When Nigeria’s Golden Eaglets striker Victor Osimhen said in an interview prior to the 2015 FIFA Chile U-17 World Cup that he idolises Ivorian and Chelsea striker Didier Drogba, little did the 16-year-old Bright Academy player know that he was going to achieve something the three-time African player of the year would’ve been proud to have on his resume.
Osimhen took the world by storm in South America. His ten goals broke the record for most goals scored in the history of the tournament and Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur are all believed to be in hot chase for the Golden Ball winner. In fact, according to some reports, he’s already been signed to Tottenham Hotspur.
The all-African final at the Sausalito Stadium which featured two west African neighbours (Mali being the other) was magnificent for the continent but more astounding was the fact that Nigeria’s U-17 side have now lifted the trophy five solid times (two more than world’s most recognised football country, Brazil).
Coincidentally President Muhammadu Buhari was the military head of state when Golden Eaglets (a name which the Nigeria Football Federation recently revealed was coined by Buhari himself) first tasted victory in the competition in China in 1985. NFF Chair Amaju Pinnick said the president deserved a Guinness book of record mention for the feat.
As the team landed at the Nnamdi Azikiwe International airport in Abuja from Santiago to a deafening welcome from a mammoth crowd, the question on the lips of many football followers across the world was this: how do this country – whose senior team, the Super Eagles, are yet to reach their first quarter-finals of the FIFA World Cup – keep producing world beaters at this age level.
Former manager of the team who guided Nigeria to its fourth title at the United Arab Emirates in 2013, Manu Garba told TRUE Africa that the secrets lie in the fact that Nigeria have some of the most talented young players at the grassroots level who are eager to succeed; prove their mettle; and help their families along the line.
Golden Eaglets all have one or two things in common: raw talents, dexterity from playing on the streets and the immense desire to succeed.
According to Garba, it’s this motivation and the belief that if all goes well, the players would’ve chartered a new chapter in their lives and those of their families, that makes them so eager to succeed. He also added that most of the players he used at the 2013 tournament were products of gritty street football which he says is the perfect way of ingraining the best attributes in every aspiring footballer.
‘In my opinion if you look at the five successful teams that have brought Nigeria glory in this tournament, they all had one or two things in common: raw talents, dexterity from playing on the streets and the immense desire to succeed which would change their lives and those of their families.’
As the former gaffer rightly noted, the 1985 Nigerian team had players like Jonathan Akpoborie, Nduka Ugbade, Salisu Nakande and Dahiru Sadi. Over the years, these players have revealed how important starting out playing on the street was for their attitude; it shaped them into tough players who could withstand difficult challenges before – and while – they ruled the world.
Nigeria’s second title came in Japan ’93 and it remains unarguably the most memorable as far as Nigerians were concerned; it came at one of the most difficult times in the history of the country. The military junta oversaw the west African nation’s first general election in ten years and refused to hand over to the proclaimed winner, Moshood Abiola, which brought a lot of turmoil across Nigeria.
The mesmerising skills of Arsenal legend Nwankwo Kanu, Celestine Babayaro (who spent six years as Chelsea’s first choice left back) and Mobi Oparaku served as an outlet for most of the citizens 22 years ago.Those set of players were not only unbeaten all through the tournament, but won all their matches, some with ruthless efficiency.
Kanu & Co. destroyed Canada 8-0 in their first group match, bludgeoned Argentina 4-0 and saw off Australia 2-0 to claim nine points from nine and a massive plus 14 goals difference.
The hosts Japan put up a brave resistance but fell 2-1 in the quarter-finals, the same scoreline with which Poland and Ghana fell in the semi-finals and final respectively.
Beyond the tournament itself, four of the team’s squad members went on to represent Nigeria at the senior World Cup, all four also winning Olympic gold in 1996: Kanu, Wilson Oruma, Babayaro and Oparaku.
The stories were no different in Korea 2007, UAE 2013 and Chile 2015 as the Eaglets proved again to the world that at this age grade no other country is better on the field of play.
Coach Garba said he believes there’s nothing extraordinary that makes Nigeria dominate the U-17 global football tournaments but rather it should be seen that the country is blessed with amazing talented players who have the right amounts of discipline, desire and flair to keep succeeding.
Nigeria’s senior team are nowhere near emulating their junior counterparts on the world stage.
‘I was coach of the 2013 winning side and I would be lying if I told you that we were doing things too differently from what our competitors were doing but in the end what usually comes to play is the immense desire from these players who enter these tournaments with the mindset that achieving success will chart new chapters in their careers and the lives of their families.’
Maybe Garba’s words then explain why Nigeria’s senior team are nowhere near emulating their junior counterparts on the world stage. Most of the players in the side have been accused by the Nigerian sporting media to lack hunger and desire, particularly once they are already established and plying their trades in some of the best clubs on the globe.
For the first time in history, the successful coach of the team hasn’t been promoted straight away to the next tier (the other four managers were promoted to the Under-20 team by Nigerian authorities) with coach Emmanuel Amuneke who first tasted success at this stage as a player in 1993, later as assistant manager in 2013 asked to remain in charge of the team to consolidate their success.
The next event comes around in two years’ time and certainly many countries would be using Nigeria as a case study to see how they could emulate such unprecedented success. Nigeria will be looking forward to scooping another title thereby widening the gap between itself and the likes of Brazil and Mexico who trail the Africans by three and two titles respectively.
It will also be interesting to see if these players will be continuously nurtured, as most people are calling on the authorities to do, so they can form the engine room of the senior team at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar where Africa is expecting to produce its first finalist.