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Golden Eaglets FIFA U-17 World Cup Record

Nigeria’s domination of Under-17 football at the global level shows no sign of abating. As evidence, the triumphant national soccer team, the Golden Eaglets, won the 2015 FIFA U-17 World Cup in Vina Del Mar, Chile, last week by beating West African neighbours, Mali, 2-0 in the final. Given the first half missed penalty in the final, the attainment resembled a stroll. Nigeria waltzed past the United States, Chile, Brazil, Australia and Mexico on their way to the title, losing only to Croatia in a match that had no bearing on their eventual fortunes. We can be proud of the Golden Eaglets for the sporting leadership they have shown.

Nigeria’s domination of FIFA Under-17 World cup

In appreciation, the government and the public are fêting the lads for making the country proud. In their run to the championship, the Eaglets set individual and team records. The team won the trophy for the fifth time, an unprecedented feat. After capturing the inaugural trophy in 1985, they added other titles in 1993 and 2007, becoming only the second team in history, apart from Brazil, to retain the trophy following their victories in 2013 and 2015. Brazil, the closest team to Nigeria, have won three, while Ghana have two titles.

Striker Victor Osimhen, the Golden Boot winner, became the first player to score 10 goals in a single tournament, eclipsing the exploits of France’s Florent Sinama-Pongolle and Souleymane Coulibaly of Cote d’Ivoire, who scored nine in 2001 and 2011 respectively. The team was coached by Emmanuel Amuneke, a former Nigeria international.

But life is not as straightforward as it seems. Underpinning the celebration is a genuine concern about the little impact Nigeria’s success in underage competitions has had on the national football team, the Super Eagles. Put succinctly, success at youth level has not translated to global acclaim for the players and the national team. This is inexplicable. It means something is seriously amiss in the architecture of youth football in the country.

At the heart of the matter is the fact that players turn in outstanding performances in international youth tournaments, only to suddenly fade away a few years after achieving unprecedented feats. Such players are a multitude. In other places, those who fail to make the grade are not so high. Players like Philip Osondu, Fortune Chukwudi, who captained the Eaglets in 2009, Femi Opabunmi, Macauley Chrisantus and many more shone brightly at the U-17 tier but became a byword when the opportunity to move to the big stage presented itself.

Although Nigeria’s U-20 team – the Flying Eagles – lost narrowly (2-1) to Argentina in the 2005 World Youth Championship in the Netherlands, two Nigerians in Mikel Obi and Taye Taiwo were adjudged the second and third best players in the tournament behind Argentina’s Lionel Messi. While Messi has since gone on to achieve super stardom with Barcelona of Spain, Mikel is a bit-part player at Chelsea. Taiwo has disappeared into oblivion.

Lukman Haruna, Azeez Balogun, Uche Okafor and Dele Adeleye, who led Nigeria to the U-17 crown in 2007, have virtually been forgotten. Conversely, Belgium, which did not win the competition, have seen the rise of Eden Hazard (Chelsea) and Christian Benteke (Liverpool). In addition, Belgium have just risen to No. 1 in the FIFA rankings; Nigeria dropped to No. 59. Toni Kroos, who captained Germany then, is playing for Real Madrid of Spain, Forbes’ Most Valuable Club in the world.

Both Chrisantus and Neymar played at the 2007 and 2009 U-17 championships in South Korea and Nigeria respectively. While Nigeria reached the final in both competitions and Chrisantus was applauded for his goal-scoring exploits, Neymar of Brazil went home quietly. A few years later, the disparity and growth path are astounding. Chrisantus has declined; Neymar has soared, captaining Brazil at age 23 and playing a central role in Barcelona. None of our players grace top clubs save for Kelechi Iheanacho’s cameo role at Manchester City.

It is obvious that Nigeria is missing the way. FIFA founded the age-grade competitions as a production platform to feed the national teams in a seamless way. In Nigeria, this is not so. We see age-grade competitions as an end in themselves. This is a warped strategy.

A major factor in this has been the use of over-age players. Many of the players used by Nigeria in age-grade competitions have been identified even by their class mates as having long passed the ages they declared. Some unlucky ones have been axed by the use of MRI. FIFA even found cause to sanction Nigeria once.

Our football administrators have not been totally altruistic in their handling of youth teams. Their motivation is in the moment, always prepared to achieve success by all means. They should be inspired by the bigger picture, which is the attainment of success at the World Cup and having Nigerian players in top teams like Madrid, Juventus, Bayern Munich, Barcelona and Manchester United. Nigeria only qualified for the World Cup for the first time in 1994, but the Eagles have yet to go beyond the second round at the tournament.

Going forward, the football community, particularly the administrators and coaches, have to dispel the allegations that Nigeria is succeeding in age-grade tournaments because it fields over-age players. In 2009 for example, the age of some players in the Golden Eaglets led to controversy between a former international, Adokiye Amiesimaka, and Nigerian football officials. The hullabaloo was not satisfactorily resolved beyond name-calling by the officials. Some of these players, who are in their prime, excel at the U-17 and U-20 levels, but fizzle out on the real international platforms.

The government should sanitise the process by refusing to give excessive perks to youth players when they win these age-grade tournaments. The idea of doling out houses, shares and monetary gifts to teenagers is odd. At best, a handshake and academic scholarships should infuse a sense of patriotism in the players, since they are teenagers still waiting for the society to mould them.

The new Minister of Youths and Sports, Solomon Dalong, should not be awed by our achievements in age-grade tournaments, but should proffer fundamental changes to the way our cadet teams are run. The rate of success might initially attenuate as a result, but the long term rewards are too tantalising to abandon on the altar of questionable ephemeral attainment.

Congratulations to our all-conquering junior soccer team.

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