In 1977, Christ the King College (CKC) Secondary School of Onitsha won the World Secondary School Championship and in1985, a largely -unsung squad of U-16 footballers left the shores of the country unannounced, only to return from China with the FIFA Junior World Cup – the first cadet tournament organized by the world body. The tournament would become FIFA U-17 World Cup in 1991, but in 1987, the Golden Eaglets were again runners -up, and then reached the quarter finals in 1989.
In 1993, the Eaglets beat Ghana 2-1 in all-African final in Japan, and then won again in the Republic of Korea 14 years later. In 2009,Nigeria hosted the tournament and won a Silver medal.
In 1983, the U-20 team became the first Nigeria squad to qualify for a FIFA tournament. Captained by Ali Jeje, the team famously defeated USSR in its opening match before losing to Brazil and drawing with the Netherlands. Two years later, it won the bronze medal in USSR, and in 1989, were runners -up in Saudi Arabia. In 2005, the Flying Eagles repeated the same feat in the Netherlands.
The U-23 team won Olympic gold in 1996 in USA, captained by Nwankwo Kanu, and in 2008, took silver in China.
Definitely, youth football development should be the key for any pro-active regime. And the Sani Lulu Abdullahi administration has harped on this and worked towards a viable and sustainable youth football system.
The regime launched a National U-13 Football Championship in 2007, from which 25 youngsters deemed to possess the gift were selected to make up the National U-13 team. The team was kept together and strictly monitored. The following year, another batch of 25 players was picked from the national championship. The objectives of this programme include:
1) Identifying talents at a tender age
Today, there are two batches of National U-13 team. During a recent visit by two top officials of kit manufacturers Adidas (Lorenzo Reich – Senior Manager, Federations and Gerard Stark – Manager, Federations), the two teams entertained at the main bowl of the National Stadium, Abuja, with the 2007 Class coming tops with a 3-0 win. After the match, the NFF President urged the Adidas representatives to help the cause with supply of appropriate kits for the youngsters.
According to President Lulu Abdullahi, the long -term goal of the U-13 team is to have a pool of players for the National U-17 team, Golden Eaglets, with emphasis on age authenticity. Education of the youngsters is also a cardinal objective.
‘These are players we can monitor ourselves. We invite them to camp based on their birth certificates, and still go ahead to confirm the authenticity of the certificates with their parents. That way, we cannot go wrong in the future. The FIFA age -grade tournaments are developmental, and we should endeavour to treat them as such.
‘More than that, we ensure that they are in school. Football lasts for between 10 and 15 years and after this, there must be something for the players to fall back on. It is important that they remain useful to themselves and the society after retirement’.
‘We monitor their progress academically alongside their football training, to make for a complete package of the man’.
Beyond all these, the NFF chieftains do not miss an opportunity to plead with State Governments in the country to encourage youth/grassroots football. Letters have gone to various State Governments to encourage/sponsor U-13 football competitions.
Certainly, Nigeria’s hosting of the FIFA U-17 World Cup finals in October/November, 2009 has further powered the keen interest in youth football development in the land.