x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

This Nigeria Under 17 crop must avoid the stereotypes

In west Africa, athletic maturity among young men is often observed as being reached earlier than elsewhere.

The athletic structure of Nigeria's footballers also creates doubts over their natural growth. Sammy Dallal / The National
The athletic structure of Nigeria's footballers also creates doubts over their natural growth. Sammy Dallal / The National

With victory at the Fifa Under 17 World Cup, Nigerian football can look back on a largely satisfying 2013, book-ended by two important championships.

Winning the prestigious Fifa event puts Africa’s most populous country into the record books, with a fourth triumph at this level, an unmatched haul of such titles, more even than Brazil.

Ten months earlier, in South Africa, Nigeria’s adults also won the African Cup of Nations, which had become something of a bogey tournament for the so-called “Super Eagles”.

Their victories at senior level, in the continent’s major competition, are dispersed and infrequent, embarrassingly so for many Nigerians.

Their rivals and neighbours, Ghana and Cameroon have gathered more Nations Cup gold medals across history than their trio, in 1980, 1994 and 2013.

Why the disparity between the regular global supremacy of the teenaged “Eaglets” and the grown-up Eagles?

The cynical, muttered answer of anybody familiar with the past of age-group competitions is that perhaps some of the Eaglets, who count gold medals among their honours, actually hatched earlier than their official documentation suggests.

Certainly, in previous generations evidence has emerged of ineligible, older players being fielded and Nigeria — though not uniquely Nigeria — have been among the guilty parties.

Bone scans and other technological advances have made this scam more policeable than it used to be, but it is also the case that it may not always be a scam.

There are parts of west Africa where the formal registration of births is not a smooth, bureaucratic process; innocent errors over a boy’s age can arise. Moreover, sometimes accusations are false: Physical development, particularly in terms of muscle strength and speed, varies greatly across ethnicities.

In west Africa, athletic maturity among young men is often observed as being reached earlier than elsewhere.

And at the U17 level, factors like stamina, power and speed can be more influential, proportionately, in affecting outcomes of matches.

Since the U17 World Cup — formerly the Under 16 World Cup — first became as a highlight on the Fifa calendar — and a magnet for recruiters and talent-spotters — European club football’s influence on the way players develop has also increased.

Speak to scouts and they will say that, over the last 15 to 20 years, a commercial factor shapes the progress of African players: The monied European clubs have broadly regarded Africa as a source mainly of quick, strong strikers and powerful midfielders.

There is evidence that instinct pushes academy directors to favour and push a certain type of player in his teens.

So if Africa’s senior national teams — none of whom have reached so much as the semi-final of a World Cup, unlike their juniors — look like they lack a certain balance, are stronger and more worldly in certain areas of the pitch than others, that may also be why.

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