By Ade Ojeikere
SOCCER-crazy countries in Brazil for the FIFA U-17 World Cup are not there essentially to lift the trophy. They are there with the products from a structured plan to spot talents early. No kamikaze approach. Players being paraded by these countries are from renowned academies whose duty is to discover, nurture and expose kids from around them to play in such big stages. These nations’ nationals don’t have to ask their neighbours who the players are during games.
Academies which are nurseries for warehousing the game have been standardised to protect the sector and backed by law for effectiveness. It is at this level that countries’ playing patterns evolve depending on what the coaches feel could bring the best from their nationals. Standards are set for owning such academies including their curriculum to shut out quackery. These academies are registered by the country’s FA with the right synergy struck where players’ movement in and out of the country are documented.
The serious-minded soccer nations expose players from academies who also have the template to monitor those who did well and have juicy packages in big clubs in Europe, Americas and the Diaspora. These academies ensure that the players’ career path are cut to fit their ambitions. Those of them eager to combine playing soccer with going to school are enrolled to be educated. They also have drawn up training schedules to suit their schools’ curriculum, knowing the importance of education when their career as soccer players is over. Nothing happens in such countries like an accident.
Viewers of the game on television shouldn’t be surprised if commentators say some of the boys in Brazil are products of big European clubs. In such climes, it is like second nature for big teams to have youth teams from ages six to 20, who are grilled throughout the season like their senior sides. Aside, grooming them, these clubs register them for the age-grade competitions in their countries. It isn’t a case of using them as training materials.
The beauty about this system is that it also provides the platform for coaches to be trained and retrained on how to handle kids until adulthood. In fact, many of these coaches end up specialising in training young ones. They won’t be persuaded to handle clubs since they enjoy doing the job. it is, therefore, easy for these countries to name age-grade teams’ coaches, not guess work or sentiments but by their achievements in the local competitions in such countries. This academy system ensures that players’ data are accurate. They are stored and used in subsequent editions as the players grow.
Not so for Nigeria. We have kids selected from the 36 states of the federation and Abuja. It is laughable that kids were drawn from an open camp, hastily done for this competition. The coaches who taught them the game in the hinterlands have been left in the lurch. If we had competitions and clinics for the youth, we won’t embark on the archaic system of going to the grassroots to bounce the ball on playgrounds and get kids to scramble to spaces in the national team. No prize for guessing that many of those discovered have been dropped for those who didn’t go through the tedious process.
This flaw predates this current federation which has tried to change the narrative with several youth football programmes anchored on support from the corporate world, especially the banks. We are being told that close to five players of one of NFF’s youth programmes are in the current Golden Eaglets in Brazil. This isn’t the point. the difference is that most of the serious countries have theirs from different academies or programmes, yet they play the same system. Hence the cohesion when they play.
The first thing one noticed from the Nigerian side is the deliberate attempt to field truly young boys. A few of them are Grade 5 class in terms of the MRI records, but good enough to play the competition since they will be under 17 years during the competition. Nigeria has five of such cases, including the hat-trick scorer Ibrahim Said, who also scored a goal in Nigeria’s 4-2 come back victory over Hungary in the opening game.
This set of Eaglets have not been fantastic. We have not seen any outstanding player in the class of Victor Igbinoba, Phillip Osondu, Nwankwo Kanu, Victor Osimhen, Kelechi Iheanacho et al in the Eaglets days. What this squad has shown is resilience and power to overcome the two countries so far, with many purists saying that the Hungarians and Ecuadorians tired out hence the comeback wins. Who cares? Is football no longer a 90 minutes game? Matches end only after the referee’s final whistle?
Pundits cannot understand why Coach Garba Manu instructed the boys to play high balls instead of playing a closely knitted passing game. Manu’s boys resort to keeping possession of the ball and make clever penetrating runs when they trailed in the two matches. this system won’t take them to the Promised Land, especially as other countries are watching their matches and taking down notes which they will use against the Eaglets at the appropriate time.
Pundits are aghast that Manu could adopt a three-man defensive model when the boys have shown tremendous speed on-and-off the ball. A three-man defensive structure is alien to the kids culminating in the cheeky goals we have conceded. Manu should play a flat back four which encourages man-marking when we lose the ball. The left-back loses concentration while he drifts too far up front making it almost impossible for him to track back when we lose possession of the ball.
Playing the high balls into the opposition’s defence renders the midfielders otiose which isn’t the right approach.
Happily, Manu told FIFA.com on Wednesday that: “I am not happy with the errors in the (team’s) defence. And I hope to make the defence more formidable in the next game against Australia.” Good talk, dear Manu. Marking in a game starts as soon as you lose the ball. High balls alienates the midfielders and reduces their job to chasing the ball instead of running into space to collect the passes and continue the attacking onslaught
So far, at the ongoing U-17 World Cup, the Golden Eaglets of Nigeria have a perfect record. But how impressive is the Manu Garba side? They are full of energy and aggressive in their approach. They have the stamina to last 90 minutes with high intensity play. The Coach even deployed a 3-4-3 formation against Ecuador and they won 4-2 to qualify for the second round of the competition.
The above shows efforts made by the Coaches to develop a new football philosophy but the truth must be told. This Golden Eaglets side are not showing finesse in their play. The boys depend too much on their physicality to overpower opponents and rush their play too often which is largely responsible for so many loose passes. Technically, they are lacking in many areas but it is understandable because they are U-17’s.
Despite beating Honduras and Ecuador, the Golden Eaglets’ approach play was disjointed as they depend on individual brilliance. Watching the teams we defeated, you will know that they have a system of play which flows across every level of their football. The U-17’s and U-20’s can’t adopt a different pattern of play to the senior team. The system is created to suit all levels. So, when a player graduates into the senior national team from the age grade teams it won’t be a strange environment for hm.
The beauty about the new NFF leadership is the insistence that only eligible players will participate in age grade soccer for the country. So, when the controversy arose over Said, NFF’s First Vice chairman Barrister Seyi took to FUBS’ Whatsapp platform to shed light on what transpired.
According to Akinwunmi: ”Ibrahim Said took the first MRI test and was on Grade 5 (the highest acceptable grade) so was dropped by the coaches because they were careful not to pick too many players on Grade 5. They already had 4 players on Grade 5,Tijani, Shedrack, David and Abayomi. Ibrahim Said never repeated the MRI as a result of the allegations as was insinuated.
He was dropped from the team to Tanzania but returned when the squad resumed for the World Cup preparation, worked very hard and was deemed good enough. At the MRI test before the World Cup he maintained the Grade 5 and was therefore taken to the tournament.
”On giving and taking credit, it is strange that it is coming only after the young man scored a hat-trick last night. I wonder though what happens if you break into someone’s house with a view to retrieving an art work on the basis of you accusing him of being a copyright in finger, but upon enquiry you are proved to have wrongly accused him.
Furthermore if in the course of that entire incident a thorough review is done and it is discovered that other works found in his house which were presumed pirated were indeed not pirated works and one of those works becomes a best seller, do you take credit after the break in and wrong accusation? I think not.
”I do not know what credit falls but what i do know is that no fraud was established and it is unfair for anyone to come to this forum to call out people as fraudulent and then say he will bring evidence later. I head the NFF youth development committee and can categorically say that i have never been involved in covertly aiding the exclusion or inclusion of any child into the U17 National team nor am i aware of such act by any of my colleagues on the board or by any of the Technical staff in the office. If anyone has any evidence he should feel free to bring them forth, but loose and potentially libellous accusations and name calling should not be for a forum such as this, ”Akinwunmi wrote.
Good talk Akinwunmi. Up Nigeria! Up Golden Eaglets!
Ade Ojeikere is an award-winning Sports Editor.
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