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Nigeria in search of another Austin Okocha

*We need deliberate attempts to nurture, guide youths

From Bunmi Blair

Austin ‘Jay-Jay’ Okocha is one of the best talents to have emerged from this country. Great footballers, like him, don’t just appear from nowhere, the best footballers in the world be it Neymar, Mbappe, Lionel Messi, or Cristiano Ronaldo learned their trades at various football academies.

But for Nigeria, a country with over 170 million population, her football talents are horned on the streets with very few making it to lime light. No doubt there is abundant natural football talent scattered across the 36 states of the federation but these talents waste away untapped because there are no deliberate attempts to nurture and guide them to fulfilling their potentials.

Austin ‘Jay-Jay’ Okocha a former PSG player who is widely regarded as one of the finest footballers to come out of Africa, in an interview with BBC sports academy, describes his rough and tough background as a young footballer growing up in the streets of Enugu, Enugu state Nigeria.

Austin 'Jay-Jay' Okocha...in the colours of the Super Eagles
Austin ‘Jay-Jay’ Okocha…in the colours of the Super Eagles

“There were no grass pitches where we lived, so we used to play on the street corner, or wherever else we could find a space. The pitches were very bad, but I think that helped me to develop a good technique.

“Because the surface was so rough, you always had to be conscious of your ball control and how you passed the ball. When I was 13, I started playing for my school team, the first time I had played under a manager.

“I started realising that I had to keep to my position and play with some discipline. Before then I was just playing for the sake of playing,” the former Bolton Wanderers player said.

The lack of proper developmental process for budding young football talents has been the greatest undoing for three times Africa champions, Nigeria and this has been a source of serious concern to millions of football fans, including the commander-in-chief of the Nigerian Armed Forces, President, Muhammadu Buhari who recently showed his undying love for the round leather game by tweeting a picture of himself watching the Super Eagles of Nigeria play the Lions of Cameroon from his modest sitting room, at the Aso Rock Villa, Abuja, Nigeria.

Top European nations like Germany, Spain and Belgium have all at one point or another turned their attention to youth football development programmes and it paid off. Germany after suffering an embarrassing Euro 2000 group stage exit instituted a youth football development system that values coaches and nurtures indigenous talent and 14 years later they emerged world champions. Spain’s phenomenal football success in the last 17 years can be attributed to a deliberate policy among the clubs to promote young, home-grown players and within this period they won two European titles and one world cup trophy.

Belgium, a country with a population of around 11m, with just 34 professional clubs competing across two leagues, have within 15 years of dedicated youth football development produced quality players like Eden Hazard, Thomas Vermaelen, Jan Vertonghen, Thibaut Courtois, Kevin de Bruyne, Mousa Dembélé, Axel Witsel, Romelu Lukaku among others who are currently some of the finest talents in football right now.

There have been efforts made by the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) to institute youth football development programmes, geared towards nurturing young football talents that could be graduated through the various national teams until they are good enough to play for the Super Eagles. The programmes don’t stand the test of time, largely because of inconsistency, lack of continuity and little or no sponsorship drive.

Austin 'Jay-Jay' Okocha...celebrated when he was leaving the sport that brought him name, fame and wealth
Austin ‘Jay-Jay’ Okocha…celebrated when he was leaving the sport that brought him name, fame and wealth

An example of this could be seen in 2008 when the then NFF president Alhaji Sani Lulu lunched the NFF U-13 football development programme. The programme involved the selection of national U-13 and U-15 teams from the annual NFF U-13/U-15 championship. The selected players were invited to summer camps which were held every school holiday period. At the camps, the players were taught the rudiments of football and how to play the Nigerian way. They also played friendly games locally and internationally and within seven years, Nigeria won back to back FIFA U-17 world cup titles between 2013 and 2015 with majority of the players coming from the programme.

This programme gave birth to players like Kelechi Iheanacho of Leicester City, Taiwo Awoniyi of Liverpool, Victor Osimhen of Wolfsburg, Dennis Bonaventure of FC Bragga, Alhassan Ibrahim of Austria Vienna, Chidera Eze of FC Porto within seven years. While these names might not ring a bell to the average European football fan, they are players who are between 18 and 20 years old and between 2013 and now have been rated among the best 50 players on earth alongside players like Gabriel Jesus, Renato Sanches, Martin Odegaard, Marcus Rashford, Leroy Sane and so on.

Unfortunately, since 2010, the NFF youth football development programme became inconsistent and the NFF attributed this to lack or paucity of funds. In fact, the NFF U-13/U-15 championship did not hold in 2014 and the summer camps became inconsistent too. It made a return in 2015, but the summer camps were still missing. However in 2016, the NFF now under the leadership of Amaju Pinnick secured a sponsorship deal for the programme and renamed it the Future Eagles.

The Future Eagles sponsored by Zenith bank is being reengineered by NFF’s youth football committee, led by NFF’s first vice president Seyi Akinwunmi.

“We decided that we must have a plan for our youth football, because in times past Nigeria has won and lost. We won the U-17 FIFA world cup and the next time we did not qualify, obviously not because of lack of talents.

I’ve been to numerous countries of the world and have attended several youth football tournaments but truly, I have not seen any that has the talent in abundance as Nigeria.

So we decided that we should have a youth football policy starting from U-13, we will have children who are exposed to tournaments at an early age and its benefits cannot be quantified.

Austin 'Jay-Jay' Okocha...Super Eagles' Captain with his eyes on the ball
Austin ‘Jay-Jay’ Okocha…Super Eagles’ Captain with his eyes on the ball

It involves states producing their best 18 players at the U-13 and U-15 levels. There will be zonal tournaments in the six geopolitical zones, where the best 18 players from the zones will be picked to play against each other at the national level.

But the key is not about winning the tournament, it is about selecting the best players from the entire competition for the national U-13 and U-15 teams.

The talents discovered from the 2016 edition were incredible, Nigeria is ready to take over the world, believe me.” An obviously elated Akinwunmi said at the unveiling of plans for the 2017 edition of the Future Eagles championship in Lagos, Nigeria.

The zonal finals of the 2017 Future Eagles championship will take place between September 13 and 16. The group stage matches and semi finals will come up in Kano between 20th -23rd September, while the final will be staged in Lagos on a date to be agreed with the sponsors, Zenith Bank.

If Nigeria must realise her dream of ruling the world, then they must learn from the Spaniards. LA LIGA youth team trainer, Oscar Pruzon who was in Nigeria to lecture Nigeria youth coaches in March 2017 revealed that an average Spanish player would have been exposed to at least 500 competitive matches before the age of 17.

The Future Eagles U-13 team was in Rabat Morocco in August 2017 where they engaged the Moroccan U-15/U-17 national teams in two friendly games. While the Future Eagles lost the first game 1-0, the second game ended in a 1-1 draw.

What are the chances that this programme will be sustained even beyond the tenure of the current NFF board?

“Already awareness has been created for the programme and what we hope to develop is a system where everybody starts going to look for youth players to play for their teams. That is why we have started from the states, infiltrating it into the state football associations, it may take a while, but surely youth football development will soon be our culture.” Akinwunmi added.

The Future Eagles championship will also be used to breed young football referees while only coaches who have a minimum of CAF C Licenses will be allowed to handle teams, making case for young and certificated trainers to grow the future stars.

This might not be the best youth football development programme in the world right now but obviously a culture to develop young football talents is being created and young Nigerian footballers are being given better chances to succeed more than Austin ‘Jay Jay’ Okocha had.

 

Bunmi Blair is a trained coach and Abuja-based journalist.

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