Although opinions are varied, the general belief is that Nigeria’s senior national football team, the Super Eagles, has not matched the success and potentialities displayed in the age group teams such as Flying Eagles, Golden Eaglets and the Dream Team.
Every level of feat achieved by the Under-17, Under-20 and Under-23 teams often leave Nigerians with high hopes. For football loving Nigerians, it gives a reason to be hopeful that the senior national team, which is trotting at the moment, could replicate similar exploits, as it has been argued that some of the junior players could comfortably fill in the missing links in the team. The ultimate expectation on most occasions is that, it could give impetus to the development of football in Nigeria.
Unfortunately, it has been difficult for Nigeria to leverage on this phenomenon to stamp its name as a consistent football powerhouse in Africa and the larger global stage.
Out of the 30 editions of the Africa Cup of Nations tournament, the Super Eagles have won the trophy on three occasions, 1980, 1994 and 2013. Conversely, the Flying Eagles have grabbed seven trophies out of the nine editions featured for the African Youth Championship (AYC).
Prior to becoming champions last Sunday, the Under-20 national team had won the trophy in 1983, 1985, 1987, 1989, 2005, 2011 and 2015.
The string of successes recorded by Nigeria’s age group teams has not helped the senior team, as it has not benefited from the array of good players the age group tournaments churn out at every edition.
Former Under-17 coach, Henry Nwosu, said the reasons for this development are glaring, following what he described as the over-age syndrome.
Nwosu noted that the Super Eagles’ many shortcomings on the continent are the consequences of the administrators and managers of football in the country, who only think of using already-made players plying their trade in European leagues.
According to Nwosu, footballers in Africa play differently from those in Europe, saying, “African players are strong and talented, with a more vigorous, physical method, while in Europe they allow the ball to do the running.”
Nwosu, a former star striker with the Nigeria’s senior national team, stated that the Super Eagles are yet to match the achievements of the junior teams because they are ever cautious, mindful of their professional careers, which makes them less daring in attempt to avoid injuries than winning matches.
On the other hand, he said, “The junior teams have nothing to lose and everything to gain, as the boys want to make a mark and graduate to the senior team and play in Europe. So they are more committed.”
Meanwhile, insinuations are rife that most of the players who feature for junior national team are actually over age.
One of the star players of the famous Flying Eagles team that featured at the grade’s World Cup held in Saudi Arabia in 1989, Chinedu Odiari, who now lives in the United States, has, however, debunked this.
Speaking in an interview, he said: “To the best of my knowledge, we were not more than 21 years old, which was the age limit for the competition then. I hear people say certain players were dropped from the Under-17 after MRI test. What if there was a mechanical error? There is a possibility of that. But if age falsification is real, then the administrators have to find a way to curb it. We have so many youngsters of the right age to play the game.”
He also alluded to the fact that Nigeria had better players in the 1980s than now.
“We started losing the standard after we came back from the USA ’94 World Cup. That was when the quality dropped. Before, you could see the commitment but (there is) nothing like that now,” he said.
Odiari observed that Super Eagles might not have achieved much on the continent compared to the junior teams because of career challenges abroad: “I did not play in the Super Eagles because I needed to go to school; some of my colleagues also had the same problems. When good talents don’t graduate to the senior team, how could it excel?”
Giving further reasons for the drop in performance at the senior level, Odiari said, “Players’ motivation is another problem in the national team. Nigeria’s football managers don’t know how to encourage players financially and this has made players to resist risking their career when invited to the national team.”
The Chile ’87 Flying team, coached by late Christopher Udemezue, however, did well to break the transition jinx, as most of the players who featured in that competition, including Etim Esin, Victor Ikpeba, Willy Okpara, Christian Obi and Peter Nieketien, among others, made it to the senior national team, out of 23 players.
The Saudi ’89 team had players like Mutiu Adepoju, Chris Opara, Chris Ohenhen, Nduka Ugbade, Mike Onyemachara, Philip Osondu, Sam Elaija, Chinedu Odiari and Peter Ogaba, out of which only Ugbade, Opara, Adepoju and Ohenhen and a few others moved up.
The reasons the Super Eagles did well in 1994 and 1996, winning the Nations Cup, qualifying for the World Cup and breaking through with the Atlanta Olympics gold medal, were because of the input of talents from the Saudi ’89 and Japan ’93 Under-17 teams’ success, where players like Kanu Nwankwo, Wilson Oruma, Celestine Babayaro, Dosu Joseph, Austin Jay-Jay Okocha, Sunday Oliseh, Taribo West, Daniel Amokachi, Emmanuel Amuneke and others moved en mass to the senior team. The success of the two age group teams made the national team richer with good players, coupled with Clemence Westerhof’s good coaching and eyes for quality talents. After that period, the national team started struggling and till date has never recovered.
Nigeria’s youth talents tend to reach their peak after major tournaments, while their European counterparts continue to be in high demand in the European leagues. Players such as Sergio Ramos, Ike Cassilas and others that played alongside Joseph Yobo in the Nigeria ’99 FIFA youth tournament are still playing top level soccer today, what happened to Nigeria’s youth talents still leaves Nigerians bewildered.