With the enviable strides so far made by Nigeria’s two age group teams, the Golden Eaglets and Flying Eagles, many believe it is a new dawn for Nigerian football, as they could herald a stronger senior national team.
This belief, fuelled by the diminishing influence of the Super Eagles, especially on the African continent, has taken hold since the crop of the Golden Eaglets who won the 2013 Under-17 World Cup moved to the Flying Eagles, and now they seem destined for the top, putting up a string of superlative performance, including winning the last edition of the Super IV invitational pre-season tournament in Nigeria, unbeaten.
They partook in the competition alongside the Under-23 national team, to play with top league sides, Enyimba, Kano Pillars, Warri Wolves and Dolphins.
Coach Manu Garba, who also coached the victorious 2013 Eaglets, named eight members of that squad for the African Youth Championship in Senegal. Even though notable players like Manchester City’s Kelechi Iheanacho and Chidiebere Nwakali, as well as Granada’s Success Isaac and injured Musa Yahaya were left out of the squad, the teams has held opponents spell-bound with their dynamic game and result-oriented play. The Flying Eagles have secured a ticket to the 2015 World Youth Championships coming up in New Zealand later this year.
This has led to close followers of the Nigerian game comparing them with the Under-23 team that won gold at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta.
Interestingly, the making of the current Flying Eagles team has a striking semblance with that of the 1996 team that was dubbed the Dream Team.
The Dream Team tag has stuck ever since, with successive Under-23 teams, using the appellation. The latest Under-23 team is known as Dream Team VI. Nevertheless, apart from the 2008 set, who reached the final of the Beijing Olympics, none of the teams have realised the ‘dream.’
While the 1996 team was built around players of the Japan 1993 Under-17 World Cup winning squad, the Mauritius 1993 Flying Eagles and some USA ’94 Super Eagles stars, this present crop of players have been chosen from the 2013 Eaglets and the domestic league.
Notably, the most prominent star at Japan ’93 tournament and, subsequently, the Atlanta Olympics, Nwankwo Kanu, got a contract with Ajax, after the Under-17 World Cup win, and broke into the senior team in no time. Similarly, Iheanacho, who was voted the best player at the UAE 2013 Under-17 World Cup, seems to be on the same path. The 18-year-old got a contract with Manchester City, and proved himself in the senior team during some pre-season matches, but is yet to play in the English Premier League.
Prominent among those who think the age-grade squad should progress to the super Eagles is former national team assistant coach, Ben Duamlong, who believes that the current Flying Eagles represents the future of Nigerian football at the top flight.
Duamlong opined that the present crop of players should be considered for the Super Eagles, if there will be any intention of getting talented players to feature for the national team.
“I think this is the future of our Eagles and if we are going to have any team soon, these are the people that should make the bulk of the squad,” he said.
He was of the opinion that drafting the Under-20 team for the Africa Nations Cup qualifiers would help prepare the boys for the bigger one, the World Cup qualifiers coming later in the year.
According to Duamlong, “Nigeria should be fast in getting these boys ready for big tournaments now. We did it with the Dream Team immediately after Atlanta ’96 Olympics.
“After Japan 1993 Under-17 World Cup, which Kanu Nwankwo and others participated in, the entire team formed the Under-20. And that set ruled African football for a long time.”
Former junior national team coach, Alphonsus Dike, also said that the success of the current Under-20 is no surprise and can be hinged on the team’s togetherness dating back to when they used to be in the Golden Eaglets.
He stated that the progression of the team is the best thing to happen to the junior national side, which he reckoned has fostered a telepathic understanding within the team, the result of which is being enjoyed now.
“This is the best thing to do; there should be progression and I think it is paying off, unlike what usually happened before, where the team was disbanded and they began to look for fresh players.
“This is a very good development and football is all about understanding, playing together and understanding the chemistry of the game, so that at the senior team level, the understanding would continue and coaches would have it easy to manage such a team.”
However, former Super Eagles skipper, Joseph Yobo, urged the Flying Eagles to work harder so they could be bigger stars than he and his contemporaries were.
“You can be bigger stars than we were. I left this country for Europe when I was just 17 and before you know it I was my family’s breadwinner. You can also do the same and even more, but you must be willing to work hard and make the necessary sacrifices.
“You have some great coaches and you only have to obey their instructions to make it in this game,” he told the players during a prep talk.
Former Sports Minister, Bolaji Abdullahi, also restated his belief that the Flying Eagles are the future of Nigerian football, when he said, “I am delighted there is continuity in this squad, from Under-17 to Under-20. This team is the future of Nigerian football, I have no doubt about this.”
On the Eaglets, former Super Eagles internationals, Dosu Joseph and Henry Nwosu, are optimistic that they would spring surprises in the ongoing FIFA Under-17 championship, saying that these are another crop of Nigeria age group team that would follow the path already created by the Under-20 team.
Dosu, former Eagles goalkeeper and welfare office of the 2003 Eaglets, said nobody can make him change his position that the present squad has what it takes to win the championship.
On his part, former Green Eagles captain, Nwosu, said all the team needs to win the championship is to consolidate on its recent performance, win the tournament and gain promotion to the next level.
“I was formerly an Under-17 player and was promoted straight to the national team, I did not play Under-20, because I was good in my position and in the team,” he said.