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Arrested development


Ade Ojeikere

NIGERIAN players in Europe are bad students of history, especially those home-grown lads who grew into international prominence playing for the country’s youth teams. Having hit it big, they forget how they got to the top, making their growth in Europe appear to be stunted. In other climes, rookies’ growth are monitored such that they play through such countries’ age-grade teams until they hit stardom in the country’s flagship squad – the senior team. Not so here because our young boys think they are wiser to be led. They only remember home when they run into trouble.

When other countries’ youth soccer teams win the ultimate prize, the world awaits the products of such teams to hit the top because their country’s football federations have their details which are jealously kept in the event of disputes. That is what FIFA’s laws provide for since they are tagged minors. But age-grade lads whose first international passports were bought by the soccer federation suddenly don’t think it is wise to route their exit to the European game through the federation’s path.

Unfortunately, those expecting such players to rock Europe with their sublime skills watch in awe as they melt away like ice-cream left under the scorching sun. Why would young boys exported to Europe playing for Nigeria suddenly sneak out using the same documents to European countries on the ticket of shylock agents and scouts? In many instances, the agents or scouts exploit their naivety to unknowingly sign off their future. It underscores the extinction of most of the lads who won the FIFA U-17 World Cup diadem for Nigeria.

Happily, NFF General Secretary, Dr. Mohammed Sanusi, has reacted to the tales of some sleazy practices by some persons who demand monies from parents of young players to put their wards in the camp of the U-17 Boys National Team, Golden Eaglets. Is anyone surprised? When you do things without setting standards, this is what you get. NFF needs to standardise all the youth soccer academies if we truly want to get players whose ages we can vouch for. The archaic method of throwing the camp open to pick young boys and girls to play for Nigeria is not only laughable but also encourages such sharp practices.

According to Sanusi: “We have given strict instructions to the coaches of the U-17 National Team, to the effect that no parent or agent or player-manager, or anyone under any guise or pretext should pay any money to have their ward in the camp. Everything must be based on merit, from the invitation of players to camp to those who eventually make the team for any match or competition.

“The NFF is monitoring the situation and will not hesitate to go as far as prosecuting any individual who engages in the exchange of money or other gratification to have players in camp, even a parent. This is a very serious warning and we are not joking.”

“I have decided to centre this warning around the U-17 team because this is where the practice appears to be most rampant. However, it applies to all the National Teams. The U-20 National Team is also in the camp, and the coaches have been handed similar instructions.

“Anyone found to be offering or collecting gratification to have a player in camp or make a team would face the full wrath of the law.”

Good talk Sanusi. We need to increase the pool of good players at that level in Nigeria if we truly want to develop the game here. It is a shame that in the 21st Century, players could still saunter into the national camp with various excuses they can’t confront their clubs with. NFF needs to truly discover, nurture, and expose our young boys and girls. and it starts with monitoring them after being exposed to the world. This includes getting to participate in their contract signing arrangement by seeing what they are finally given to sign. This writer isn’t asking NFF chieftains to sell these boys. No. Just vet what they are about to sign to avoid slavish contracts. Of course, the NFF could urge the players to insert the clause which guarantees them easy exit from their clubs to play for their fatherland where there are fixture clashes. Other African nationals do so. Why not Nigeria?

We have been through this disgusting path before. Did I hear you ask which path and when? Here is it – players being held back by their European clubs from honouring the country’s international matches. I dislike using the phrase – club versus country because such things hardly happen to players from organised football nations. Nigeria’s case is peculiar since our players find it difficult to toe the path of other established stars. For instance, I always marvel reading about the calibre of players under the fold of Jose Mourinho’s agent. With such an agent, players would always find clubs all through their careers going by the agent’s pedigree in the business.

It smacks of failure of leadership when stories which suggest that European clubs are proposing to stop Nigerian internationals from playing specific matches because there is a fixture clash with their club’s games. One is puzzled over our players’ silence when it comes to signing contracts since such documents go a long way in deciding how they relate with the clubs thereafter. My pain rests with the fact that our players have failed to involve the NFF in their contract agreements before they are signed. They remember later in their contracts’ lifespan that they have a federation, only in their troubled times.

Senegal’s Sadio Mane and Mohammed Salah of Liverpool easily leave the cub for their national team’s assignment because they have in their contracts clauses that make playing for their countries, one which the club cannot object to. In fact, Liverpool is already sulking over the proposal by Egypt to take Salah to the Olympics, knowing the effects of his absence on the team’s fortunes. It baffles this writer why our players don’t remember to insert this vital clause in their contracts before they are signed.

Twenty four hours after other countries release their squad lists for matches, their high profile players are seen training with others. Such sessions with all the invitees help the countries to play very well and win games with goals, not nail-biting performances like we see with the Super Eagles. There is little a coach can do when his key players report late to the training camp, citing such mundane issues as travelling difficulties. It also raises the poser why only our players suffer such hitches. We have instances where our players, having been released by their clubs, choose to visit their families in Nigeria before heading to camp. This act of indiscipline affects the team’s quality of play which most fans ascribe to the manager’s poor technical savvy. How do you teach students who are always late to attend lectures?

These latecomers for the country’s assignments are the first to report back to Europe knowing what awaits them if they offer such flimsy excuses as missed flights or delays in finding connecting flights to their bases. An invitee whose last club game was the preceding Saturday or Sunday should be in camp in the next 48 hours if he truly wants to behave as a professional. This idea of players sauntering into the camp when they like says a lot about the kind of manager we have. If the manager can’t stem the tide, then the federation must address the players on the need to be in camp early.

It is bad enough the there isn’t enough time between their club matches and ours. But they should know that the national team platform is key to their careers since most European clubs have them on their payrolls because they are internationals.

Some set of players can’t religiously report to the camp early, especially those who are regulars in their European clubs, yet latecomers report a day to matches and get selected for games. It portends an Animal Farm setting which isn’t good for team bonding just as it encourages indiscipline from the group.

The only reason the manager can give for this kind of unwholesome setting is that he knows his first-team players. Such teams don’t win titles because in no time players’ spirit to compete for shirts would be dampened. Only competitive teams win titles or trophies.

Beating Sierra Leone with our armada of foreign players doesn’t suggest growth. Rather, it translates to some form of arrested development, especially as we have won the FIFA U-17 World Cup several times. Countries measure the growth of their football by the number of home-grown stars who play for their senior sides. The only thing to cheer in the Super Eagles today is that Gernot Rohr has successfully spotted young and strong players whose ages we can vouch for unlike in the past the is crowded with players who submit sworn affidavits to authenticate their ages.

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