The Under-17 team of Nigeria fondly known as the Golden Eaglets recently finished second at the WAFU B Under-17 tournament that took place in Togo earlier this month. The tournament also served as a qualifier for the Under 17 Africa Cup of Nations tournament to be held in Morocco later this year and the Golden Eaglets duly secured their place in the tournament with their second-place finish.
The Fatai Amoo led team had emerged from their group as runner up ahead of Ghana on goal difference and behind Cote d’Ivoire who finished top of the group and also emerged as the winner of the tournament defeating the Golden Eaglets again when the two sides met in the final.
Of course, considering the MRI test failure of about 40 players three weeks to the kick-off which had hampered their preparation for the tournament, the team should be commended for their gallant efforts which saw them scale through.
The real question then is what next for these young guns? Is there a development plan for these boys?
Too often over the years, there have been many young talents discovered at the early stage at age-grade tournaments but how have they all turned out? From the 2007 team of Kingsley Udoh, Oladele Ajiboye, Ganiyu Oseni, Macauley Chrisantus, Rabiu Ibrahim, the 2009 squad of Stanley Okoro, Olanrewaju Kayode, Kenneth Omeruo, Ogenyi Onazi, Fortune Chukwudi, Sanni Emmanuel, the 2013 team of Sunday Alampasu, Musa Yahaya, Taiwo Awoniyi, Kelechi Iheanacho, Isaac Success, the 2015 team of Victor Osimhen, Kelechi Nwakali, Samuel Chukwueze, and many others, it is safe to say that we have unearthed gems at the age-grade category but only a few of them have gone on to achieve stardom. There has been a lack of progression for many of these players through the other age teams and ultimately the Super Eagles of Nigeria.
Talents like Raheem Sterling (England), Neymar (Brazil), Andres Iniesta (Spain), Toni Kroos (Germany), Cesc Fabregas (Spain), Alisson Becker (Brazil), Phillipe Coutinho (Brazil), Mario Gotze (Germany), Casemiro (Brazil), James Rodriguez (Columbia), Marcelo (Brazil), Eden Hazard (Belgium), Giovani Dos Santos (Mexico), David Silva (Spain), Carlos Tevez (Argentina), Ronaldinho (Brazil), Iker Casillas (Spain), Xavi Hernandez (Spain), Gianluigi Buffon (Italy) who have later gone on to grace the world stage and achieve great strides were all discovered at their young ages in Under 17 age-grade tournaments.
All the blame cannot be shouldered and laid bare at the feet of the Nigeria Football Federation because the players are the protagonists of their career and they get to choose agents and the way they want their career to go but surely, they must bear the brunt for wrongs as well. The lack of a proper football structure in the country certainly does not help these young boys in choosing a career path.
It is a well-known secret to everyone that the first thing most of these players want to do is to leave the country in search of “greener pastures”. A lucrative contract where they will be paid handsomely often leads these guys to leagues in countries that are well below Nigeria in ranking on the global stage and of course, we can’t exactly fault these guys; some of them automatically become breadwinners whose family members rely on.
Instead of losing young talents to scouts and agents who constantly place money at the expense of their football growth and progression, how about we develop our league and properly finance it, brand it well enough to have foreign export increase the quality of the league and put in place a structure such that each team has youth teams for all age groups with the progression of players into the first team a priority.
At this stage of their career, what they need is a proper development plan, an enabling environment, and a cool head to guide them as the preying eyes of the world and stardom begins to come.