The narrative is well worn but the taint will take a long time to go away even though the Nigeria U-17 national football team just won a fifth FIFA World Cup in Chile on Sunday. Even with the introduction of the MRI scanning to checkmate countries using overage players, the major reason adduced for the sniggers and the insults is that despite an almost total dominance at age-group competitions, Nigeria has not been able to get into the quarter finals of the senior World Cup.
But there are reasons for this malaise and why it still persists.
Skill cannot be taught but tactics can
We will continue to do well at youth tournaments because at that level, the players are basically equal. Because of the higher skill level that Africans possess, they can get one over their European counterparts. At these junior level, we will notice that the more successful countries are from Africa and South America. It is when these kids are embedded in the structured confines of a higher level of football where coaching, tactical discipline, nourishment come to bear that the Europeans bloom and the African talent is put at a disadvantage.
The lack of a succession plan
If we look at Nigeria as a whole, we can see the phenomenon playing out in all spheres – the older people are not ready to leave the stage for the younger ones. Look at the league and you will see teams infested with players that have over 15-20 years’ experience and they have played for like seven to 10 teams.
Lack of a defined path to maturity
We must never assume that all the talents we see will make it to the top especially when we do not have a thriving [most people see it thus] league that can assimilate these talents that are unearthed. If Nigeria could just have a league like that in South Africa, then we will see more players staying at the top for a longer period.
Lack of basic infrastructure
Look all around us, the pitches on which the Nigeria Professional Football League matches are played have just gotten better because of the handling by the League Management Committee, who decided not to listen to excuses. But even at that we still have pitches that are a little more than grazing grounds for cows and horses. When we have this at the highest level, then where are the supposed academy players going to be trained?
Lack of capable youth coaches
With an estimated 4 million young footballers [both male and female], how many coaches [qualified at that] does Nigeria possess to train these talents effectively knowing that there is a distinct difference between a youth coach and a coach like Jose Mourinho?
Every nook and cranny boasts of one kind of academy or the other, and they consist of one former player collecting some money from some impoverished kids who are dreaming to be the next Nwankwo Kanu or Vincent Enyeama – but a dream can never be enough!
It is a known fact that coaches are the main “advisors” when it comes to the case of the “football age”. They would advise the players on the ages that really suit them so that their teams could “succeed”.
Poverty mentality amongst the players and parents
And when they are finally discovered, the stringent grasp of poverty will not allow the best career decision to be made – but who can blame them? There was a recent episode where a youthful Nigerian revealed that the money offered to him in the gulf was too ‘juicy’ to be missed. He said he had to take it because it would settle his family for almost ‘ever’. As long as football is seen an end in itself, not a means to an end, then we will continue to have this situation where players, managers and family will look at the immediate gains over the lifelong career.
The administrators don’t know what to do
Football administrators have not yet gotten the hang of managing the success at youth level because it is not seen primarily as a process to lead to the Promised Land, which would be getting to at least the quarter finals of the FIFA World Cup and the semi-final of the Olympics tournament.
They want the recognition of the head of state and adulation from hangers on who readily practice selective amnesia and voice only the positive while ignoring the many negatives so the point is missed and winning cadet tournaments becomes a mission instead of being a journey to greater things.
There may be other reasons but the truth is that we will always have talents – we have a population of over 180million people; and by the law of percentages, we will always produce more talent than Belgium [current number one team according to FIFA] but the harnessing and guidance is where we are truly lacking. If we can get some of these things right, then the snide remarks and the sniggering will cease but for now, we will have to live with the insults because they are self-inflicted.
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