By Pual Bassey
I take time out, quite often to relive and relish the four years I spent as member of the NFF Technical and Development committee in the Aminu Maigari administration.
I carry with me an enviable credential laced with successes in all facets of our national teams, from the Super Eagles to the Golden Eaglets….. Nations Cup triumph, World cup qualification, Falcons and Falconets, U17 World Cup etc…..
It was a team that gave it’s all and was ready to sacrifice personal benefits for the success of the country. That team had Chris Green, Felix Anyansi, Deji Tinubu, Adegboye Onigbinde, Christian Chukwu, Barrister Elumelu, Jay Jay Okocha, Garba Lawal, Victor Ikpeba, Garbah Ilah, Dr Ikpeme……a team laced with uncanny football knowledge and years of experience on and off the field.
With Ikpeba, I shared a language advantage. Whenever there was a heated argument, it was customary to whisper to Ikpeba in French and together we agreed on a position before rejoining the debate.
Before now, our youth and women teams had always been on hand to console us whenever the seniors tottered. That is not the case today as the U17 failed to get even a bronze in Niger, the Falcons drew away to Mali, while the U23 could not beat Zambia in Abuja.
Let me use this opportunity to congratulate and thank coaches Siasia and Okon for redeeming our pride by overcoming a shaky start that set us thinking. The case of the Dream Team was rather dramatic as they had to go away to do the impossible. In the words of Siasia, not many believed he could do it. I did not and I told the NFF General Secretary so while congratulating them for a job well done.
However, that feat in Lusaka had the name of a certain Awoniyi written all over it. While preparing for the return leg war which he said again and again that he was going to win, Coach Siasia (Don’t know where he got his confidence from!) drafted some U20 players into his squad and one of them, Taiwo Awoniyi, proved the messiah scoring the brace that gave us victory.
Like David of old, his name was on every one’s lips. “Awoniyi, give us Awoniyi”. Coming at a time that the Super Eagles are stuttering and groping in the dark, “ Awoniyi for Super Eagles” ran another refrain.
Quickly Victor Ikpeba has jumped into the ring, calling for caution. Awoniyi he said is not ready for the Super Eagles he argued, urging Nigerians not to rush him, that he is yet young.
By FIFA records, Awoniyi was born on August 12 1997 and will be 18 this year!
Back to history, recent history.
Cristiano Ronaldo, the captain of the Portuguese National team is 30, with over ten years of international experience to his credit. At age 18 he joined Manchester United, at age 22 he was nominated for the Ballon d’Or and FIFA Footballer of the year, both of which he won at age 23 in 2008.
Wayne Rooney is captain of Manchester United and England. He made his debut for England on February 2003 at age 17 and has so far played in three World Cups. Today, 230 goals for club, 43 for country, he has been capped 103 times.
Lionel Messi signed professional papers for Barcelona at age 13 and made his debut at age 16 . He got his first cap for National team when he was just 18 and at age 21 was nominated for Ballon d’Or and FIFA footballer of the year which he won the next year, and has emerged the best player in the world a record four times.
At 19, he became the youngest Argentine to score in a FIFA World Cup and at age 24 he had emerged Argentina’s all time goalscorer.
Maradona was able to play in four World Cups (1982, 1986, 1990 and 1994 ) because he started early. He made his World Cup debut at 22 and turned professional on October 20 1976 when he was just 16.
Maybe I should write about Edson Arantes do Nascimento, the great Pele who joined Santos at age 15 and was capped for Brazil at the tender age of 16.
As a 17 year old prodigy Pele was the star of the Brazil team to the 1958 World Cup team in Sweden. In the semi final against France he scored a hat trick and netted a brace in the 5-2 demolition of Sweden in the final.
Lets get nearer home. Dede Ayew is second son of the African football great Abedi Pele. When he was just 14 years old he signed for Nania football club in Ghana and two years later in 2005 was on his way to Marseille in the French Ligue Un, becoming a regular player two years later. Dede made his debut for the National team the Black Stars of Ghana on August 21, 2007 against Senegal when he was just 18.
Four years later, in 2011 he was voted BBC Africa footballer of the year and Ghana Footballer of the year.
Back to the NFF Technical Committee. One of our greatest achievements was the 2013 U17 World Cup winning side coached by Coaches Manu Garba, Emmanuel Amuneke, Nduka Ugbade and Emena Amadi. It was a meticulous process, patiently and professionally executed , so much that when we were beaten in the African final in Morocco, we were close to tears because we knew we had a team that was capable of ruling the world.
I was one of the 20,000 spectators that sat proudly in the Mohammed Bin Zayed Stadium in Abu Dhabi, November 8 2013 as the Eaglets romped to an emphatic 3-0 rout of Mexico creating history in the process as the first country to win the competition four times.
For us, this was the veritable “dream team”, the future of our football, one that had to be jealously guarded, tracked and protected. Every member of that team was a potential star. Attackers defended brilliantly, defenders scored goals effortlessly…..Nwakali, Awoniyi, Alampasu, Iheanacho, Obasi, Salihu, Alfa, Okon, Idowu, Isaac, Abubakar, Mohammed, Ezeh…….the Iheanacho explosion in Manchester, the Awoniyi feat in Lusaka are confirmations of our expectations and projections.
The Eagles as presently constituted need a breadth of fresh air. At 18, it is high time we blooded them, introduced them to the Super Eagles, thanks to their natural and innate talent. The sooner the better.
See you next week.