Beyond The Euphoria Of The Under-17 World Cup Triumph

by Bayo Olupohunda

The Guardian editorial titled’ Our Very Golden Eaglets’ which appeared in the Wednesday 12th September 2007 edition on the victory of our young world beaters provide an insightful reading of the need to look critically beyond the current celebrations occasioned by the euphoria of the triumph of the Under -17 team in the just concluded FIFA Under-17 Football tournament held in Korea. The victory no doubt was long overdue given the enormous talents that abound in this country. With the army of talented under-17 all over the country, it won’t amount to an exaggeration that we ought to have won all the past editions of this global festival that is meant to celebrate youth football and discover talents for the various national teams that make the FIFA family.

But this dream and possibility have consistently been hampered by poor football administration in the country. It is on record that Nigeria won the maiden edition of the Championship in Beijing in 1985. This was twenty-two years ago. A time no African country has won anything significant in any FIFA organized competition. It was a great achievement that could have been an eye opener for our government and football administrators as regards the huge potentials that the country possesses in youth football.

It should be noted that after the 1985 victory no significant and structured effort was put in place to harness the vast potentials that youth football offers. Otherwise how could one explain the lull in youth football activities after the 1985 victory in Beijing? How come it took us another eight years since the historic victory to win another one in the Tokyo competition led by Coach Fanny Amu? With our huge potentials and proper planning, Nigeria should be a force to reckon with in global football.

It is really disheartening indeed that our youth football suffered for a period of fourteen years until this victory in Korea 2007. It is not because we lack the resources. It is simply for lack of planning, poor funding and insecerity in the selection of players. It indeed got to a point in the African under-17 Championship that we were beaten by the lowly rated Congo. Unimaginable! Allegations of nepotism and favoritism in team selection were rife. Those were the locusts years of Nigerian football. And this cut across all the national teams. No wonder we performed poorly in all competition in those years.

The socio-economic effect of football on the nation and indeed our youths cannot be quantified. A lot has been said about the unifying factor sports as a whole play in binding us together as a people and nation. The anecdote below will serve to buttress this assertion. In one of the matches involving the Golden Eaglets towards their victory in Korea at the group stages, I had been held up in traffic and was really eager to see the match against Argentina. Seeing the futility of making it back home that afternoon, I had quickly dashed into a makeshift kiosk populated by some Mallams who sell sweets in front of an uncompleted building. I quickly joined them and we were at once drowned in the heat of the tension soaked match. Our victory over Argentina became a tonic as we all began to hug and shake each other in victory consumed in patriotic fervour. I did not even realize their ethnic stock at that moment as we all began chanting UP Nigeria! UP Nigeria!

This is very instructive of the role sports play in our national life and our sports administrators must realize that the psycho-social wellness of the country partly rest on our victory at major competitions. This helps to forge a bond among the citizenry no matter the ethnic leanings. It must also be said that Nigerians know when our failure is due to ill-luck and will not unduly castigate their team. Much of the criticisms that have trailed our performance at major competitions is when it is glaring that we lost due to other factors.

Of great importance is the role football and sports play in the life of the family. Sports is now a money spinning venture all over the world. It has the capacity to turn the fortunes of our youths for the better. The number of our youths that now ply their trade in Europe has increased astronomically since the victory in Beijing. The greatest beneficiary of youth football is the Nigerian legend Nwankwo Kanu who featured in the Fanny Amu led Golden Eaglets in the Tokyo triumph in 1993. He is a living example of what football can do in transforming a generation. He is now a significant member of the society. A role model by any standard. But the sad irony still is that Kanu could have been wandering the street today. He could have been an area boy or a street urchin but for football. Examples abound in Europe, Americas and other African countries of the rags to riches story of how sports have transformed ordinary street boys to breadwinners and role models for youths.

The point in all of these is for government and our sports administrators to realize these huge potential of sports to solve the problems of unemployment, youth restiveness, the area boy syndrome, street trading and armed robbery. Sports and indeed football have the capacity to actively engage millions of our youths and turn their focus from vices that are now prevalent in the country. Apart from the wrangling that we hear from the football ruling House nothing seems to be heard from the other States of the Federation. How are our sports administrators actively engaging the youths from the States? What is happening to school sports?

The current haphazard ways of discovering new talents for national and international competitions will not help us. Efforts should be made to reinvigorate schools sports, National Sports Festival and the age long Academicals. There should be a way talents will be harnessed from Secondary Schools Sport Competitions nationwide. Global competitions have a way of absorbing these talents in The Commonwealth Games, Olympics, World Universities Games, and NUGA and the numerous foreign leagues. What happened to The Youths Sports Federation of Nigeria that discovered the bulk of the heroic Beijing boys led by Nduka Ugbade?

For our democracy to take root, there is the need for the youths of this country to be actively involved and positively too in activities that will uplift them morally, socially and give them reward financially. Otherwise they will find another use for their energy negatively. This has so far be found to be counterproductive for us. All the militants in the Niger Delta could have been Gold winning Olympic swimmers. How about the Super Falcons currently representing us at the World Women FIFA world cup? They could have turn their energy to other vices which now plaques our country.

It thus eternally behoves on our leaders to demonstrate the needed will to revive all existing games and explore new ones considering the importance of sports. All over the world football academy and Games village have been known to provide avenue for harnessing and grooming new talents. France particularly is known for its numerous football academies that groom talents for their national teams and the local Lique. These French Academy particularly absorbs immigrants’ youths just as we have our area boys and street urchins in Nigeria. It is noteworthy that the private sector has taken the initiative in this regards but the current effort is still poor considering the millions of youths that are waiting to be discovered. The Pepsi Football Academy and the new Kwara state based Football College of Excellence are only a tiny drop in our quest to harness the benefits of youth football and groom talents for our country

Why can’t our States Governments champion a State-Private Sector driven Football Academy in all the thirty six states of the federation? The states governments can provide the land and other logistics on a Build-Own and Transfer or Build and Operate bases with the full compliment of academic activities. The global football world is in daily need of talents and Nigeria can be a breeding ground. It will also help enrich our Local League.

I have seen a lot of bandwagon effect during the welcome party thrown for the victorious under 17 team but this has always been the case when we triumph at every competitions. It will be good to know the extent of support the boys got during their preparation from those now jostling to take the glory. This is sad. It reinforces the assertion that the world only recognizes a winner and success has many relations. The celebration of their victory is a welcome development but enough of the synergy currently going on should also be channeled towards preparation for all games and sports. Not only football.

All hand must be on deck. The private sector that is currently benefiting from this victory should also be involved in the grooming of talents. Ambush advertisements will not help our sports it will only frustrate efforts at developing it because as soon as the euphoria of this victory dies down, we will all be back in our old ways. Preparation must begin in earnest for the next competition. We are capable of retaining the trophy.

And for our teeming youths waiting to be discovered, I also propose that the government, sports administrators and the private sector should convene a Stakeholders Forum on ways to discover new talents and implement their findings. These are the way to go for Nigeria to achieve its pride of place in major global competitions. Lest l forget, all promises made to this victorious Korean Under-17 team should be fulfilled because we have seen situations in the past when government made promises of land, cash and others rewards which are not fulfilled for years. We must rescue our youths from their current despondent state and sports offer a promising way of doing this. We owe it to posterity to help them achieve their dream.

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