Eaglets Jeopardy, Age Cheating And The Dire Future Of Football In Nigeria

 For the second straight West African Football Union (WAFU) competition, one of Nigeria’s youth teams has failed to qualify on their own merit.

The disturbing trend which saw Nigeria’s Under-20 national team, the Flying Eagles, crashing out of the U-20 African Cup of Nations (AFCON) and the U-20 World Cup after they failed to make the cut in the U-20 African Cup of Nations (AFCON) qualifiers, continued yesterday with performance of the Under-17s, the Golden Eaglets in the ongoing West African Football Union (WAFU) B in Lome, Togo

The Black Satellites of Ghana held the Golden Eaglets to a 1-1 draw in the final group game of the WAFU B tournament. Just like their older counterparts, the result effectively puts their chances of qualifying for the next round of the competition in serious jeopardy.

After playing in a deadlocked tie for the entire first half, there were 13 minutes left on the clock in the second when the Eaglets thought they had done enough to earn all three points after striker Joseph Arumala gave them the advantage from the penalty spot.

In the lead-up to the qualifiers, the centre-forward Arumala was the team’s leading scorer, with five goals in as many friendlies. He composed himself and converted from 12 yards and it was a sublime finish.

However, they could not hold on to their lead to see out a win. Their slim lead was cut short in the 84th minute when the very impressive Eaglets goalkeeper Destiny Emuwahen committed a foul inside the box, and from the resulting penalty, the Ghanaians got the equaliser.

It was an all too familiar set of circumstances all over again. In these youth competitions that Nigeria’s U-17s and U-20s used to be fearsome opponents and took teams on the continent to the cleaners, things have become so bad that once again Nigeria will have to wait for the outcome of the last group match between Cote D’Ivoire and Ghana next Tuesday to discover whether they qualify to the next round.

It is a painful position to be in. The glory days have indeed gone. There has to be some procedural explanation to account for this fall from grace. The general decline in almost every aspect of Nigerian life is a pointer to how this must have come about. Yet, there is also the issue of age falsification to consider.

The question can be raised of the distant possibility that Nigeria had the unfair advantage of previously fielding players who used ages far below their real ages in these age-range youth competitions. With that, it was easier to beat all comers and win these tournaments.

With better Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scanning technology to limit these sorts of cheating, Nigeria appears unable to compete favourably on a level playing field. What gives this position more plausibility is the embarrassment that the country suffered last month when 40 out of the 60 boys pencilled down as part of the Golden Eaglets contingent failed the mandatory MRI age test.

This, among other concerns, is something that must not be allowed to continue. Sunday Dare, the Minister of Youth and Sports Development must liaise with the Amaju Pinnick-led Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) to address cheating on age-range competitions and all other sundry issues plaguing youth football to ensure that Nigeria avoids results like what have happened recently to the youth teams.

Those boys are the future of the game for the country. If these issues are not addressed and arrested at this point, there can be no comfort for the one sport that brings joy, excitement and unity to millions of Nigerians.

What is more, the country’s reputation as a footballing powerhouse on the continent and beyond will be a thing consigned to the dustbins of history.