there have been two second-place finishes in FIFA competition, as well as continental dominance.
Nigeria’s under-20 team – the Flying Eagles – failed to qualify for the 2017 CAF Youth Nations Cup in Zambia after falling to a shock 5-3 aggregate loss to Sudan in July. Having won away from home in the first leg, many had expected the Flying Eagles to seal their place on home soil, but the team coached by Emmanuel Amuneke failed to finish the job.
To further deepen a nation’s woes, the Golden Eaglets (the under-17 side) led by Manu Garba dashed whatever hope Nigerians had of seeing a national team fly the flag on the continent when they lost to Niger 3-2 on aggregate.
With the now accepted failure of the Super Eagles to qualify for the African Cup of Nations at senior level, 2017 will mark the first time in history that all three men’s national teams will be missing from CAF competition in the same year.
The repercussions of this no-show could be grave in the long run. While success in age-grade tournaments has come with whispers of age falsification in some quarters, Nigeria’s youth teams have proven a proper channel of talent feeding into the senior team, the Super Eagles.
In the past, the reaction to similar failures has been swift and brutal – it is the custom to ‘disband’ teams that fall short in qualification for either the African championships or cadet World Cups. This reasoning is indicative of where administrative priorities lie with regard to youth competitions: winning at all costs, often to the detriment of development and a holistic long-term approach.
However, it would be wise for the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) to keep both age-grade teams together in spite of the pervading disappointment. When the Golden Eaglets failed to qualify for the 1997 under-17 World Cup hosted by Egypt, the team was fortunate to attend the invitational UEFA-CAF Meridian Cup, which they won by beating Spain (featuring, notably, Xavi Hernandez) in the final.
Playing in this competition bridged the gap and continued the flow of talent to the senior teams. For instance, defender Gbenga Okunowo came to the attention of scouts from FC Barcelona at this tournament. He went on to sign for the Spanish giants, and played for the Flying Eagles at the 1999 FIFA Youth Championship hosted by Nigeria, as well as the Olympic Games football tournament a year after. He was also a part of the senior national side that lost the final of the Africa Cup of Nations on home soil to neighbours Cameroon in 2000.
It is easy to imagine how differently things might have turned out had that under-17 team been cut loose at an early stage.
The Flying Eagles, for example, clearly have players with potential to make the progression to the senior side, having played in and won the under-17 World Cup as recently as 2015. Tournament MVP Kelechi Nwakali was the subject of heated speculation before signing with Premier League side Arsenal, and it is instructive he has been moved out on loan immediately – his first team prospects are clearly bright. Indeed, tournament top scorer Victor Osimhen has already earned a senior call-up under new national team manager Gernot Rohr, so highly is he rated.
However, the same cannot be said for the Golden Eaglets. Crashing out so early would mean being termed another ‘lost generation’, as some are already doing. The harsh reality for these kids is a choice: either wait for the convocation of the next U-17 group for the 2019 tournaments (if they remain within the age limit), or choose a different career path.
The cash-strapped NFF would do well to put together nationwide tours, where these teams can play competitively and the players can put themselves in some kind of shop window for the national teams. As a means to keep these players limber, and considering some of them are yet to secure professional contracts, it would go some way to ameliorating the failures of both teams.
The NFF more than ever before needs to put its house in order, wear its thinking cap and fashion out a proper programme that will attract sponsorship and engender the development of schools’ sports in order to develop the right talents for our age-gated national teams. A nation of over 170 Million people with raw talent, ready and willing to be harnessed should not be experiencing a dearth of talent.