COMMENTATOR: Ladies and gentlemen, there goes the final whistle and history has been made. Nigeria are the first African country to win the FIFA World Cup. The Super Eagles have done it! They have beaten Brazil by two goals to one in front of 100,000 spectators at this magnificent air-conditioned stadium in Qatar. The Africans have won the first FIFA World Cup to be hosted in the Middle East. The prediction by the great Pele of an African World Cup triumph has finally come to pass. Ironically it is at the expense of his own country, Brazil. The Brazilian players are still in shock. But the Super Eagles are jubilant. They are dancing all over the pitch. Nigeria are world champions! What a story...
THE FOREGOING is my prediction for the Super Eagles in 2022, ten years from now. Yes, Nigeria will win the World Cup and the core of the team that will do it for us are the current Golden Eaglets.
I am pinching myself as I write this. Why am I making such a “reckless” prediction when I have not watched the Eaglets play even for once? What has come over me? To be honest, I doubt if I can muster any convincing analysis to justify this outlandish and audacious prediction. But that is it anyway. That is my gut feeling.
Obviously, a lot has happened in Nigerian sports since I last wrote this column at the end of September, three months ago. Our Under-17, Under-20 and senior football teams all qualified for their respective African continental championships to be held next year, 2013, starting with the Africa Cup of Nations in South Africa in January.
In October, President Goodluck Jonathan hosted a national sports summit at Aso Rock to chart a new way forward for Nigerian sports following our dismal showing at the London 2012 Olympic Games. Thereafter, Governor Emmanuel Uduaghan also hosted a Delta State Sports Summit also to kick-start a Delta initiative to discover and nurture future Olympians for Nigeria especially in athletics and canoeing.
Delta got an early opportunity to demonstrate that commitment when the state dusted everybody else at the recently-concluded 18th National Sports Festival to clinch first position in the medals table by a wide margin.
Lagos, meanwhile, put up a very good show at playing the hospitable hosts and graciously settled for third place behind Delta and Rivers states. Then last week, Victor Rumson Baribote was removed as chairman of the Nigeria Premier League (NPL) to bring to an abrupt end a controversial and acrimonious tenure.
On a personal note, I moderated a session, “In search of the next African Star,” at a well-attended Soccerex Seminar in Lagos in late September and I was in Asaba for the Delta Sports Summit in late October. And just last week, I dusted up my boots and scored a fantastic first goal for the Complete Sports team as we beat all opposition en route to winning our first Lagos Sports Writers Association of Nigeria (SWAN) Cup title. Throw in a bit of travel here and there on top of a busy official and domestic schedule, it has been a very hectic period, these past three months.
What stood out for me in all that period has been the performance of the Golden Eaglets and that is why I’m tipping them to rule the world in 2022.
In six qualifying matches played at home and away against Niger Republic, Guinea and Mali, the Eaglets emerged victorious on every occasion, scoring a massive 25 goals in the process and conceding only once. Their opponents may not be rated highly even by African standards, but when last did any Nigerian team win its matches so convincingly and in such commanding fashion even against the so called “minnows?” I have a very strong feeling that this particular set of Eaglets will achieve something great in the future.
Rather than tipping the Eaglets for glory just at next year’s African Under-17 Championship in Morocco or even the FIFA Under-17 World Cup in UAE also next year if they qualify, I have set a bigger goal for them because I want the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) to start looking at the bigger picture and nurture this team accordingly. Whether the Eaglets win in Morocco or not, whether they qualify or win in UAE or not, the NFF should draw up a technical programme to keep and nurture them with the 2022 FIFA World Cup in mind.
There is a general consensus amongst football watchers that these Eaglets are the youngest to be assembled by Nigeria in recent times. Although few of the players may not be exactly under-17, they look and behave closer to 18 to 20-year-olds, rather than the 25 to 30-year-olds that have been paraded as Under-17s in the past. In 10 years’ time when I’m tipping them to win the World Cup for Nigeria, these boys will be at the peak of their careers as 28 to 30-year- olds with at least one World Cup experience (in 2018) under their belts.
At the time of their recruitment, none of the boys had played in the Nigeria Premier League (NPL). Veteran journalist Paul Bassey attested to their youthful innocence when he travelled with them to Niger Republic. Paul narrated how, when asked by an air hostess for their choice between chicken and beef meals, many of them simply answered “yes.” Paul related how the boys followed camp rules religiously and showed so much respect and obedience to their coaches Manu Garba, Emmanuel Amuneke, Nduka Ugbade and Emeka Amadi. These are some of the traits of a team that will be successful.
I suggest that the NFF should draw up a detailed 10-year technical development plan for the Eaglets that will culminate in their winning the FIFA World Cup in Qatar come 2022.
The plan should set minimum standards for the players as they progress in their careers and stipulate how those who fail to meet those standards will be dropped and replaced systematically. The plan should include how the NFF will relate with the players’ present and future clubsides and their individual managers. The plan should also state at what point these players will be weaned from their present coaches and the condition for upgrading the coaches alongside, if necessary, as the team advances.
All these may sound rather academic and rigid for a game that is as unpredictable and spontaneous as football. But as Barcelona Football Club of Spain have proved in the last few years, football can be planned deliberately and played systematically with highly positive results.
Nigeria should take a cue and plan with a clear-cut objective to be world champions in 2022. It might appear to many that we didn’t have such elaborate plans when we achieved our previous major triumphs in football. But a closer look at history reveals a different story.
Our 1980 Africa Cup of Nations triumph was achieved on the back of a consistent and progressive team building which saw a core of “Green Eagles” players win bronze medals at Ethiopia ‘76 and Ghana ‘78 before finally winning the gold and trophy in 1980.
Our 1994 Nations Cup victory was achieved in similar fashion as the core of the team built by coach Clemens Westerhof had previously won silver at Algeria ‘90 and bronze at Senegal ‘92 before hitting gold at Tunisia ‘94.
Our biggest soccer achievement of all, the Atlanta ‘96 Olympic football gold, shows that the winning squad was built around our 1993 Under-20 Flying Eagles (Taribo West, Teslim Fatusi, Abiodun Obafemi, et al), the 1993 Under-17 Golden Eaglets (Nwankwo Kanu, Celestine Babayaro, Mobi Oparaku, et al) and the USA ‘94 Super Eagles (Uche Okechukwu, Daniel Amokachi, Austin Okocha, Emmanuel Amuneke and Sunday Oliseh). Atlanta ‘96 was not an accident after all, but the end result of a gradual team building and moulding process, even if we didn’t realize it at the time.
Qatar 2022 can be bigger than 1980, 1994 and 1996 in Nigerian football history if we set our minds to it. We can win the World Cup because we have demonstrated an ability to do well at the global soccer stage in the past. And even if we don’t win it, I’m sure we won’t come up short by much. NFF, let’s give it a go!
YOUR leading sports daily Complete Sports is also now the champion of sports writers, thanks to our triumph in the Lagos SWAN Cup last weekend. It looked like things would go the disappointing way of the past when we lost our opening game 1-0 to Mitchel Obi and Ejiro Omonode’s MASTERSPORTS.
Yours truly missed that game but I joined the fray in our second game with devastating effect against Larry Izamoje’s BRILA FM. My opening goal, a cracking shot from the free kick spot, was adjudged as the “goal of the day” and we went on to beat BRILA 4-1. I missed all our subsequent games because I had to report back to my club in Spain! But my teammates had drawn enough inspiration and went on to lift the trophy for the first time, beating the Nigeria Television Authority (NTA) 1-0 in the final.
Initially, there was a rumour that BRILA wanted to file a protest that I was over-aged. Indeed, at close to 50, I am over-aged when compared to Brila’s energetic young boys which should have been to their own advantage. But what I lacked in stamina, I had aplenty in skill and experience which I used to blast in that first goal for Complete Sports.
I want to thank all our fans who gave us massive support at the National Stadium, Lagos especially my nieces Hameedat and Hazeezat Azeez. We dedicate the trophy to you all and hope that the Super Eagles will take a cue from the OKOTA Bombers and also go on to win the Africa Cup of Nations in South Africa next year.
Coach Stephen Keshi promised to pick his squad based on current form of the players. Considering my hot streak and that “television goal” against Brila FM, I wonder why the coach has not called me to camp. I just wonder.
NEXT WEEK: Nigeria’s chances at AFCON 2013.