By Rotimi Fasan

THE FIFA football World Cup competition which started about a week ago is now well under way. The Nigerian Super Eagles had their first encounter at the tournament against Croatia on 16 June, 2018. It was quite a forgettable experience. This is putting it rather mildly. One can only hope that team Nigeria can yet redeem its image and save us from the disgrace of being booted out at the preliminary stage. But if we are to go by last Saturday’s lackluster performance of our players, we might be in for a very big disappointment after all the noise and chest-thumping that preceded our arrival in Russia.

Perhaps, what happened last week should not have been that surprising considering what appeared to have grabbed our attention in the last few days before the departure of the Super Eagles to the World Cup: fashion! There was so much song and dance made about the new jersey of the Super Eagles and the technology that went into it. We didn’t stop at that. We also ensured that members of our delegation turned up at the airport in very sharp jackets that drew loud cheers and double-takes from everyone.

In view of what transpired on the playing field with Croatia, not been any means a respected football nation, the pre-tournament celebration of our fashion sense amounted to nothing but a serious misplacement of priorities. While other countries were fine-tuning their strategies for putting up a good showing or winning the coveted competition, we were obsessing about fashion. We could thank our football managers for working hard to ensure that our players did not appear on the field in their training gear, as we witnessed once at a major event, the point needs to be made and indeed underlined, that the hood does not make the monk. State of the art jerseys are neither a guarantee of nor replacement for sound training. Amaju Pinnick had in a television interview with Sam Omatseye praised the government and the Sports Minister, Solomon Dalung, for giving the Super Eagles strong moral and financial support which cannot be discountenanced if we are to come into reckoning at all in world competition. But all of that would appear like both a sop and a weak replacement for solid planning- not just for this year’s competition but generally about football as with other sports management in Nigeria.

There is undeniably a historical lack of attention to sports development in Nigeria. Both the government and sports administrators pay lip service to the idea of sports development and often have a short-sighted view of how we could leverage on long term planning towards our goal of sporting excellence. Having failed to do those things contingent to our success, we offer bribes by way of generous bonuses to our players for each game won at competitions. Sports administrators and even much more the footballers might be doing their very best to succeed and make meaning of their appearance at major competitions but many of them could only do as much on their own. Until we take seriously the idea of a vibrant youth programme for the development of football as are other sports, we are doomed to sporting failure and will have nothing but mediocrity trailing us wherever we find ourselves in sports.

While it is true that football academies both foreign and homegrown are springing up across the country (just the other day Governor Nyesom Wike was boasting about one such academy to be sited in his state), they seem to be more or less farm houses in which a few youngsters with raw talents are kept and managed with very minimal resources by enterprising individuals before being sent at give-away terms to established academies in Europe and other parts of the world. There are no records of trainees of our football academies that are doing well or known to have graduated into the national team by a systematic process of deliberate nurturing- no such record since this experiment of ‘catching them young’ began. The channels through which graduates of football academies pass into the national teams are very much opaque. By the time our so-called young players attain national fame and we encounter them for the first time, they are almost always too old and are invariably beyond their footballing peak.

They would have played for years in the local leagues, struggling through self-effort for recognition such that when they are finally on the national stage and in the national team what we see are flashes of the brilliance that could have catapulted them to national and world renown had they been spotted early. Is it any surprise then that Nigeria does very well in age-grade competitions? Indeed, we are for very obvious reasons the king of age-grade competitions in football but hardly ever so at the senior level.

Yet, we boast about us parading the youngest squad at the ongoing competition in Russia. Who wants to know how young we are when our ‘young’ men waddle across the pitch like enfeebled athletes? Some of our young men, so-called eighteen, twenty and twenty-something year olds that make it to the big leagues in Europe are no sooner there than they are sidelined to the bench, loaned out to second rate leagues or quietly sent packing where they don’t move on their own due to long abandonment on the bench.

It’s both a matter of shame and incredulity that in a country of about 200 million football-loving people, we cannot find eleven or at the very most twenty-two fully fit and talented men to represent us at the world stage rather than parading evidently brilliant players that are nevertheless past their prime. Yet, we are all witnesses to how Iceland, a country of less than 500 thousand people, the size of one of the smaller towns in Nigeria, held football power house, Argentina, down to a 1-1 draw with men said not to be professional footballers. With a goal down Switzerland did not blink before almighty Brazil. We talk about being in the group of ‘death’ even when death was far away from us and we could hardly hold our own by middling football countries like Croatia.

If we had played against Brazil or Argentina and had drawn our game like Switzerland or Iceland did against either team, we would have been full of self-congratulations by now with all kinds of pundits heaping praises on our ‘boys’ for not being intimidated by more experienced adults. Ever since our first appearance at the football World Cup in Atlanta 1994, we have steadily dropped down the football ladder. If we are not to be permanently at the rung now is the time to design a true youth programme in sports development.

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