By Paul Bassey
Permit me to go back to Marakech, Morocco, venue of the just ended 10th Africa Under 17 Championship.
There is no gainsaying the fact that leaving Morocco without the cup was painful, very painful. For those of us who believed that all the Eaglets needed to win the cup was to appear in Morocco, the loss was painful.
It could have been devastating but for the group defeat handed to the team by Cote Divoire, a defeat that helped to bring the team down to earth and prove that they were humans after all, despite a string of twenty eight matches without defeat.
In an earlier interaction with the coaches I likened them to the Barcelona of world football and that nevertheless, Barcelona does get beaten!
In mourning the loss of the Eaglets we fail to give credit to the Elephanteaux ( Baby Elephants ) who came to Morocco with three players based abroad while our team was hundred per cent domestic, including five that are still in secondary school. Cote D’Ivoire have under their belt, four Under 17 World Cup qualifications, including the last one in Mexico in 2011 which Nigeria did not qualify. (The Maigari NFF gets credit for qualifying us for this competition for the first time in four years)
In Mexico 2011, playing in Group F, Cote Divoire were runners up behind Brazil and in Souleymane Coulibaly produced the competition’s highest goal scorer ( Golden Boot ) with 9 goals in just 4 matches.
This also means that Cote D’ Ivoire also played up to semi final level in the African qualifiers in 2011! That is the Cote Divoire that we took for granted, a team that emerged from a country where youth football development has become legendary in Africa.
In Cote Divoire, football academies are what they are, regulated, controlled and licensed to operate with specific curricula that has produced stars over time, stars that have gone ahead to mature into prolific world recognized players for the national team, the dreaded Elephants of Cote D’Ivoire.
You cannot say the same for Nigeria where the NFF is yet to clamp down on the indiscriminate establishment of mushroom and pathetic contraptions called academies, where unsuspecting children are lured into slavery under the guise of lucrative football career overseas.
It is true that we have won the FIFA U-17 trophy three times, yet I ask, of what benefit to this country? Let us take the 2009 competition as a case study. After we were beaten in the final by Switzerland, it was only proper to upgrade such a successful team to the U-20. But FIFA records have it that less than thirty percent of the Silver winning 2009 squad were able to make it to the U-20.
Without dwelling further on this classic case of our ephemeral age successes, I take a lot of positives from Marrakech, including the fact that we have in our hands and for the first time too, a group of players who have more than eight years of football in them, eight years that have to be managed and structured to the advantage of our country’s football.
In taking this position, let me address the issue of the failed test that saw the disqualification of three Eaglets. The MRI Test is a funny development, one that passes you today and fails you tomorrow. The MRI test does tell you how long it will take you to be U-17.( Don’t laugh)
Even before the African qualifiers the NFF subjected all the players in camp to the test and it is no more a secret that over 80 percent of the players then put together by Manu and his colleagues failed the test. This led to this new crop of players who no one can fault as far as “young” is the word in contest.
But the Morocco experience also means that before the World Cup in in United Arab Emirates in October we must subject our boys to a fresh test of MRI scans because I am convinced some of those players cleared in April in Morocco may just fall overboard in October.
I have also read about the coaches talking about working on the team. They have no choice. Apart from the depleted bench, the innocent but devastating inhouse battle for highest goals scorer diadem, the Eaglets need a defender with imposing presence, an attacker who can let fly from both legs outside the eighteen, a midfielder with free kick expertise and a goalkeeper who can manage his defenders and organize his defense line.……..
The Eaglets must learn to continue to listen to their coaches and be reminded again and again about the Cote D’ Ivoire lessons.
Yes, sports is not about winning always. You also lose some. The Eaglets story excites me, it is a clear departure from the past, one in which I will not mind losing a cup as long as I will be guaranteed a future for the sport.
See you next week.