When Samson Tijani was invited to the Nigeria U-17 national team otherwise known as Golden Eaglets in 2018, the principal thought for his ageing dad was to see his son become the shining light that would lead the family out of poverty.
Working as a security guard in one of the palatial apartments in Valley View Estates around Aboru, a suburb of Lagos, Pa Tijani spent most of his time inside a cramped cubicle just beside the entrance gate, opening and closing the gate for his employer’s family and visitors.
His family lived far away in another part of Lagos since he could not afford to rent an apartment for them in the high-end estate.
However, his turnaround came when Coach Manu Garba and assistant, Nduka Ugbade, picked his son, Samson, for the national U-17 team.
Money as the great incentive
Samson’s daily allowances and winning bonuses were all Samson needed to turn things around for his dad and siblings. The towering midfielder, often described as heir apparent to John Obi Mikel, turned down offers from agents who swarmed around him, dangling the carrot of renting and furnishing a three-bedroom flat for his dad if he agreed to put pen to paper. He now had more than enough money — from bonuses from the NFF — to get a suitable house for his dad.
He rented a three-bedroom apartment for his ageing dad and paying the rent was like a drop in the ocean. Today, Pa Tijani no longer work as a security guard because his son has improved his lot, thanks to bonuses from the NFF and a professional football contract that came after the son represented Nigeria at the FIFA U-17 World Cup.
While the first monies earned by Tijani were life-changing, it is meagre compared to what accrued to the 2013 and 2015 class of the Golden Eaglets team that conquered the world to win the fourth and fifth FIFA U-17 titles for Nigeria. A member of the backroom staff in those two teams told PREMIUM TIMES that the Eaglets received between $1,000 and $5,000 as match bonuses alone.
“I remember then, one of the NFF officials will call the key players before any game and show them the wad of dollars on the table for their picking if they got the desired results whilst also warning that the monies will be returned if the results were not palatable,” he recalled.
He added: “Trust me, when these boys get on the pitch, they are ready to die there because they know what it is at stake. They may be young boys truly but given the society we find ourselves, a lot is expected from these players right from their tender ages.”
All that is in the history books because the current age group teams representing Nigeria at major tournaments will only smile to the bank primarily from a tournament’s prize money.
Fuelled by a blanket global economic downturn caused by COVID-19, the NFF president Amaju Pinnick declared in simple terms that the Federation was groaning under financial distress and needed to take drastic steps.
One step was cutting off the allowances and bonuses that normally accrue to the age-grade teams as the NFF declared that their primary focus would be the Super Eagles and the Falcons while junior national teams would enjoy minimal direct funding.
“Of course, the priorities, for now, would be the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers and the 2022 FIFA World Cup qualifiers involving the Super Eagles, and the Women AFCON assignment of the Super Falcons. Those are the subheads guaranteed for now. I said earlier that COVID-19 pandemic has wrought some havoc and we just have to be realistic in our expectations from both the government and our corporate partners.
“We are looking to still keep the age-grade teams in business, despite priority being given to the Super Eagles and the Super Falcons. But there will be conditions. They will earn no match bonus or camp allowances and we will only be able to take on board the minimum technical and backroom staff as specified by FIFA and CAF.
“However, if any of the teams goes ahead and wins the World Cup, or perform well enough at the World Cup to earn an appearance fee, the entire team will share that money. The NFF will have no part of it. That will be the boon for them, the incentive to perform,” Mr Pinnick revealed.
The NFF president dropped this bombshell during a video call in 2020, and it came as good, bad, and ugly news to parents, guardians and youth football lovers.
There seems to have been a direct correlation with performances from the age-group teams consequently. The Dream Team (U-23) failed to qualify for the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, while the Flying Eagles (U-20) also failed to qualify for 2021 African Youth Championship after being knocked out in the qualifiers.
Cynics argue that the NFF’s decision to cut out monetary incentives for age-group teams is not a well thought-out strategy and that the attendant disadvantages are already playing out.
Over the years, the Nigerian government has adopted monetary incentives as a means of motivation for its athletes and for the NFF arbitrarily scrap this exercise portends dire consequences for the growth of the game, especially from the grassroots.
There are speculations that the U-23 team’s failure to qualify for the Olympics and the lacklustre show by the U-20s in Cotonou last December was connected with the unavailability of bonuses.
Successful countries don’t pay their junior players
The NFF decision is not unusual. Many countries, especially the more advanced and successful football nations, consider age-grade football to be about passion and development and not commerce.
There is no better time for the country’s football governing body to restore sanity to the game at the youth level and finally put a stop to how money has become the major incentive for underage footballers in Nigeria today.
It is debatable, but money rewards and bonuses have had detrimental effects on players’ production and performance. Youth footballers are wont to believe they have made it, even when they are restricted to the bench.
The wages and allowances have had a way of stunting players’ hunger, motivation and desire to become the best in the world. That explains why countless U-17 players put money first when negotiating foreign deals and end up in leagues which stifle their development.
After finishing as runners-up at the 2009 FIFA U-17 World Cup hosted by Nigeria, Azeez Ramon had offers from several countries. But of all the clubs that came calling, Rubin Kazan had the cash, but his agent believed playing in Russia would be detrimental to Ramon’s progress. He then opted for Lugo FC in Spanish Segunda Division where the player could undergo gradual development. It was a wise decision by his agent because today, Ramon is a part of FC Granada m that plays in the La Liga.
A number of Nigerian youth are not that lucky to have reasonable agents who put players’ careers ahead of money. Some commentators believe the NFF’s decision to defund youth teams should be embraced and supported because this policy will help decrease pressure on youth footballers. And as Mr Pinnick said, it will help the players put in their best.
There is a list as long as your arm of youth prodigies who lost all motivation once they became wealthier than they’d ever imagined. There has been a lack of Nigerian players progressing to top-level football for both club and country because of early exposure to money. This vicious cycle will continue except drastic steps are taken by the FA.
The COVID-19 reality
While we cannot blame the NFF for the current global financial meltdown, a school of thought still feels the football house can come up with a bonus cap for all its youth teams rather than totally scrapping camp allowances and winning bonuses.
Since FIFA does not give any form of prize money for winning the U-17 tournament apart from a voucher for $10, 000 [about N8,000,000] worth of football equipment (to be used for youth football development) presented to the team finishing first in the fair play contest, what will be a fall-back plan for the players should they lose out in the tournament?
In Nigeria and Africa where economic malaise cuts deep, parents, guardians and families count themselves lucky and almost free from the clutches of poverty once their ward is selected for any of the national football teams. They wait and pray for the team to succeed because of the financial rewards that normally follow.
Another great concern is for injured players when the teams do not win tournaments. It means such players are left to suffer and literally turn to beggars, especially if they need to undergo surgery abroad. It is important the NFF secures health insurance for its junior national teams if Mr Pinnick insists on sticking to his guns.
Erstwhile Super Eagles defender Sam Sodje admitted the NFF is in a tight corner, especially because of the negative impact of COVID-19, which has affected every nation. The former Portsmouth defender said it is unfortunate for the players and coach alike but appealed to the NFF to help the parties involved since most players and coaches are the breadwinners of their respective families.
“Fair enough if they (NFF) don’t have the income. It is very unfortunate for the players and coaches alike. NFF should please find a way to help these players,” he said.
Another school of thought believes not making money accessible to the players and coaching crew may mean more underhand methods in the selection of players. This means the coaches can devise their own means of survival. Monies will exchange hands and ultimately, the national team will suffer.
Recycling of coaches
Over the years, the media and concerned parties have faulted the NFF’s appointment of coaches for the junior national team, which, according to many, is just a recycling system. Coaches, after years of sabbatical from modern coaching, are exhumed to tinker national teams as long as they are in the good books of the Federation.
Former U-20 coach Paul Aigbogun was reportedly a taxi driver in London before close allies advised him to return to handle one of the local clubs if he wanted a chance of getting one of the coaching slots. NFF appointed him to manage the U-20 team in 2018, but Aigbogun could not deliver any silverware; failing on the continent and on the global stage as well.
The appointments of Ladan Bosso and Fatai Amoo to coach the U-20 and U-17 teams respectively in 2020 did not go down well with many who believe there are loads of younger and more qualified coaches that should have been considered for both posts. A top London based football agent who pleaded anonymity once said this vicious cycle of mismanagement and bribery will continue to constrain the development of age-group football in Nigeria.
“I know a coach who is far richer than some so-called NFF officials because of his long years of coaching Nigeria junior teams. He is not bothered if his salary is paid or not because he is a millionaire. A lot needs to be corrected if Nigeria must return to its rightful place in age-group football,” he told PREMIUM TIMES.
Scouting for the next football gem
Coach Samson Siasia, who has coached successfully in the U-20 and U-23 Nigerian teams, while speaking with PREMIUM TIMES, said that a lot needs to be done with the scouting process, which accordingly is one of the biggest drawbacks in selecting talented players for age group competitions.
“There is a problem with the selection system and NFF must as a matter of urgency find a lasting solution to it. How can you ask hundreds of players to converge in Abuja for screening? Players from Kano, Aba, Lagos and every nook and cranny gather in Abuja and you expect three coaches to see clearly during selection? Hell no!
“Let scouting programs be zoned and let coaches in those zones monitor competitions and select three or four best players they think are good enough and suitable for what the head coach wants. They then send the good ones to Abuja to join other selected players from different zones.
“Coaches will save lots of time on screening and focus on preparing the boys for the task ahead. Our scouting system will never get you the best players,” Mr Siasia added.
Football has become a gold mine that everyone-no matter the competence, wants to identify with, hence the continuing emergence of poorly structured football academies in the country. Most academies will do everything humanly possible to ensure their players get selected by age-grade national team coaches but to forestall the case where the cream doesn’t rise to the top, the NFF must come up with a structure that will ensure only qualified academies are allowed to operate.
The country’s football governing body must clean up its house. It is not a secret that some top NFF members have slots in junior national teams and that the choice of players has been politicised. Finally, the NFF does not need to be innovative concerning grassroots football development.
There are templates from countries like the US, Belgium, and The Netherlands that can be cloned to deliver growth and success in age-grade football, but they must show intentionality and integrity to get the job done.
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