For the past few weeks, I have been studying television footage and still images of members of the Nigerian Golden Eaglets team which won the FIFA U-17 World Championship in Korea last week. After careful observation, I now have the firm belief that there is still some sort of future for me in national football. Now I can hardly wait for the service period of this year’s Batch ‘B’ of the National Youth Service Corps, NYSC, scheme of which I am a prospective member, to kick-off.
I have decided that after my time in the scheme, I will buy a carton of the most effective and efficient brand of shaving powder on the Nigerian market, a pair of football boots and head out into football fulltime. I get the feeling that there may never be a better opportunity for me to transform my enthusiasm for a lot of vocations into financial success than what cadet football at the international level offers to me now as a Nigerian. Considering the euphoria that has greeted and which will, for sometime to come, continue to greet the Golden Eaglets’ triumph in the Far East I might as well take the plunge. And with Nigeria billed to host the next edition of the competition in 2009, who knows, a religious usage of my shaving powder, commitment to training and some well-placed bribe token could, even at age closer-to-30-than-21 fetch me a place in the Nigerian team at the next teenagers’ world cup. In the event that I don’t make the cut for the U-17s, I have a plan ‘B’ that would enable me feature for Nigeria’s U-20s at the next World Youth Championship.
Of course I am aware of the likely fate that awaits my football career after this planned outing with either or both of Nigeria’s youth teams. Will I be a fit and good enough player and eligible to play as a youth prodigy and maybe even metamorphose into a superstar in any of the top football leagues and clubs in Europe? Well, I am not faithful enough to answer in the affirmative. After all, the career of Nduka Ugbade, the alleged 16-year-old captain of the Nigerian U-16 team (as the U-17 teams were then known) to the China ’85 tournament was effectively over by 1993, at the ‘tender’ age of 23. Ugbade is not, however, the sole reason I cannot decide whether my career, after my expected outing at either Nigeria 2009 or Egypt 2009 would last for at least another two years: Manuel Rui Costa, the Portuguese midfielder who stared in the same championship as our own Samson Siasia and Mutiu Adepoju in 1989 in Saudi Arabia is still active in football as the captain of Benfica SL in his native Portugal. Same goes for Louis Figo (Inter Milan) and Fernando Couto (Parma FC) who both stared for Portugal at the same championship having respectively played for and won honours with some of the best clubs in Europe over the years. However, while Siasia and co need not necessarily have careers that last as long as those of Figo and co, the fact that they (Siasia and co) barely managed to put in five years, mostly at mediocre football leagues and club sides, after they shone so brightly at that tournament in 1989 says a lot on its own.
The careers of members of Nigeria’s Japan ’93 U-17 team are hardly any more reassuring: OK, Kanu Nwankwo is a miracle case; Wilson Oruma’s career never really took off; Manga Muhammed never got it going as well; by 1994 Peter Anosike was nowhere near what you could call serious football; Mobi Oparaku trudged on till the Atlanta ’96 Olympics and after that it was the logical pear shape for his career. Shall I go on?
Elsewhere, Julius Efosa Aghahowa, despite all his gymnastic abilities, and being still ‘only’ about 25 has, in truth, only had a professional football career (if he truly ever had any) which after 1999, lasted only two years, years he spent playing in one of Europe’s lowest leagues. And by the way, Femi Opabumi should be 21 this year, but it now seems like generations ago since he was hailed as a sparkling golden starlet and the future of Nigerian football. What about the other members of that same U-17 team to Trinidad & Tobago in 2001?
A look through the current career profiles of several members of the Argentine, Chilean, Brazilian, Czech and several other teams at this year’s World Youth Championship in Canada would reveal current careers at some of the best club sides in Europe as those clubs jostled for the signatures of these players immediately after the tournament ended. But what has happened to Ezekiel Bala, Brown Ideye and other members of the Nigerian U-20 team to the same championship?
So, will Christianus or Chrisantus Macaulay be good enough to attract the interest of the likes of Arsenal FC, Olympic Lyonaise and other big or decent clubs in Europe? I do not think so. For all his goals and enthusiasm he would be ‘extremely’ lucky to get a second rate club in France or Russia. Otherwise, Malta, Iceland, China, Macedonia, Israel and Sudan all beckon to him. And if he is luckier, he might get to play in some middle-level league for two or three years before his career expires, literally. Same for practically every other member of that U-17 team, which would be in sharp contrast to what the likes of Germany’s Toni Kroos and Spain’s Fran Merida and several of their team mates would likely have.
But what is the reason why South American, European and other football players have longer playing careers in football than their Nigerian counterparts? Do they train better? Yes, in some way. Are they genetically luckier? I don’t think so. Are they more committed and dedicated, individually and collectively? Definitely, but that is not nearly all there is to the disparity in career length. A more encompassing reason is embedded in our interpretation of calendar dates as reflected in the birth certificates and affidavits Nigerian players carry as opposed to say their European or South American counterparts.
However, I am not about to let the relative lack of longevity in the careers of Nigerian footballers deter me from fulfilling my ambition of playing at the next FIFA U-17 World Cup. I will shave my face religiously and deposit for an affidavit with a court of law. In the affidavit I will ensure that my age is reduced by at least half. And with some strategically placed bribe token, especially since I don’t have to emerge from any football academy to be eligible, I think I will make one of the teams for 2009. So long as I get to play and Nigeria gets to win the competition or my grand old self and my venerable team mates manage to get to the quarterfinals of any of the competitions, then just as well, for it matters little or not at all whether or not football in Nigeria develops beyond its current level.