24 November 2012

Nigeria: We Don't Need to Cheat!

It is more than 27 years ago since Nigeria's Unknown Eleven (later renamed World Golden Eaglets by an ecstatic Federal Government) travelled unheralded and came back from China with the FIFA/Kodak U-16 World Cup. Not many people, outside then NFA and the Sports Ministry, knew there was such a team.

The Green Eagles, yes. Flying Eagles, yes. But U-16 team? What people knew then was the YSFON age-grade teams, that travelled round the world to play in the Gothia Cup, Dallas Cup, Brazilian Cup and other such tournaments.

The women teams had not been born, and the Olympic Football Tournament still welcomed the senior teams of each country, not U-23 as we know it today.

The Nigeria U-16 team to China, made up largely of those we knew in the YSFON squads, steamrolled the best from Italy, Hungary, west African neighbours Guinea and Germany, among others. Two classical goals in the final, by Babatunde Joseph and Victor Igbinoba gave the team the glittering trophy. That team was captained by Nduka Ugbade.

Two years later, the team came close to retaining the trophy, but had to contend with a stubborn USSR team and the antics of a Brazilian referee. They lost the final to USSR. But six years later, the Eaglets were back on the highest podium, led by Wilson Oruma and Nwankwo Kanu, to pick up what had become known as FIFA/JVC U-17 World Cup.

And five years ago, in Korea Republic, Nigeria won the trophy again, after a sensational penalty shoot-out defeat of Spain at the Seoul World Cup Stadium. Apart from Canada 1987, the Eaglets also finished second in Trinidad and Tobago in 2001 and at home in Nigeria in 2009.

West African neighbours Ghana have done almost as much. In Nigeria's absence (following a ban for discrepancies in the documented ages of a couple of players), Ghana's Starlets dominated the world and won the first FIFA/JVC U-17 trophy in Italy in 1991. The Starlets were also in

magnificent fashion to win in Ecuador in 2005 (defeating Brazil in the final) and finished second in Japan 1993 (behind Nigeria) and Egypt 1997 (behind Brazil).

At U-20 level, our dear Flying Eagles finished third in USSR in 1985 (behind Brazil and Spain) and second in Saudi Arabia 1989 and in Netherlands 2005. Ghana's Black Satellites went one step better, finishing as world champions in Egypt in 2009 after finishing second in Australia 1993 (behind Brazil) and in Argentina 2001.

When Nigeria hosted the FIFA U-20 World Cup (then known as FIFA World Youth Championship) in 1999, Mali's Junior Eagles finished third.

However, it must be disheartening, though noteworthy, that despite these 'successes' at kindergarten levels, African teams have failed to make the grade at the level where it really mattered - FIFA World Cup.

It is also to be noted that the first two African countries to have gone farthest (quarter finals) at the FIFA World Cup (Cameroon, in 1990 and Senegal, in 2002) were not even the rampant Nigerian and Ghanaian teams!

Ghana did reach the quarter finals in 2010, when South Africa hosted, and Nigeria came within two minutes of a place in the quarter finals in America in 1994. But surely, these have been little drops that do not in anyway match the achievements at junior levels.

If 'our best' can beat 'their best' decades ago, then we should have managed to win the FIFA World Cup, even if once, except there was more to it than met the eye.

Definitely, there was more to the Malian U-17 Team than met the eye when they clashed with the Golden Eaglets in a 2013 African U-17 Championship qualifying match in Calabar last Sunday.

I have been quoted severally in the media and I am not ashamed to lead this campaign for African teams to do away with this penchant to present overgrown and over-matured players for the U-17 category.

I am sure that the Mali U-17 players did the MRI examination and also submitted their results to the Caf headquarters. While we were talking about the impossibility of the Malian players being of U-17 grade, someone reminded me that they have played an earlier round against Mauritania and the Mauritanians did not complain.

However, we are complaining because we want to see that African teams start to learn to play by the rules, even if we did not in the past. It is important that if we have been able to curb ourselves, the other nations in the continent should do the same.

What is the point of cheating when, at the end of the day, you are actually harming the development of the game in your country? I saw the Malian players upclose because I was part of the train of dignitaries that performed the pre-match formalities. I shook hands with each and everyone of them, because after the formalities on the pitch, we moved to shake hands with those on the bench as well (led by Deputy Governor of Cross River State, Barrister Efiok Cobham).

Some of the other dignitaries marvelled at the size and maturity of the Malian players and asked me, innocently, whether the players were truly of the age grade. I said they certainly were not. And at the end of the match, the NFF sent a protest letter to CAF.

Perhaps, nothing can be done about this before the return leg in Bamako next weekend. But we have made a serious point, and the heartening thing is that despite their size, the Golden Eaglets were able to take them to the cleaners, because size does not play the game. Someone once said that it is not the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog.

I am very confident that when the Eaglets take on the Malian in Bamako next weekend, they will again spank them to underline their superiority.

So, what is the point in cheating? None.

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