For Nigeria's teen prodigies, missing the World Cup is terminal. They are the real victims

Golden Eaglets begin their AFCON journey with a win against Zambia

U-17 AFCON For Nigeria's teen prodigies, missing the World Cup is terminal. They are the real victims

Solace Chukwu 08:26 - 12.05.2023

The Golden Eaglets' inability to progress to the U-17 World Cup will doubtless see a promising crop of talent fall through the cracks of history

When the roll is called for the Under-17 FIFA World Cup in November, five-time winners Nigeria will be conspicuously absent. That much was confirmed as their 2023 vintage failed to make it past Burkina Faso on Thursday night at the Under-17 Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON), a disappointment all the more crushing for what its repercussions might be. 

In ordinary circumstances, failing to qualify for the World Cup need not be particularly deleterious. After all, the correlation between success at that level and ultimate achievement in the senior ranks is, at best, a tenuous one. As an example, of Europe’s most successful footballing nations of the last four decades, only Spain have consistently performed well at the U-17 World Cup, and even they have never won the competition. It is hardly a mortal blow.

However, where Nigeria is concerned, the circumstances are far from ordinary: in failing to reach the final four in Algeria, it is almost certain that an entire generation has now been lost to the world.  

Nigeria U-17 vs Burkina Faso U-17
For this Nigeria U-17 crop, failure comes at too great a cost

If the stakes are that high and the consequences are that dire, it is no fault of the players themselves. These are, after all, mid-teens who were asked to take their destiny in their own hands and, within one singular window of opportunity, determine the course of their lives. 

In no other sector is this a thing – imagine failing one’s O- or A-levels the first time and, as a result, never being able to attend university or earn any kind of degree. That is a brutal amount of pressure to place on anyone, let alone young adolescents; it is no wonder that, as they chased a deficit for swathes of the quarter-final defeat in Algiers, clarity and composure were at a premium. 

Nor is it strictly the fault of the coaching crew, even though the team’s suboptimal spacing, timing and rest defence, among other things, betrayed the fact that Nduka Ugbade has a lot to learn, still. Nevertheless, if for nothing else than the team’s positive intent and willingness to play a collegial, intricate brand of attacking football, the former Nigeria international emerges with a smidgen of credit.

Coach Nduka Ugbade predicted some of his Eaglets will become Super Eaglets stars. Nduka Ugbade's coaching was exemplary, even though he is not entirely blameless for Nigeria's exit at the U-17 AFCON

No, blame falls squarely on the football administration of Nigeria that has, over the course of its more than 60 years of existence, failed to provide the right development frameworks to both mine and refine an abundance of sporting potential. 

With football being far and away the most popular and widely played sport in the most populous black country in the world, there is an almost unthinkable quantity of human capital. To do nothing with that is the ultimate ingratitude in a sense: by dint of divine ordinance (or utter randomness, if you are of an agnostic/atheist persuasion), Nigeria’s kernels have been cracked for it by benevolent spirits, but the foresight and will to turn it into useful consumer product is sorely lacking.

Instead, having failed to do their jobs, they routinely abdicate that responsibility to the children themselves, asking them to carry hot coals and fend for themselves, or, even worse, to strangers who, unaware of the peculiarities of Nigerian/African football and the hopes and dreams that are housed in these players, mould them into vessels fit only for the use of European clubs. 

Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) building
Make no mistake: the buck stops here

It is a perversion of the socio-natural order: the elderly are expected to protect the young and pave the way for them to excel. Instead, what they get is pressure and uncertainty, set adrift like Moses on the Nile, at the mercy of the elements and good fortune.

With no league structure (the less said about the Nigeria Premier Football League, which is riddled with corruption, violence, infrastructural and knowledge deficits, and such bumbling incompetence at all levels that it cannot, from one season to the next, decide on a consistent format, the better) within which young footballers can develop and build careers, they are more or less guaranteed to fall through the cracks in the absence of global competition to showcase them to the world.

It is a shame, too, because there is some legitimately impressive talent in this latest group. Centre-back Jeremiah Olaleke was near-impeccable all tournament, Emmanuel Michael at left-back displayed an understanding of football (as well as a wand of a left foot) beyond his years, Hope Linus was a find at the base of midfield, Light Eke shone brightly in moments, and goalkeeper Richard Odoh showed great promise. The world may never know their names, so we might as well say them now.

Without the U-17 World Cup, not only is their visibility affected, but even a best-case scenario would still see a year or two of critical development lost. They – not the watching public, not preening administrators, not even the coaches – are the real victims, condemned by birth to turn out for a country that eats its young.