I am elated about the performance of the U-17 National Team, Golden Eaglets not only because of the result they had in Bamako on Sunday, but because their outing capped a remarkable year for Nigeria football and at the same time, qualification offers further development for the young lads.
If we consider that these boys are widely touted as the team to grow for the future, one woud understand very well what non-qualification would have been. Two weeks ago, on this same page, I wrote about the fact that African federations don't need to cheat ain age-grade football. It is time that we all rise up against the cankerworm called age cheating and look to do things differently.
When I saw the Malian players at the U. J. Esuene Stadium, Calabar during the first leg match, I was embarrassed. That was why the Nigeria Football Federation decided to send an official protest to Caf, based on the physique and body weight of the opponents.
Some analysts have been saying unpalatable things about the decision of the NFF to protest, insinuating that Nigeria used to also field players with huge physique and body weight at that level. That does not matter. What matters is that we have decided to put a stop to it, and we are reaping the benefits gradually.
The boys of Manu Garba, Emmanuel Amuneke, Nduka Ugbade and Emeka Amadi have started very well. I would not say they have done very well because they still have a long way to go. But they have started very well, and their future in the game looks bright.
If the team had not qualified for the African U-17 Championship, it would have been calamity for the project that is on, and would also have been unfair to sincerity and fairplay. Now that the boys have qualified, the project is well on stream and the players' development continues.
Some of the members of NFF Executive Committee cannot stop talking about the new Golden Eaglets (I understand they call themselves, New Nigeria Golden Eaglets). Someone like Alhaji Muazu Suleyman (chairman of the Referees Committee) who has led the team's delegation to the three away matches thinks they are the future.
I have watched the boys on two occasions and I am also excited about the flair and cohesion that they bring into play, with so much ease and, sometimes, nonchallance. Football is not so hard, after all!
While we commend the huge work that the technical crew and players have been doing to earn these results (an alarming 29 goals and only one against in eight matches, including the two-leg friendly with Rwanda), it is important to stress that they cannot begin to rest on their oars.
The boys travelled from Lagos to Uyo on Wednesday and will take on an Akwa Ibom U-17 selected to mark the birthday celebration of Governor Godswill Akpabio on Sunday. From there, the team will decamp to resume sometime around February, for the preparation for Morocco 2013.
The technical crew of the U-17 boys is actually an inspired one, Barrister Chris Green once told me. All of them are ex-internationals, who made their mark and did so decently. Manu Garba led El-Kanemi Warriors to win the FA Cup back-to-back and Emmanuel Amuneke does not need any introduction. He scored the goal that won Nigeria the Africa
Cup of Nations in Tunisia in1994 and the goal that won Nigeria the Olympic gold in Atlanta two years later. Nduka Ugbade led the 1985 squad that became the first Nigerian team to win a Fifa tournament. When they left Nigeria sometime in August 1985, nobody heralded them. But two weeks after in China, they became the world champions and the Government named the team 'World Golden Eaglets' on their return.
That team included the likes of Fatai Atere, Victor Igbinoba, Imama Amapakabor and Lucky Agbonsevbafe. Ugbade, of course, went on to play for the Flying Eagles and Super Eagles.
However, the team that won in 1993 in Japan had more players going into the senior team and making greater impact. Here, you talk of the likes of Nwankwo Kanu, Celestine Babayaro, Wilson Oruma, Mobi Oparaku, Pascal Ojigwe and Manga Mohammed. The 2007 champions also had the likes of Dele Ajiboye, Ganiyu Oseni, Usman Amodu, Kingsley Udoh, Rabiu Ibrahim, Lukman Haruna and Macauley Chrisantus.
As we look forward to some members of the present squad graduating to the Flying Eagles, and then Super Eagles, it is important to let them know that they need to continue to work hard and persevere as the road up is never all smooth-sailing.
From the Morocco 2013 finals, the team will be expected to win and easily qualify for the 2013 Fifa U-17 World Cup championship to be held in United Arab Emirates. The exhortation of importance of hardwork and diligence, as well as discipline and dedication, is not meant to discourage the young men.
The truth is that, once you are dedicated to a cause and have the appropriate weapons of engagement, the road becomes easier.
Someone once said that when the going gets tough, the tough gets going. Eaglets, march on!
NEXT WEEK: Eagles On The March!