Not winning an African Under-20 tournament is so abhorred among Nigerian football fans that you want to understand their temptation of wanting to “throw the baby out with the bath water” as their reactions after the Flying Eagles lost, first to Mali and then to South Africa on penalties could best be summarised.
As seven times winners of the tournament, the Flying Eagles were not only expected to qualify for the World Cup (their minimum target) but also to win a record eighth title as Nigerians expect their teams to win in every competition they participate in.
However, there are two perspectives to depict their participation in Niger 2019:
(i) the team failed, finishing fourth in the competition OR
(ii) the team achieved its minimum target of qualifying for the World Cup and finished the tournament unbeaten – after full and extra time.
Nigerians will not want to be in the second school of thought because history they say, only remembers winners. However, there has to be a reason the team was unbeatable right from the group stage to their final match of the competition during which they had the lion share of possession in each of their five games.
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Coached by Paul Aigbogun and without having to play defensively, the Flying Eagles conceded just one goal throughout the tournament – the least by any team. It was therefore not surprising when two of the back four (captain Ikouwem Udo Utin and Valentine Ozornwafor) made the Best XI selection of the tournament.
The World Championship in Poland is just three months away but many disappointed fans are already calling for the overhaul of the team including the technical crew. Such calls sound more emotional than rational in thoughts. In comparison, the Super Falcons – put up one of their worst AWCON performances in Ghana but – won the AWCON just because they were lucky to have a goalkeeper well documented to be an expert at saving penalties. They won, hence no need to overhaul?
The major problem of the Flying Eagles which indeed must be attended to before Poland was visible, even to the blind – the final third. The team’s wingers and attackers often let themselves down with their final balls whenever they seem to have found a way. This is also not different to the plague of missing chances that has befallen Nigerian teams in recent times.
While attempting to throw away the current set of players for the want of “better legs elsewhere”, we must be diligent enough to keep the base of the team which apart from the back four includes Kano Pillars midfield duo Jamil Muhammad and Adamu Alhassan – the latter, one of the best young midfielders the country possess at the moment.
There must also be the place of adequate preparation for the global tournament. The Flying Eagles were lucky to have a WAFU Zone B tournament in Lome, Togo to prepare with late last year and it is no coincidence that tables turned in the semi-final stage. They had defeated Mali in the semi-final in Lome on penalties but the Malians got their pound of flesh at same stage when it mattered most in Niamey.
Aigbogun’s work was made the most difficult by not having a previous Under-17 team to work with. While tournament winners Mali boast of eight players from their Under-17 squad of 2017 in the current tournament, same cannot be said of Aigbogun who only notably had Nazifi Yahaya and Igho Ogbu to show from Nigeria’s “failed class of 2017”.
Perhaps it was good for the team that they failed to win their final two games on penalties as that could have given them a false sense of arrival and blindfold the team’s handlers to the obvious flaws in the Flying Eagles. With their backs to the wall now, Aigbogun and his assistants Abdu Maikaba and Abubakar Bala must now open wide their tentacles to get some other genuinely young talents to trial for the global stage without uncharitably discarding this group.
Make no mistakes about it, the team that went to Niger represented – as at the time of putting them together – some of the best “young” players in the Nigeria Professional Football League (NPFL) and coached by some of the best coaches in the league.
While it is not abnormal to have a team largely dominated by locally based players and sprinkled with available foreign based stars play at the African tourney, the technical crew must be aware that the time for getting the best of foreign based players for the team is NOW.
I do not expect the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) to do what Nigeria did in 2007 and 2009 by changing the team’s head coach before the World championship because it never yields any positive result. The coaches must however realise that they have their works cut out and are in a race against time to prepare a team worthy of representing Nigeria well in Poland 2019.