By Jude Opara, Abuja
Soccer loving Nigerians did not regret being awake Sunday night till early early Monday morning to watch the Nigerian national U-17 team; the Golden Eaglets make history in defeating hard fighting Mali 2-0 to win, for a record fifth time, the FIFA U-17 World Cup in Santiago, Chile.
Chief Coach of the team Emmanuel Amuneke could be said to be the happiest man in the country today courtesy of the superlative performance of his boys who, against all odds, conquered the rest of the world to defend the trophy the country won two years ago in Dubai.
The quiet achiever prior to the beginning of the championship was highly vilified by some Nigerians who, among other things, accused him of selecting players on sentiments. Some even went ahead to label him a bribe taker who only selected players whose parents paid huge sums of money. That story went viral especially on the social media and indeed there was intense pressure on the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) to sack the former FC Barcelona winger before the Chile party.
Another person that should rightly be in cloud Nine is the president of the NFF, Amaju Pinnick who stood his ground to allow Amuneke to continue with his job. If the reverse was to be the case, those who are on a daily basis looking for ways to vilify him would have seen another golden opportunity to call him a failure. They would have said that his tenure has not brought anything good in terms of trophies after the failure of the Super Eagles to be at the last edition of the African Cup of Nations (AFCON).
Many would have called for his head if the team had crashed out at the early stages of the championship even at the quarter finals. The hawks were already waiting for that to happen but fortunately for the coach he triumphed.
In fact NFF president, Amaju Pinnick shortly after the team defeated Mexico 4-2 to qualify for the final openly revealed how he suppressed the pressure from within and outside the NFF to send Amuneke packing. In fact some media houses had boldly written that the former Super Eagles left winger was not going to be on the bench for Nigeria at the championship.
The ‘Amuneke must go’ campaign started after the team went for the African edition of the championship in Niger republic where they finished third after losing to Mali in the semi finals. There was heightened concern over his future as his antagonists went to town with the story that if they could lose to Mali, then it would be a disaster waiting to happen at the global stage.
The spurious allegation of bribe taking was indeed strange from what was witnessed at the team’s training camp before they jetted out for their training tour in Argentina. Anybody who had visited the team during their training session would attest to the fact that Amuneke never showed any favoritism to any player.
The popular thing he used to tell the players was that nobody had a shirt number meaning that any player that dropped in form would be shown the exit door. But trust Nigerians, when they send players to a national team coach, and he rejects such a player on the grounds of not meeting up to his set standards, they will turn around to accuse the coach of collecting bribe.
For those who do not know, Amuneke has been in football all his life. In his native Eziobodo town, his name is ‘Oramiri ball’ meaning the one who drinks football water. It was said that any time in those days that he was denied the opportunity to play, Emma would burst into tears.
And right from his brief stay at the defunct Julius Berger of Lagos where he played before jetting out to team up with Zamalek FC of Egypt, the player did not fail to show the signs that he was cut out for big things in his chosen career. He also played for Sporting Lisbon and Spanish giants, FC Barcelona.
The moment the former African Footballer of the Year was given the task of heading the youth team after serving as an assistant to Chief Coach of the victorious 2013 set, Manu Garba, Amuneke began by inviting players from all over the country to an open camp run by the NFF in Abuja.
From a large crowd of over 300 young boys that turned out, he and his assistants began the difficult task of trimming down the number to manageable 70 players.
It is also instructive to note here that unlike most coaches who may be overwhelmed by such huge crowd who gave them little or no time to express themselves, Amuneke took time to give each of the players at least 30 minutes to show what they can do.
When the team went to Niger for the African championship earlier in the year and failed to win the trophy, many people thought that the team would be so disgraced in Chile because the team only managed to pick one of the tickets by winning the bronze trophy. But that defeat by Mali turned out to be a blessing in disguise because the coaching crew took time to properly overhaul the team to become the world beaters we are all celebrating today.
What is now left is for the NFF to decide on how best to use these players so that in the next few years most of them like Manchester City of England young star, Kelechi Iheanacho will get a call-up to the senior national team, the Super Eagles due to their expected outstanding performances in the respective clubs.
Already, the scouts are rushing them but the NFF must find a way to properly guide these young boys so that they will only sign the right contracts in good clubs where they could have chance to express themselves.
According to former Super Eagles Chief Coach, Chief Adegboye Onigbinde, it is one thing to conquer the world at this stage but another thing to take full advantage of that feat by becoming one of the contenders for the senior world cup trophy in 2022.
We can begin to build again with the promising talents we have seen from the two recent U-17 teams of 2013 and 2015 added with some other experienced players to have a formidable team that can face any team in the world any day.