By Godfrey Ali Gaiya
The downfall of the U-20 National Team popularly called the flying Eagle from the ongoing U-20 World Cup in Poland did not come to many as a surprise.
The team right from the qualifying rounds never showed any promise. The U-20 AFCON championship in Niger Republic clearly exposed the weakness of the team, who qualified for the U-20 World Cup as the fourth best team in Africa.
Despite failure to win any laurel in Niger, Nigerians soccer fans were still consoled in the fact that the team qualified for Poland. This is more so as Nigeria last graced the U-20 world cup in 2015, even as they crashed out from the qualifying match in 2017.
When the competition was introduced in the late seventies, Nigeria was at the forefront in Africa , with a maiden appearance at the African championship in 1978 to 1979. From that time till date, Nigeria has appeared virtually in every U-20 AFCON championship and have been crowned champions a total of seven (7) times.
When Nigeria first won in 1983, they retained the trophy back to back a record four times in a row; 1983, 1985, 1987 and 1989. This was the era that Nigeria was at the height of its football at this category. To justify this dominance in Africa, the flying Eagles have appeared in the FIFA U-20 World cup 12 times, with first qualification in 1981.
In 1989, the Flying Eagles caused a stir in Saudi Arabia, when they came back from a four-goals deficit to beat Russia in the semi-finals to reach their first finals. This was one of the greatest come-backs in football history and was rightly tagged the miracle of Damman. They were also runners-up in 2005.
Unfortunately, the flying Eagles which were once a dreaded team in Africa and the world have fallen beyond expectations and can no longer fly. At Poland, watching the team play was a nightmare to many Nigerian soccer lovers.
The team lacked steam, vigour or passion. Their movement on and off the ball was apologetic. The defence was a disaster while the forward line was helpless in all contest with their opponents. One was tempted to believe, the team was never ready for this tournament. Of course against Qatar, debutants at this level, the flying Eagle did not need to do much work.
The Qataris were overwhelmed by the previous records and the name of Nigeria at this category and thus offered little or no resistance. The real challenge was how to defeat the USA. The usually optimistic Nigerians expected a win to ensure a safe passage to the next round.
At the end of the 90 minutes hostility, Nigerian players were humbled by a more enterprising team. The last match with Ukraine was to the Ukrainian’s a practice match as Ukraine had qualified already.
Many thought the Flying Eagles will take advantage of this to white wash the Ukrainians. The match ended in a 1-1 draw and Nigeria with 4 points was lucky to qualify on technicalities. From this stage, many knew that Nigeria was surely on its way home. Against Senegal in the round of 16, Nigeria wobbled and fumbled to their well deserved exit.
There are many pertinent questions on the mind of Nigerians, with many pointing accusing fingers either on the officials or the players. Is the Flying Eagles team not supposed to be the feeder team to the Super Eagles? How many players have successfully secured full international opportunities?
Regrettably, the the team that just failed in Poland is a terrible assemblage and a bad advert to our football growth. Over the years, we have recorded meaningful result from the age group National teams which looked like an end to itself.
We have over-emphasized winning at all cost to the detriment of using them as developmental tools. The NFF allowed over politicking of the teams by wrongly appointing coaches and technical crew to manage the teams.
The appointment of the U-20 coach, Mr. Paul Aigbogun was criticized by football experts as being incompetent to manage such a team. The coach himself blamed the NFF for not giving him free hand to do his work and has openly accused the NFF for appointing assistants that do not share his football philosophy and were only busy collecting money from players to influence their selection.
These weighty allegations from the coach should not be taken lightly. The NFF needs to constitute an external committee to look at the structure and the machinery of all the age-group teams.
Even the blind and the dumb know that things are not well with the teams.
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