Global football has always been dominated by the Europeans and South Americans. Since the inaugural edition of the World Cup hosted by Uruguay in 1930, there have been 21 in the series of the quadrennial global showpiece, apart from 1942 and 1946 that the event did not hold due to World War II.
In the 21 editions of the global soccer fiesta, Europe has won it 12 times while South America has won it nine times. No African country has ever won the World Cup.
An event in far away Singapore however gave Africa the opportunity to lift a global football trophy, even if not the senior World Cup. That event is the Lion City Cup created by the Singaporean Football Association in 1977. The Lion City Cup was the first Under-16 football tournament in the world. Then FIFA Secretary General, Sepp Blatter was invited to be part of 1982 edition, Following his experience at Singapore, Blatter recommended it to FIFA and that recommendation paved the way for the creation of the FIFA U-16 World Championship.
Some football pundits even argue that the electrifying performance of Pelé at the 1958 FIFA World Cup in Sweden, where the young lad scored five goals, was also instrumental to FIFA creating the U-16 World Championship. According to the school of thought, the thinking of FIFA was that if a black 17-year-old kid (Pelé) could dazzle the world at that age, then many other black kids can do same at the U-16 World Championship level, graduate into their senior national teams and eventually give the Europeans a run for their money at the senior World Cup.
Nigeria responded positively as it won the maiden FIFA/KODAC U-16 World Championship in a pack of 16 countries that included three European and three South American teams!
Nigeria holds the record of winning the tournament five times in 1985, 1993, 2007, 2013 and 2015. It is also the only team, besides Brazil, to win the tournament back to back. Nigeria equally emerged as runners up in 1987, 2001 and 2009. And in the U-20 category, Nigeria has emerged as runners up twice, in 1989 and 2005, falling to Portugal and Argentina respectively.
Those were the good old days, the golden era of Nigeria at cadet level. In recent years, the country has not gone anywhere close to its dominance in global cadet football between 1985 and 2015! Something clearly is wrong. If Nigeria dominated the U-16 category, how come the country has not won the U-20 World Cup or even post a commendable performance at the ultimate showpiece, the World Cup, when the U-16 players should have been guided and nurtured to graduate to the senior national team? There must be systemic and organisational problems bogging the administration of football and sports generally, in the country.
Let us take a look at some statistics. As Nigeria was winning the U-17 World Cup five times, Brazil won it thrice, Ghana twice just as England, France, Saudi Arabia and Switzerland have all won the cup once.
Out of these countries that have won the U-17 global fiesta, Brazil has won the U-20 World Cup five times while Ghana, England and France have won it once each. That, to me, is planned succession where players are nurtured from one age grade level to the next.
So, why is the case of Nigeria different? Why is it that the country cannot replicate its dominance at the U-17 level, at the U-20, U-23 and the senior World Cup? Can Nigeria’s golden era at cadet level be re-created?
To provide answer to the country’s decline in youth football, Bayelsa State has decided to brace up to the challenge of churning out cadet grade footballers to shake the world once again.
The oil-rich Niger Delta state plans to achieve this with its proposed introduction of the state junior league, which will feature Under-13 and Under-15 categories.
In an interview, the chairman of the state Football Association, Barrister Porbeni said the proposed age grade league is an initiative of the F.A. to discover talents from the grassroots, guide and nurture them with a view to graduating them into the state football team, Bayelsa United.
Noting that registration of club sides for the junior league was on-going, Porbeni said the F.A. plans to solicit support for the league from the state government as well as well-meaning Bayelsans to ensure the league takes off.
He said the format the state F.A. will adopt for the league will depend on the number of cadet teams that registers for the league, noting however that because of reasons of logistics and cost, the league will be narrowed down to just Yenagoa, the state capital.
It is the expectation of the state F.A. that in the next five to 10 years the junior league would have produced players that will dominate Bayelsa United, other Nigerian club sides and even ply their trade outside the shores of the country.