Nigeria has had a number of footballing greats; from the dancing feet of the super talented Austin 'Jay-Jay' Okocha, to the drag feet roulette of the two times African footballer of the year - Kanu Nwankwo, the heroics of Emmanuel Amuneke at the nations cup and Olympics, to the fleet foot of one the greatest African wingers Finidi George; the line-up of stars paraded by the super eagles over the years has sent shivers into the spines of opponents over the years.
The all-conquering, super eagles of the early 90's and 2000s had a certain grit, style and swagger that set them apart from their counterparts on the African scene. However, one thing that set them apart majorly was the combination of football genius matched with technical education from football academies (such as Ajax, Frankfurt, and Sporting Lisbon) about the beautiful game.
With a population of over 190 million and over half of its individuals actively interested in the game, Nigeria is filled with so much talent - such that a trip across rural and urban areas will open scouts to one of the most vibrant grassroots stars in the world. There are over a million potential players with immense ability - hoping for a break into the big leagues; and thanks to the internet age, players now have better access to information on how to hone their skills to become better footballers. The need to improve the quality of footballers across the country has led to the rise of several football academies springing up - in a bid to target the grassroots level where talents are identified and groomed to global stars.
Grassroots football in Nigeria however, has had its ups and downs - battling different grey areas as investment in the sector pales in comparison to investment in sports by their European counterparts. This is due to issues around funding, recognition, scouting and management, availability of quality playing turfs and transition capacity of shareholders in the sector. In the world of sports today, the worth of a player is highlighted by how they are able to transition from the grassroots scene to the international football quarters.
LaLiga giants, FC Barcelona, has spread its methodology all over the world in search to talents that can be groomed and developed into the next global star, promoting its core values and providing the right environment for nurturing of these talents.
Barcelona has over 40 international academies all over the world, including one in Nigeria, situated in Lagos.
The Barça Academy which was established in Nigeria in September 2016 at the Teslim Balogun Stadium, Surulere; where it is creating platforms to bolster the development of grassroots football in Nigeria. Catering to players between 6-18 years old, the academy has an overall aim to create an experience through sports with a heavy emphasis on creative values. In three years of its existence in Nigeria, the academy has expanded to Lekki and Gbagada, to better service the Nigerian market.
The academy has two primary programs; a competitive program open to public entry for anyone who wants to join and their elite program designed to prepare the best and brightest football players for the competitive world of international football. As one of its key initiatives, the Elite Project aims to identify the best players, so that they can promote their careers and the academy by playing local and international tournaments whilst sourcing talents for Barcelona. The project has witnessed 6-7 year olds emerging as champions from international tournaments and looks forward to catching more young talents and developing them in the cognitive level. The children in this project engage in international tournaments bi-annually to expose them to various levels of expertise.
Alongside the elite project, the academy curated a programme to fit the juvenile team which includes housing, feeding and Spanish classes. These activities are developed in such a way that every player in the academy is instilled with the methodology of Barcelona. Each team is evaluated weekly with values being at the forefront of modules, often ahead of sporting considerations.
"One of the main goals of Barça Academy has always been to give players around the world the opportunity to be exposed to our methodology, acquire our core values and soccer capacities. We serve this purpose and are strongly committed to supporting their highest development during their whole pathway. Nigeria is a very important market for us as it is home to potential football stars. We are keen on discovering talents at a very young age as they learn tactical and cognitive skills faster at that age. Our aim is to keep growing and develop a presence in Nigeria while making sure we do not lose the essence that makes us different". Said Bernat Villa, Technical Director of Barça Academy in Lagos.
With plans to expand across Nigeria, gathering the best players from around the country through their numerous scouting programs and try-outs, Barcelona Academy is making efforts towards altering Nigeria's football landscape for the better. This is a unique opportunity for Nigerian youth to receive the methodology and values from coaches with one of the biggest football clubs in the world.
There is a need to establish channels where undiscovered talents can be harnessed to highlight Nigeria as the football nation it is. Nigeria must create solid platforms to discover and train young talents, while exposing the future stars to the business of football as a profession.