ANYONE who is said to be U-20 should be 19 years 11 months or below at the time of reckoning. This presupposes that such a child must either be in secondary school or is a Jambite in any of the tertiary institutions albeit the university. For those who cannot pursue their education at the university, the polytechnics and other Colleges of Education serve as remedial platforms, especially for the brilliant ones eager to be called graduates in the future.

There may be others who couldn’t make the required grades to qualify to attend higher institutions. They may opt for other things in life or choose to do some jobs to eke a living and invariably repeat their classes. What all these scenarios tell us is that it is easy to identify any U-20 using these criteria as mentioned earlier.

The telltales by some of the participating teams at the concluded U-20 World Cup qualifiers for Africa’s representative for the event in Indonesia over discrepancies were shameful. They forgot that the world is a global village with age complainant countries who will be in Indonesia ready to pounce on these cheats.

Would it matter if one Nigerian player is caught in Indonesia as an age cheat? Of course, the shame would be on us for a long time. But do we care? No. Those caught in those days of being born in hospitals in Local Government Areas (LGAs) that weren’t created at the time when their documents stated became stars and coaches for the country at major football competitions.

Should this age scam continue when we know where to find U-20 players in Nigeria where we have 774 Local Government Areas LGAs? No. Those who were in Cairo should be made to show their educational records no matter how remote the areas where they were issued were. A country with a population of over 200 million people shouldn’t find it difficult to identify, train and expose 30 truly young boys to represent us in Indonesia.

Would it not be a shame if all members of the Flying Eagles could not show us verifiable educational records? Where were their schoolmates when they returned to the country? How about their principals? Wouldn’t it have been a delightful sight to behold if their classmates stormed the airport to celebrate with them? Or are we saying these boys aren’t of school age? Is it the best way to seek funding from the corporate world if we showcase these boys with their schoolmates? How do we hope to revive defunct inter-school soccer competitions across the country when the products wouldn’t be allowed to use the platform to change the narratives of their different families the way Napoli FC of Italy’s Nigerian striker Victor Osimhen has done with his? Pity!

One feels ashamed reading stories about non-payment of allowances and winning bonuses to age-grade players in Nigeria instead of encouraging those who are ready to improve their educational qualifications by going to school. It is not too late to start this age-grade renaissance with the FIFA U-20 World Cup in Indonesia later in the year.

This desperation to win every competition Nigeria registers for is the death knell of the game. Indeed any age cheat who is registered in place of the real U-20 player has thrown such boys into the crime market. Countries that have perfected these age-grade cadres did so with a prize when they started. Such successful nations deemphasised winning the cups. They chose to build structures which would institutionalise the need to have feeder teams in all their soccer teams as one of the criteria for registration every season.

At the 2018 World Cup, 19 years old Mbappe played for France winning the diadem and playing up to the finals years later at the 2022 Qatar World Cup at 23.  Mbappe has no history of playing for France’s age-grade teams since such exceptional players are immediately elevated into the senior side. Any person thinking that these Flying Eagles would play more than the mandatory three games of the group stage would be in for a shocker because this team would be beaten groggy with goals.

Sports minister Sunday Dare Tuesday at a reception to welcome the bronze medal-winning Flying Eagles in the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) was called out for mentioning the only student who dazzled in one of the editions of the Principal Cup competition played in Abuja. The minister tacitly elucidated the essence of the U-20 World Cup as one meant for students although he only mentioned wasn’t in school again, having been discovered in 2021. The question could then be asked how old he was when he played for the winning team in the finals in 2021. This writer won’t stretch this argument too far because the owner of the school where this boy was discovered, nurtured and exposed to bigger competition is a stickler for excellence and won’t be part of any age-cheating expedition that would pour odium on his reputation. 

unday Dare recalled the Fosla Academy Karshi, Abuja player was among the Flying Eagles and called him out.

“There is a Secondary school student among you, Dare said pointing to the Flying Eagles.

“Yes, he is Onuche Ogbelu, some of his teammates responded with a rousing chorus.

Ogbelu stood up and after introducing himself, the Minister asked everyone to clap for him for breaking into the national team stressing that Ogbelu made him proud two years after the maiden Principals Cup was held. He however said, “this is one of the gains of the maiden Principals Cup.”

Fosla Academy Karshi, Abuja on March 30, 2021, emerged champions of the maiden National Principals’ Cup finals held at the Moshood Abiola Stadium, Abuja. The Sani Lulu boys defeated Christ Comprehensive College, Kaduna 2-0 in an entertaining final dominated by the FCT boys.

One only hopes that the NFF chieftains took notice of this singular attention given to Ogbelu by the minister. They should take a cue from the Ogbelu example to populate the Flying Eagles with good players of school age not what we have in the present team.

The other thing which should worry the NFF chiefs was the fact that none of Ogbelu’s teammates could also tell the minister that they were students too like Ogbelu by mentioning their schools, especially after Ogbelu had left school. Ogbelu left school this year at SSS 3 at 19. Meaning that he is ready for university. One of my friends laughed his heart out and told me that the other players forgot the names of their schools. Really?

No prize for guessing right that Ogbelu is the youngest in the squad in the true sense of the claim. Others, I dare say would have been allocated ages which aren’t theirs. Otherwise, they would have told the minister about their former schools or the present ones. I also wonder how the coaches felt about the preferences given to Ogbelu.

Today, the Senegalese are the winners of the 2022 Africa Cup of Nations. They are also the winners of the Africa Beach Soccer championship, winners of the home-based Africa Nations Championship (CHAN) 2023 and only recently in Egypt, Senegal added the U-20 AFCON tile to their long lists of achievements anchored on proper planning with the grassroots central to their soccer developmental programmes.

Any Nigeria team to major competitions meant for age grade players without school boys or girls is a scam. It isn’t what will develop the game here. If we don’t expose players to competitions how will they improve? You tell me.