By Ade Ojeikere
I really haven’t celebrated any age-grade feat by Nigerian teams at the continental or global levels. I have always insisted on having school children participate in such tournaments if we truly understand what sports development at the grassroots entails. Our penchant for winning every game or competitions where we have been enlisted has crippled sports, especially soccer, such that our senior team is largely populated by Nigeria-born lads. Pity.
Soccer crazy countries during the FIFA U-17 World Cup competitions 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.
These academies ensure that the players’ career paths 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 as an accident.
We are interested in celebrating what the contingents get and not how such feats improve on the game across the 774 Local Government Areas (LGAs) in the country. Coaches eager to be decorated by the president of the country at an elaborate reception, always cast an indulgent eye when accepting cheats as kids. The quest to be tagged World Cup coaches have blinded the tacticians to brazenly flout the rules of the competition, knowing that their lives would change with every World Cup-winning achievement.
This mindset is further emboldened by cheating parents who connive with their wards and collaborators in the system to present midgets or should I say those with stunted growths as kindergarten, forgetting that the world knows where to find kids within the set age brackets. It hurts when our Golden Eaglets emerge as champions, with many not talking about their schools or their mates celebrating them on social media. It makes the world sigh, knowing what those with the right systems do theirs.
It is easy to know that something is amiss when our victorious Eaglets storm the country with the trophies and the players aren’t referring to their mates in the schools nor do we see any school sending its kids to welcome their sport ambassadors as it is done elsewhere. I say this without any iota of fear knowing the joy I experienced last month watching parents of the kids in the youth team Aston Villa used to play against Liverpool in the FA Cup Third round game being brought to the stadium by their parents.
These young boys didn’t drive to the match venues nor did they charter big cars to convey them to the stadium. Instead, their parents showing that they are still under the tutelage of their parents. No prize for guessing right that the boys’ schools acknowledged the feat against Liverpool though the kids lost the game 4-1, expectedly.
Recall a certain England youth side which won the U-20 World Cup which had many Nigeria-born kids, although most of them were of mixed parentage depending on their choices. Players of Nigerian descent in the England squad include Fikayo Tomori, Dominic Solanke, Ademola Lookman and Sheyi Ojo as U-20 World Cup champions didn’t come as a surprise. Most of them have been mates since when they were in the lower cadre of age-grade teams in the past. The key point here is continuity and it helped the team to blend easily during games. The English celebrated them because they discovered, nurtured, and exposed these Nigerians to the world, which is sacrosanct. It also underscores the proficiency of the system in place to roll out talents annually unlike ours where we scout for boys with stunted growth for age-grade competitions, which was prevalent in the past.
These kids evolved from the deliberate policies in those countries with their biggest plank being the synergy between such nations’ education section and their sports counterparts.
These nations use sports to change the world’s perception of them just as it helps the citizens to improve on their health statuses, not forgetting the role sports plays in taking the kids out of the social vices for the general good of their citizens. Sports is the easiest way to address the issue of massive employment for the unemployed, only if new policies are perceived by subsequent governments as theirs.
Nigeria sports appears to be in the doldrums because new administrations throw into the trash bins models established by previous governments. Except the school system return to the models which helped to produce great sportsmen and women, the industry would continue to look outside for talents who have been displaced in other countries and parade them as ours. Of course, the results of such quick fixes are not lost on us.
Schools sports died with the introduction of free education which ensured that playgrounds effectively converted into classrooms by our administrators. Schools had colleges up to six from the initial school making it impossible for the students to recreate. Those students who tried to recreate through sports chose to improvise devices, such as playing soccer in the spaces left or arranging all forms of long planks and in some instances arranging two tables to play table tennis. Today, many old students associations are beginning to return their schools to what they were when they were student decades ago. But the damage has been done.
Today, sports councils have been converted to sports commissions which is a better package provided those adopting it know what it entails. It is important to note here that the states with the sports commission models must find how the new contraption can work in tandem with the ministry of education which supervises the schools where the students are. If the schools get on stream fully, Covid-19 permitting, prominent old students and indeed, sports-loving governors can garner resources together to reinvent school sports in the country as a matter of deliberate policies. The students are there but there are no facilities for them to burn out energy.
It truly hurts when schools hire playgrounds to host their traditional inter-house sports, which in the past was a delight to watch with each school showing its facilities for others to emulate. Governors can impress it on their customers (those firms and people who do businesses with them) to chip in some cash to revamp some of the moribund competitions which brought kids together outside of the National Sports Festival which has since lost its essence due to the different contraptions that have bedevilled the competition.
In the case of football, it is the simplest game and perhaps the cheapest to run at the foundation level – grassroots where all you need do to get kids together is to bounce the ball at the centre circle of the field anywhere in the 774 LGAs in the country and the pitches would be filled with eager youth wishing to showcase their talent.
I listened to the Golden Eaglets’ coach on television talking about assembling the players in camp over long periods. The imminent question would be how those kids hope to combine their school work with playing football. The coach should be told that the boys he picked aren’t the best. Which parent would allow the kids such a long period of absence, if they are truly kids (U-17)? What he needs to do is scouting around the country for better and more competitive players who would play games as if their lives depend on it.
The manager should worry about the large number of players who failed the MRI test for eligibility prior to the first campaign where Nigeria finished as runners-up. The place to find U-17 players are the secondary schools and possibly the primary schools for those who started school late to their parents’ and guardians’ lean purses. We need to change the narrative where our Eaglets win trophies and schools can’t celebrate such feats showing us their wards.
Our previous victories haven’t translated to anything good for our football at the higher levels for reason one has espoused here. Why would school-age players be thinking about rewards in cash? Shouldn’t they be talking about how to improve their education while playing the game? Rather than give the players cash, such monies ought to have been routed through their parents who can channel such cash appropriately. The argument in some quarters that Nigeria’s poor showing in age-grade competitions lately is because the NFF stopped paying them as they did in the past is weak.
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