These Eaglets will fly again


… Stakeholders back U-17 side after AFCON, World Cup woes.

Despite failing to secure a World Cup spot and winning the U-17 AFCON, Nigerians believe the Golden Eaglets are a team for the future, writes ANTHONY NLEBEM

On Thursday, Nigerian football fans were left stunned after Burkina Faso defeated the Golden Eaglets 2-1 in the quarter-finals of the ongoing U-17 AFCON in Algeria.

The defeat meant elimination from the tournament, and an end to an U-17 World Cup ticket bid for the five-time world champions, who created far more opportunities but were either denied by the sticks or by the brilliant goalkeeper Abdoulaye Traore.

Defender Jeremiah Olaleke saved the Eaglets’ blushes in the 40th minute, heading the ball away on the goal-line with goalkeeper Richard Odoh stranded, but the same player was culpable when his howler inside the box, after Odoh had parried an in-swinger, let in Aboubacar Camara to put Burkina Faso ahead on the dot of half time.

Eleven minutes into the second half, the Young Etalons were further ahead when Camara slotted past Odoh from the penalty spot, following a foul on Souleymane Alio.

Abubakar Abdullahi pulled one back for Nigeria in the 67th minute, after good work from the left by Favour Daniel and Emmanuel Michael. But it was too little too late as the Burkinabe held on to claim a famous victory, and a place in the AFCON semi-finals and the World Cup.

It was a devastating moment for the Eaglets, who had been hailed as one of the youngest sides ever paraded at that level by the country.

Their coach, Nduka Ugbade, the first man to lift the U-17 World Cup, when he captained the Eaglets to victory in the first edition in China 38 years ago, selected a crop of talented teenagers, whose ages gave the country something to cheer about.

After triumphing at the WAFU zonal level, Nigerians were hopeful of the team’s qualification for the World Cup, as well as winning a record extending sixth global title.

However, all these came crashing down after the defeat to the Young Etalons at the Nelson Mandela Stadium in Algiers on Thursday.

Sports journalist Godwin Enakhena says the ages and talents of the players in the squad gladdened his heart.
“I would have been sad if I watched this team and couldn’t see talents, but I have seen several talents in this team and I’m happy about it,” Enakhena told Saturday PUNCH.

“The aim of the U-17 is to discover and showcase new talents, it is not about winning. Unfortunately, in Nigeria, we have turned it to win-at-all-cost. Sometimes, this syndrome is one of our biggest problems. We don’t need to win the U-17 tournaments all the time.”

Ugbade is hopeful the players will progress to the next level of their careers despite the disappointing defeat.
“The players are disappointed of course because they are young but we must support them because they need to continue their careers. We should work on their development because I believe that some of these players will eventually move to the senior national team,” the coach told CAFonline.

Super Eagles midfielder Ogenyi Onazi advised the boys not to be discouraged by the World Cup ouster, but to stay focussed on their careers.

“It’s disappointing that we lost but they should be proud of themselves. They should keep their heads up and ensure that they don’t allow this setback to affect their growing careers,” Onazi told Saturday PUNCH.

Lukman Haruna, captain of the Golden Eaglets squad that won the 2007 U-17 World Cup in Korea, praised the team for their fighting spirit.

“They should hold their heads up high. They were not embarrassed but it’s painful that they will not be at the World Cup.”

Since winning the first edition of the U-17 World Cup in China in 1985, when goals from Jonathan Akpoborie and Victor Igbinoba sealed a 2-0 win over tournament favourites West Germany in the final, the subsequent development of the players has been a major issue.

The country’s top performing players at the competition usually struggled to replicate their form at senior cadre.
This called into question the true ages of the players, following their inability to adapt to the rigours of the game at the senior level.

A classic example is Philip Osondu, who won the Golden Ball award for the best player of the tournament as the Eaglets were beaten by the USSR in the second edition of the competition in 1987 in Canada.

After his sterling performance, Belgian giants Anderlecht came for the technically gifted striker in 1988, but he found it difficult breaking into the senior squad. Several loan spells away from the capital city club also saw him dropping to Belgium’s second tier in an effort to play regular football.

Osondu, who died in 2019, never rediscovered his form after his heroics in Canada, with his career witnessing an inglorious end.

It’s same story with Macaulay Chrisantus, the top scorer at the 2007 U-17 World Cup. The big striker’s seven goals fired Nigeria to a third triumph, winning the Adidas Silver Ball in the process, but his career took a nosedive after he signed for German Bundesliga side Hamburger.

Consequently, he ended up playing lower tier football across European leagues and currently plays for Lynx FC, a club in Gibraltar’s Premier League.

So also was the enterprising midfielder Rabiu Ibrahim, who was tipped as the new Austin Okocha, following his blistering form at the competition in Korea and was linked with Anfield giants Liverpool.

Rabiu didn’t play a single game for Portuguese side Sporting CP, his first club in Europe, and had spells at PSV, Celtic and Kilmarnock, before joining Slovakian side Slovan Bratislava.

Indeed majority of the title-winning 2017 squad have found themselves in football’s wilderness, with the likes of captain Lukman, Kingsley Udoh, Matthew Edile, Uche Okafor all out of football for a long while.

But Spain, who were beaten by the Nigerians in the final 16 years ago, still has the likes of Real Madrid’s Nacho Asier Illarramendi (Real Sociedad) and Manchester United goalkeeper David de Gea still playing at the highest level of club football in Europe.

However, some of the local talents have also gone on to distinguish themselves at senior club and national levels.
Jonathan Akpoborie, Victor Ikpeba, Nwankwo Kanu, Celestine Babayaro, Wilson Oruma, Samuel Chukwueze, Victor Osimhen among others, went on to have distinguished careers for their clubs and country, after fine outings at the global cadet championship.

Again, questions have been raised over the lack of a proper structure to nurture budding talents into refined products at senior level.

With this latest set failing to even qualify for the U-17 World Cup, what’s in stock for them?

In this regard, stakeholders called on the Nigeria Football Federation not to turn a blind eye to the players but to ensure the steady progress of the team members, following their huge prospects.

“We have, fortunately, under the watch of the Nigeria Football Federation, the Youth League that starts in June,” Enakhena added.

“These boys should be drafted to the youth league, let them play football, then coaches will be around to see them through every week and monitor their progress.”

Former Super Eagles defender, Ifeanyi Udeze, also applauded the team’s effort despite not booking the World Cup ticket, adding that the set of players is the youngest team the country has ever produced.

“It’s painful that Nigeria did not qualify for the World Cup, but am happy with Ugbade, he did his best, Udeze told Saturday PUNCH.

“We have very good players in that team that Ugbade assembled and I will say this for the first time, this is the youngest U-17 I have ever seen Nigeria produced.

He however called on the Nigeria Football Federation to come up with programs that will ensure the growth of the players to the U0-20 in future.

“The right thing for the Nigeria Football Federation to do is to monitor their growth to the next U-20 and add some few players to the team.

“They must come together once in a while whether they have a tournament or not. Camp them for one month, so they can train together.

“I will be very happy If the NFF can monitor and keep these players together despite them not qualifying for the World Cup.”