By Nurudeen Obalola:
When the Flying Eagles step out against Brazil at 2am on 1 June in Plymouth, New Zealand, many Nigerians will be expecting their team to beat the accomplished South Americans.
The Flying Eagles seem to have – unwittingly – set a standard for themselves that they must live up to.
The Nigeria Under-20s have been so good lately they cannot afford to slip up or experience a slump, even if it is brief.
The FIFA U-20 World Cup is supposed to be a developmental tournament where identifying potential world beaters is more important than winning games. But the average Nigerian football fan would rather win now.
Instant glory is all that matters. And, going by their recent results, the present squad promises instant glory AND great potential for the future.
The future can wait though, as far as the average fan is concerned.
But you can’t really blame the fans for expecting so much, as the Flying Eagles are so good at the moment.
Most of the boys in the squad were members of the Golden Eaglets squad that won the FIFA U-17 World Cup two years ago and this team threatens to be even better.
The young Nigerians were so superior to their opponents at the last African Youth Championship in Senegal that it would have been a huge shock if they had not won the tournament.
Right from their first match you just knew you were watching champions. And they duly delivered by swatting aside their opponents and winning the title in style.
They have been in devastating form in Germany, where they are preparing for the World Cup.
Perhaps it is no real big deal beating the U-23s of Bundesliga clubs in friendlies, but the margins of the Flying Eagles’ wins over Freiburg, Nurnberg and Hoffenheim suggests a team in fine form. They beat one of these teams 5-0!
And the star men have not been disappointing. Taiwo Awoniyi has banged them in at the AYC, during the friendly matches and for the Nigeria U-23s (after Samson Siasia desperately turned to him as the All Africa Games ticket seemed to be slipping), while Kelechi Iheanacho has been on a hot streak for the Manchester City U-21s.
For the young football fan, the odds are stacked in Nigeria’s favour in New Zealand, and this set will be expected to get the country’s first ever win over Brazil at the U-20 level.
But those of us who have been around a little longer know things can go horribly wrong.
And this team bears eerie similarities to the extremely hyped 1987 set.
The 1987 team boasted star players. They faced Brazil in their first U-20 World Cup game. They featured players from an Eaglets team who won the U-17 World Cup two years previously.
I was in secondary school back then and us football-loving teenagers of that era had absolutely no doubt Nigeria was going to Canada with a special team.
Despite the 1987 squad’s best player, the supremely gifted Etim Esin, getting shot close to the tournament and not being fully fit, we still expected our ‘golden generation’ to conquer all in North America.
Who was going to get past Willy ‘the Cat’ Okpara? Who could stop the free-scoring Adeolu Adekola? Who could face the powerful midfield combination of Nosa Osadolor, Thomson Oliha and Ene Okon?
Perhaps weighed down by the huge expectations from back home, or believing too much in their own hype, coach Chris Udemezue and his players turned out to be a massive disappointment.
Brazil whipped them 4-0 and even Italy, not known to be very good at youth football, beat the Nigerians. The Flying Eagles did not win a single game, crashed out in the first round and returned home utterly deflated.
While hoping that the class of 2015 fare much better than the 1987 set, we should adjust our expectations and focus more on what the future could bring in terms of several players from the squad becoming established senior internationals.
It would help if Nigeria Football Federation officials, former players, pundits and the like do not concentrate on the outcome of the present tournament, instead of what the future portends.
Headlines like ‘NFF official A promises U-20 trophy’, ‘Ex-player B backs Flying Eagles to beat Brazil’ etc only fuel the expectations of fans and heap pressure on the players.
One NFF board member even compared the team to Barcelona and tipped them to reach the final in New Zealand!
As far as I am concerned, the success or otherwise of the squad will be determined in three, four years down the line, depending on how many of them make it into the Super Eagles.
If more than four are in or around the Super Eagles in 2018, 2019, then Manu Garba will have done a great job, regardless of the result in New Zealand.
Sometimes, instant success is not the only measure of a team’s progress.
IBE SHOULD LEARN FROM HISTORY
It is obvious that Liverpool youngster Jordon Ibe is not keen on representing Nigeria. And he has every right to choose who to play for, since he is eligible for more than one country.
Usually, when it’s a straight choice between a big European side and any other team, chances are players will plump for the former.
It is understandable, especially if the player in question was born in Europe and the only connection with Africa is probably his surname.
Of course England has a more organized FA with proper structures in place for national team players, plus top-notch training facilities and everything that comes with running a world class set-up.
The Nigerian set-up could be chaotic and players born abroad are used to much better.
Ibe has already set his stall and he has been quoted to have said that he would prefer playing for England rather than Nigeria.
However, history suggests that if a player could live through the Nigerian chaos, he would most likely fare better than the one who went down the England national team road.
Ugo Ehiogu and Gabby Agbonlahor are probably the best reasons why Ibe should consider Nigeria over England.
These two chose England after rebuffing persistent approaches from Nigeria. But their international careers were short and insignificant.
Ehiogu was one of the best defenders in the English Premier League at his peak when he turned out for Aston Villa and Middlesbrough in the late 1990s and early 2000s, but he earned only four senior England caps.
He definitely would have played more for Nigeria if he had settled for his fatherland.
Agbonlahor had a paltry three senior England caps, two of them in friendlies, the other in a 2010 World Cup qualifier against Belarus. He wasn’t in the World Cup squad.
Sidney Sam snubbed Nigeria for Germany, repelling Samson Siasia’s efforts to make him play for the Super Eagles.
The then Bayer Leverkusen forward, born to a German mother and Nigerian father, played only five times for Germany.
In sharp contrast to these international careers, Victor Moses and Shola Ameobi chose Nigeria and reaped bountiful rewards.
Moses would probably have played one or two friendlies for England and then get discarded, but he won the Africa Cup of Nations with Nigeria and made the World Cup squad.
Ameobi made it to the 2014 World Cup with Nigeria, even when he only started to play for the Super Eagles in his 30s.
It’s not too late for Ibe to change his mind.
History suggests choosing England over Nigeria is not usually a very wise call. Anyway, he should take the latest hint.
England did not include him in their U-21s for the European Championship, despite his desire to be part of the squad.