Nigeria’s rating as a global force in soccer took a deserved hike when the countries under 17 soccer team named the Golden Eaglets, qualified for the 2019 edition of the coveted FIFA Under 17 World Cup tournament by reaching the AFCON semi-final stage. With this development the country has qualified for the cadet championship for the ninth time, out of which it won the title five times in 1985 (the maiden edition), 1993, 2007, 2013 and 2015. This string of victories has also placed the country as the most successful participating nation in the age-grade tournament.
The FIFA Under-17 soccer tournament was founded in 1985 as a football competition for male players of participating countries who are below the age of 17. With the first edition staged in China in 1985 which Nigeria won, the tournament has been held since then every two years. It began with the age limit set at 16 until 1991 when it was raised to 17, and has remained so since then. Nigeria’s dominant position in the tournament is accentuated by its five-time victory and three-time runner up record. Brazil is second to Nigeria with three wins and two runner-up placings, while Ghana and Mexico have won the trophy twice each.
For Nigeria it is unmistakable that the glorious outings at the age grade tournament has rubbed off its credentials as a soccer nation especially given the inspiration from the victories. Having dominated the tournament for 34 years on end such a dispensation is not unexpected.
Nevertheless, the country’s soccer prowess at the youth grade level seems to inspire dismal level of inspiration for comparative victories for the senior national teams – specifically the Under-20 Flying Eagles and the Super Eagles national team at the global level. For these two the challenge of earning the positive rating of the younger Under- 17 seems insurmountable. For instance, Nigeria’s Super Eagles have appeared in the FIFA World Cup for a total of six times with the first being in 1994, when they reached the second round, and the last was in 2018 in Russia when they also did not cross the second knock out stage. As for the Under-20, their preparations for the 2019 edition just suffered a set-back with a loss last week to Saudi Arabia.
Observers have long worried about the seeming inconsistency in the country’s football development programme, with the instances of flashy performance at the age grade level which are not matched as the same players migrate to the higher age category. And the culprit by consensus remains the lack of viable consistent football development programmes. Besides several instances of age cheating by Nigerian players in the Under 17 tournament has provided credence to the suspicion that the country’s successes at that level may have been due to the fielding of over-aged players. This contention is a sad commentary on the country’s integrity as far as age grade sports participation is concerned, and qualifies for more than salutary attention. While it is good for the country to be seen as a football power, it is even better that such a status be earned on the basis of credible premises.
That is why sports administrators need to address themselves to the task of comprehensive development of soccer in the country with a view to facilitating optimal and sustainable outcomes of such enterprise. This will entail the restructuring of the extant soccer development regime in the country. Presently the depressed state of administration of football in the country does not provide incentives for established youth grade talents to remain at home and enrich the domestic environment but find it more attractive to ply their trade abroad. This situation more than most other factors denies the country of the services of maturing players who should bring her glory at the tournaments for older players.