FIFA Under-17 World Cup: Golden Eaglets go to Brazil under the weight of expectation
It is rare that a Nigeria cadet squad is named without sniggering comments from fans about age cheating, but the squad for this year’s FIFA Under-17 Word Cup was surprisingly free of comment in that regard.
For the first time, perhaps since that first squad in 1985, there has been no mockery about the even a single member of the team that Manu Garba has taken to Brazil, in an attempt to extend Nigeria’s dominance of this tournament.
If anything, most of the responses to the NFF’s Instagram posts were overwhelmingly complimentary, as the Golden Eaglets begin their campaign against Hungary on Saturday.
To be fair to fans, the country has had issues with age falsification in the past, leading to the commonly whispered phrase of ‘football age’ versus ‘real age’ in Nigerian football circles.
There are even those who suggest that the inability of Nigeria’s Super Eagles to advance past the second round of the senior World Cup, despite being serial and record winners of the U-17 event, is down to age cheating.
The problem has been significant in the past, so much so that global football authorities have implemented many tests and methods, most up for scientific debate, to try and combat the practice of inserting young-looking yet older players into youth teams.
FIFA’s introduction of the MRI scan put the brakes on grown men trying to shave a decade off their ages, but a more lasting and sustainable solution was required, and in Nigeria, the NFF have set about addressing the problem.
First, coaches were given an unwritten rule to not include players from the domestic league, as it is the general consensus that it is rare to find a player within that late-teen age range in the NPFL.
This was followed by the introduction of the Under 13 and Under 15 national teams, under former president Sani Lulu Abdullahi, which was given wings by the current leadership of the NFF thanks to a partnership with Zenith Bank.
One of the most notable products of that program is Leicester City’s Kelechi Iheanacho. Garba’s current squad has five graduates from that program; Unman Ibrahim, Samson Tijani, Olakunle Olusegun, Akinkunmi Amoo and Divine Nwachukwu. All are team stalwarts.
Garba, who led the team to their fourth title in 2013, was tasked with overseeing a rebuild. And on this go around, he has been forced to do so more times than even he cares to remember. His current team bears only a vague resemblance to the one which won the qualification for the World Cup at the Africa U17 Cup of Nations, with players coming and going.
There have also been additions from players born, raised, and being developed abroad, something that was previously unthinkable in Nigerian under 17 football.
It all means this current set of Golden Eaglets are at a seminal point in Nigerian football history, and they go to Brazil bearing a huge burden of expectation on their young shoulders.
One major reason put out for age cheating, especially by coaches, is that true under 17 players in Nigeria are neither physically developed, nor experienced enough to compete with their counterparts from developed nations.
Recent teams have proven that to be false, and that true youngsters could win. It is the responsibility of this team to finally put that misguided theory to rest.
Perform well, even if they do not win the title, and the template will be cast in stone going forward. Bomb out badly, and there could well be moves towards a gradual slide back to the days of “passport aged” men.
So far, their friendly results – not all wins – portend well for the former.