By Ben Efe
Nigerians by now are used to seeing their youth teams do well at the FIFA under age competitions, most especially the under-17 World Cup, which the Golden Eaglets have won a record four times and finished as runners up at four different occasions.
However, after these glorious showings most Nigerians have never been convinced that teams paraded by the coaches in charge, truly deserved the trophy or the medals. This is because some of these players faded away so quickly and were never seen at top flight club and international football like their counterparts from other European or South American countries who also featured in the Under-17 tournaments.
But the 2013 class of Golden Eaglets seem to have wiped away all such doubts. The Eaglets after three weeks of hard work in the United Arab Emirate proved that with a little bit of honesty Nigeria could do so well in youth football and then maybe win the most senior and prestigious world cup in no distant feature.
Coached by Manu Garba a former Nigerian international whose coaching life has revolved around the national youth teams, the Eaglets proved that they were champions stuff right from when the first shot of the FIFA Under-17 World Cup was fired on October 17.
Of course with the wise counsel from Emmanuel Amunike the 1994 Nations Cup hero, a former Barcelona FC of Spain attacker and former scout for Manchester United the Eaglets were progrmmed to performed. Don’t forget Nduaka Ugbagbe who saw it all at the maiden edition 1987 in China, he was also an inspiration to the young lads in the UAE.
When the coaches were appointed by the Nigerian football federation in 2011 they were under strict instructions not to cut corners, after controversy ripped through the selection of the 2009 team. The coaches narrowed their searches to grassroots academies and schools and were able to select a team that practically scaled through the eye of the needle to make the team to the tournament. During the course of their preparations and camping the players were made to under-go Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) testing at two different occasions and those who were not eligible were dropped.
The team during the African qualifiers left no one in doubt about their potentials as they scored a total of 21 goals. They beat Niger Republic 10-1 goal-aggregate and followed up in the second round with a 7-0 aggregate win over Guinea. Their last qualifying game for the Afrcian Championship was against Mali who they beat 2-0 home and away.
At the African championship in Morocco, the Eaglets were favourites, but for the first time since they started playing competitive football, they lost two matches and those were to Cote’d Ivoire in the group B preliminaries and in the final of the championship. Cote’d Ivoire showed that it wasn’t a mistake when the pipped the Eaglets 1-0 in the group tie. However, the Eaglets battled hard to redeem their championship, but in the end they lost top Cote’d Ivoire 5-4 on penalties after it ended 1-1 in full time.
At the FIFA Under-17 World Cup in UAE, Nigeria started their campaign at the UAE with a 6-1 thrashing of Mexico with Kelchi Iheanacho whom Nigerians fans have dubbed Iniesta after the famous Barcelona FC midfield maestro scoring four goals in that match. The Eaglets went on to play a draw with Sweden, it was their hardest game of the tournament. Striker, Success Isaac was lost to the tournament after he suffered a muscle tear. The Eaglets beat Iraq silly in their last group game and then went on to dismissed Iran in the round of 16. Uruguay were pipped in the quarter final, while in the semi-final Sweden paid the price for their audacity during the group stage.
Speaking on team performances in the tournament Cross River State commissioner for sport, Patrick Ugbe stated that the Eaglets have made the people of the state proud adding that the State governor had always believed in the team hence his benevolence while the team prepared for this tournament.
Today they finished in style beating Mexico 3 – 0. They also set a tournament record of scoring 26 goals.
“From very beginning we saw potential in the team. Most Nigerians did not believe in them, but we did that was why we supported the Eaglets and we are very excited with their performance.
“The boys trained together for a very long time. And even when they lost Success, they still carried on; they were hungry for success.
“From what we have seen of them they have a long way to go,” said Ugbe.
According to Julius Ogunro who is special assistant to the Sports Minister Bolaji Abullahi, the Eaglets have offered a hope that the country through hard work can always raked in achievements in all category of competitions.
“This is one of the best Eaglets teams that we have ever produced. On many occasions I met with them and I can say that the coaches have done an excellent job putting the team together.
“The Sports Minister insisted on the MRI testing. This is to ensure that we don’t have cases of over aged players and he is very pleased with what they have achieved. We hope to see these boys moving up to the Flying Eagles, The U-23 and ultimately the senior team,” Ogunro added.
Former Super Eagles coach Joe Erico stated that the team showed good character adding that the coaches did well to take the team to the such a high standard. “I am exceedingly happy that our boys did so well. The goalkeeper Alampasu and the assistant goalkeeper were my discoveries and that makes me proud. I also want to congratulate the coaches for a job well done, it is not an easy task to put together a team like that.
“The boys are good, they have been able to form a good and strong character for themselves. We can only hope that they will graduate to the senior team that will be good for the country.
Former Heartland of Owerri coach Kelechi Emetole said that Nigeria paraded the most youngest set of players in the tournament.
“This is the best team Nigeria has ever produced at the Under-17 level. They were very good and it will be nice to see them moving into the Flying Eagles. Unless players who are better than them is discovered, they should should be allowed to move on naturally to the senior teams because they are now like a family. “For the first time we are seeing a team that has players who we can say are truly under-17.
“The coaches have done well. Did you see the opponents we have been playing even during the African qualifiers and championship in Morocco? In UAE did you see the boys from Sweden? Mere looking at our opponents you will see that our boys are young, we should continue in this tradition.”