12th November, 2013
By Tayo Ogunbiyi
Soccer glory once again came the way of our dear country in far- away, Abu Dhabi at the United Arab Emirates, UAE, during the recently concluded FIFA U17 World Cup competition. The victory of the national U-17 side, the Golden Eaglets at the UAE tournament is quite instructive in many ways. For one, the Golden Eaglets won the tournament for a record fourth time. Second, the Eaglets created a new tournament record of scoring a total of twenty-six goals in the competition. Third, the Eaglets’ goal keeper, Dele Alampasu, emerged as the tournament’s best goal keeper while the team’s play-maker, Kelechi Iheanacho, was chosen as the Most Valuable Player of the competition in addition to his winning the bronze boot as the second highest scorer of the tournament. The Golden Eaglets equally won the tournament’s Fair Play award. Indeed, the UAE soccer event was a glorious moment in the annals of the country’s sporting attainments.
Right from the beginning of the competition, the Eaglets left no one in doubt about their credentials as one of the favourite teams to win the coveted world U-17 football trophy through the audacious humiliation of Mexico, the tournament’s defending champions and eventual finalists. In the opening match, the Eaglets’ Kelechi Iheanacho gave the soccer world a taste of his amazing soccer artistry as he single -handedly wrecked the Mexicans by scoring a whopping four out of the Eaglets’ six goals in the match. Aside the second match against Sweden, which the team drew 3-3, the Golden Eaglets went on like a house on fire to demolish all opponents en-route the final. The kind of total football, a combination of speed, strength, skill and ruggedness all rolled into one, on display by the Eaglets at the tournament, is one that a bewildering soccer world would continue to talk about for a long time.
There are so many lessons for us as a nation to draw from the victory of the Golden Eaglets at the UAE. For one, the victory further underscores the abundant sporting talents in the country. Since Nigeria won the first FIFA U-17 World Cup which took place in China in 1985, we have gone ahead to win it on three other occasions – 1993, 2007 and 2013. This is aside emerging runners up twice at the tournament. Through the tournament, players such as Nduka Ubgade, Kanu Nwankwo, Victor Ikpeba, Wilson Oruma, Emmanual Babayaro, John Mikel Obi, Celestine Babayaro, Godwin Opkara, to mention but a few, have emerged at the centre stage of the soccer world. But for the competition, the talents of these young compatriots, like those of others in other sectors of the country could have died unnoticed.
This, of course, takes us to the all important issue of effectively harnessing the enormous human potentials available in the country. It is true that we have just unleashed twenty- two (lucky) sporting teenagers on the soccer world stage. But the essential question that we need to provide urgent answer to is: what happens to the millions of other undiscovered sporting talents languishing in different parts of the country?
The Eaglets success story in Abu Dhabi equally has vital implications for the Nigerian youth, and indeed the nation at large, as we continue the process of nation building. It is important for the youth to imbibe the spirit of self-belief by rising above every limiting environmental factor to achieve set-goals. The inherent difficulties of living in Nigeria or being a Nigerian should not provide stereo-typed excuses for failure. Aside the present crop of players in the all conquering Golden Eaglets squad, numerous other Nigerians in various fields of human endeavour, in spite of the peculiar challenges in the country, have equally braved the odds, at one time or the other, to excel in their respective careers. All our youth need to do get to the promised land is to keep believing and being focused.
Furthermore, Nigerian sportsmen and women must understand what a privilege, and indeed a rare opportunity, it is for them to represent their country in various sporting events. Aside offering them the platform to contribute their quota to national development, representing one’s fatherland at sporting tournaments, offers a unique opportunity to have one’s name written in gold forever, both in the hearts of fellow compatriots as well as in the record books. Today, individuals such as Segun Odegbami, Chidi Imoh, Mary Onyeali, Chioma Ajunwa, Jerry Okorodudu, Stephen Keshi, to mention just a few, command great respect across and beyond the country for their selfless services to their fatherland. It is rather unfortunate, these days, to see some ignorant and short-sighted Nigerian sportsmen misusing the rare privilege of representing the country at various sporting events. They need to take a cue from other compatriots whose years of selfless service in the sporting arena have endeared them to Nigerians across religious and ethnic divides.
However, it is imperative, at this juncture, to dwell on the need for sports administrators across the country to turn a new leaf. It is rather sad that as much as our compatriots in the sporting fields would want to give their all in the service of their fatherland, they are often frustrated by the selfish and unpatriotic attitude of our so-called sports administrators. For instance, the Nigerian Football Federation, NFF, over the years has appeared to act in a manner that impedes the development of soccer in the country. Is it not particularly embarrassing that the NFF is reportedly owing Stephen Keshi, the Super Eagles chief coach, seven months’ salary? It took the coach’s lamentation on the pages of newspapers before the NFF reportedly agreed to pay him two months’ wages out of the outstanding seven being owed. To think that this is the same coach that has returned the Super Eagles to winning ways!
It has become a tradition for the NFF to keep complaining of lack of funds as excuse for ineptitude. It smacks of gross incompetence for the NFF to keep talking of dearth of funds when it has a brand such as the Super Eagles, the current African champions, in its stable. The NFF needs to come up with creative marketing strategies that would enable it catch-up on the recent successes of the various national teams for financial gains. This is the way it is done all over the world. Going cup in hand all the time to beg state governors for fund each time our national teams are on assignment is, to say the least, unprofessional and demeaning.
In order to sustain the current success story of the Super Eagles as well as the Golden Eaglets, the NFF must creatively bring on board new age-grades soccer completions across the country. It could achieve this by working closely with the organized private sector. Shell Petroleum, Channels Television, Pepsi Cola, to mention just a few, are some of the private sector organizations that already have structures for the development of age grade football competitions in the country. The NFF would do well to work more closely with these and other such well meaning organizations and individuals with bias for grassroots soccer development. It is only in doing this that we can discover new soccer heroes and deal with the issues of job creation and youth restiveness in the country.
•Ogunbiyi is of the Features Unit, Ministry of Information and Strategy, Alausa, Ikeja.