I used to be very interested in the Federation Of Football Association’s, FIFA organized age grade football competitions but it holds not much interest for me these days, as with the just concluded Under-17 World Cup tournament in Chile were Nigeria beat fellow West African nation, Mali in the finals to win the cup for a record fifth time.
My reason for the loss of interest has never been with the tournament itself, of which the low turnout at events venues in Chile show that I am not alone in my apathy towards age grade football, even at a time where the image of FIFA is competing with the most odious of organizations in the world presently.
My disappointment in the age grade competitions stem from the fact that beyond that, not many Nigerian footballers at that stage go ahead to become future football greats, while their counterparts from Europe and the Americas who received resounding trashing at these tournaments go on to become household names, football stars and greats just a few years down the line. Was it not just last week that I learnt that Chrisantus Macaulay now plays for AEK Athens?
Chrisantus Macaulay it was who was the highest goal scorer (with seven goals) at the 2007 edition of the FIFA U-17 World Cup in South Korea (which Nigeria won), as well as the winner of the Silver Ball. Like others before and after him, he totally faded out of limelight, while his contemporaries like Toni Kroos went on to light up the football world with his career. I don’t even want to talk about Mikel Obi and Messi, because people will say that they play different roles for club, but both are number 10’s for their countries, and while Messi had gone on to win laurels at club level, notching up goals like one drinks water leaving only his own records to beat, Mikel’s goal scoring prowess is measured in drops, nay droplets making me wonder how it is that he’s worn the number 10 jersey for so long, except maybe it means another thing in Nigerian soccer.
As I write this, I remember Pius Ikedia, that somersaulter er..erm…yea Aghahowa, and many others like this whose light shone brightly in the age grade competitions but totally faded out in the senior team, many times because at the time in which they played the age grade competitions they were far older than presented, and probably were at their peak. Did not someone say that Taiye Taiwo’s international passport say he’s younger than his twin brother?
Many who have come in defence of the boys presented for these age grade competitions point to the use of Magnetic Resonance Imaging, MRI machines to determine the ages of the boys from level of bone formation and growth using the end plates of long bones in the arms and legs which usually disappears on scans when boys are between the ages of 17 and 18, for which such are disqualified for being overage, but even with all that, many who have “passed” the tests continue to face criticisms at home where fellow classmates, friends and neighbours continue to raise doubts about their ages, and knowing what we know about FIFA today, it is difficult to believe that corruption hasn’t even gotten to the MRI situation, which is nothing compared to doping in sports generally, which with all the checks continue to present athletes who have managed to corner the checks to their advantages, either personally or with active connivance of their parent sports association or even the antidoping agency, such that Arsene Wenger (Coach/Manager at Arsenal Football Club in London) in an obvious slip almost let the cat out of the bag a few days back for which the English Football Association has demanded of him a clarification.
The hero of the latest tournament in Chile is again another Nigerian Victor Osimhen, who broke Sinama Pongolle’s record as highest goal scorer at the Under-17 World Cup level, and is having the best of times now, and probably being wooed left, right and centre by prospective European clubs.
I do not wish him bad, but we have seen this before, several times over and can only hope that this time around things will turn out differently, not just for him but for other members of the team as well. The way to do that is to begin to do things differently in Nigerian sports generally, and football in particular. It is a good thing that has happened, but we must quit celebrating the U-17’s as if it is the ultimate. Football is dying gradually (if it isn’t already dead) in Nigeria, especially at the senior level, if you doubt me just try view last night’s match against lowly rated Swaziland where the SUPER EAGLES (Nigeria’s Senior National Football Team) played quash-buckled like Ducks on land in the away fixture.
Nigerian coaches (who because they must win or get sacked, engage in age cheating or fraud, amongst others) be beating their chests for feats at age grade level football, for beating boys in high school in Europe, America and elsewhere, that were brought to the tournament by high school football trainers or coaches, not necessarily intent on winning, but for grooming and developing the abilities of future stars. The same future stars Nigerians will be glued to their TV sets to watch week in and out in the major leagues of the world, with today’s Nigerian stars at the youth levels making cameo appearances only for obscure clubs in Europe when they appear in the early stages of the European Champions League before they are booted out after the group stages.
Sadly, just like the government before it, the President Muhammadu Buhari-led government of CHANGE has claimed the win in Chile as evidence of what their progressive government forbodes, as if the last government didn’t celebrate such in 2013, including an African Nations Cup Gold Medal to boot, yet still managed to bring the country to it’s knees (and even in football, failed to qualify to defend the African Nations’ Cup title). The way forward is to humble ourselves and do things right, to stop the graph of football development in Nigeria from looking like the chart off an ECG machine. Age-grade competitions must be attended by kids of the appropriate age, we must stop this obsession to win at that level at all cost, though if it comes we accept. The ultimate aim is to push our football to the point we come to reckoning like in 1994 when we were in the top 5 footballing nations, by providing all it takes to move the young kids who might have graduated from PRINCIPAL CUPS in secondary schools to age grade competitions, to the senior national teams, with genuine BIRTH CERTIFICATES and not FOOTBALL AGES acquired via AFFIDAVITS, that anyone can get at the roadsides anywhere in Nigeria for cents, aided by faulty or compromised MRI machines and scans.