U17 WORLD CUP IS A MEANS TO AN END; NOT AN END IN ITSELF

BY KUNLE SOLAJA.

If precedence is anything to go bye, Manu Garba, the coach of the Nigeria U-17 World Cup, will be relieved of his position when the team returns to Nigeria.

He will thread the path that his predecessors – Sebastian Brodericks-Imasuen, Fanny Amun and Emmanuel Amuneke among others – have taken. A sack follows a loss of trophy.

In spite of wild expectations, the team crumbled at the Round of 16 early Wednesday morning and crashed out of the ongoing FIFA U17 World Cup in Brazil.

Criticism of the team has been trending on various social media platforms in Nigeria. The disappointment is quite understandable. The quest for a record-extending sixth win far out shadowed the ultimate aim of the competition, which is strictly a developmental program.

The concept of the original trophy unveiled in 1985 vividly gives reason behind the competition. In Olympic tradition, the original trophy was made of bronze, to illustrate the beginning of aspiration to rise and get to the silver zone, which the U20 trophy is made of, before winning the gold-plated FIFA World Cup trophy, the ultimate prize in global football.

The original bronze trophy of the competition is cast in the form of a shoot unfurling into full flower. It depicts the fact that the competition is not the ultimate. Nigerians have taken it to be an end, instead of the means to an end.

This probably explains why any squad that failed to win is vilified while the coach is axed. Despite the record win of five, the number of stars that blossomed into international reckoning is easily countable.

That depicts that Nigeria is really not benefiting much from the pyrrhic victories achieved. Apart from Nwankwo Kanu, Mikel Obi and very few others, how many other U17 players really made marks internationally.

This should be Nigeria’s major concern and not just to sack coaches for not winning the U17 tournament.  One can recall a certain Jean-François Jodar, the winning coach of the France U17 team in 2001.

He became the coach of the Under-17 and Under 18 teams of France in 1988, shortly after the French team came back from Canada’87 where they crashed out in the second round of the competition.

Under Jodar, France did not qualify for the FIFA Under 16 tournament from 1988 till 2001 where they were victorious. For the 13 years he was in charge, the French federation did not sack him for not qualifying the country for the world tournament.

Unlike in Nigeria, they had a different yardstick to measure his productivity. Jean-François Jodar discovered virtually every member of the 1998 World Cup winning team. David Trezequet, Nicolas Anelka and Thierry Henry were all products of Jean-François Jodar. He took the responsibility of developing the youth of France.

It is this type of developmental football that is expected in Nigeria, not merely amassing U17 trophies. Now, Nigeria combs every part of the globe to scout for U-17 players!

It is an indication that talents are lacking at home. What has happened to the report of a panel set up 20 years ago after the U20 World Cup?

A panel headed by Amanze Uchegbulam was set up in 1999 shortly after Nigeria failed to get beyond the quarterfinals of the then World Youth Championship.  The report was released on June 1, 1999. But like others before and after it, the report is gathering dust somewhere unimplemented.

The Amanze Uchegbulam Panel subjected the then NFA chairman, Abdulmumini Aminu to a two-hour grilling during one of its seatings. The conclusion of the panel:

“The ages declared by Nigerian players were questionable, if not downright false”.

The report concludes that the cheats were already having a negative impact on the national team, as players expected to graduate from youth sides burn out by the time they reach the senior national team.

To guard against this, Uchegbulam Panel recommended that Under-17 players should be recruited exclusively from the grassroots, secondary schools competitions and amateur clubsides.

After all, Uchegbulam panel, reasonably argued that after having put in a few years in the amateur league, “players can hardly be under 17 by the time they get to the professional league.”

For the Flying Eagles, the Under -20 side, Uchegbulam Panel advised that players should be recruited from the tertiary institutions, professional and amateur leagues, while not more than four foreign-based players, properly transferred by the NFA, should be invited at a time.

The logic behind the recommendation “is that by the time a player spends four years in the professional league, he should be aspiring to be in the senior team”. The report of the panel has remained unimplemented for 20 years now.

A former sports minister, Steven Ibn Akiga, tried to discourage the use of players who have featured in a higher category from dropping to the lower cadre even if their age still fall within the junior category.

It was for that reason that Femi Opabunmi who was a sensation at the World under 17 Championship and who in 2002 featured for the Super Eagles was not allowed to play for the Flying Eagles, even though the age may have allowed him to play.

The essence of the age-regulated competition is not an immediate gain of winning trophy, but a long-term benefit of nurturing an enduring senior team. In Nigeria, it has been taken to be an end, instead of means to an end.

The essence of youth sides is to raise sides that will endure. Henry Thierry, David Trezequet, Nicolas Anelka, Michael Owen were graduates of the World Youth Championship of 1997 (U20). Those players were not in the winning sides, yet their countries gained tremendously in nurturing them.