Of the 12 times she has attended the FIFA U-20 World Cup, Nigeria has come close on two occasions – in 1989 and 2005, where teams led by Nduka Ugbade and Isaac Promise fell just short to Portugal and Argentina in the final.
However, lessons have largely gone unlearned for the Nigeria Football Federation and its administrators.
Having won the U-17 World Cup on five occasions, it is a serious malaise for Nigeria to still be waiting for her first U-20 World Cup triumph. Clear is the fact that there are systematic and organisational defects that have ensured these outcomes.
In perspective, Nigeria has won the U-17 World Cup five times; Brazil three times; Ghana twice while England, France, Switzerland, and Saudi Arabia have won it once.
Juxtapose the above with winners in the U-20 category – Argentina have six triumphs; Brazil five; Ghana, England, and France have also won the World Cup once.
The common thread is Brazil, Ghana, England, and France – countries that have translated their wins in U-17 to wins in the U-20 category and the outlier in Argentina, who despite zero U-17 triumphs, have six victories in U-20 level.
This then begs the question – why can’t Nigeria with those five triumphs translate to at least one win at the U-20 level?
There was a social media furore surrounding the ages of some of the chosen players for the U-20 squad with Bode Oguntuyi asking in a write-up why the NFF felt jitters when people asked questions and had to pull down the post revealing the chosen players.
Looking back, and taking the 1989 and 2005 squads, it can be extrapolated that more of the players were promoted to the senior national team and the U-23s.
The 1989 squad had Mutiu Adepoju [the most successful graduate in the team], Oladimeji Lawal, Christopher Nwosu, Christopher Ohenhen, and Nduka Ugbade stepping up and sustaining a career in the Super Eagles.
The silver-winning 2005 squad was more successful as the likes of Mikel Obi, Taye Taiwo, Chinedu Obasi, Dele Adeleye, Sani Kaita, Daniel Akpeyi, and Onyekachi Apam all sustained a modicum of success in the national team. If you look through the 2019 set, it is hard to see anyone in that team graduating to the Super Eagles in the next five years.
But there are other elements that make for a successful team – and while we are at it, we must also define what success should ultimately mean for the nation.
Real League Experience
While many of the players that compete in U-17 World Cups are from feeder teams and academies, the level in the U-20 is much higher. Players have broken through into league teams, train for more sustained periods and have greater competition.
So when many come to the U-20 World Cup, they have become more experienced in ‘mature’ football and are more streetwise.
They have also grown physically which seriously negates one major advantage the Africans have at U-17 level. A look back to the victorious England U-20 team from 2017 shows the strength of this assertion. The players like Ademola Lookman, Dominic Solanke, Jonjoe Kenny, Fikayo Tomori, Josh Onomah, Sheyi Ojo all had real league experience to call on when they faced challenges in South Korea.
They had the strength of character to overcome more feeble teams that didn’t have as many hardened competitors. The players we took to Poland were still cutting their teeth, even though it can be argued that this was not the best that we could have offered.
Coaching and Management
This is naturally a fallout of playing in standard leagues. The coaching and the administration is better and the players are better fine-tuned to become football professionals.
There is a great difference between running around a pitch for 90 minutes and undergoing technical drills for the same period. There is an understanding that comes with watching videos of the opponents over time versus been a beginner at a World Cup. There is so much a player can change in two to three months that will put him/her at par with someone that has experienced the same methods over 10 months.
Herein lie the characteristics that differentiate between winning at the U-17 level and at the U-20 level.
Though the Flying Eagles progressed from Group D, where they faced off against Qatar, Ukraine, and the USA, their inadequacies were laid bare by a Senegalese team, that was just a cut above average.
Losing out to Senegal in the round of 16 was to be expected because of an apparent lack of technical nous, organisation and proper scouting, which once again derailed any ambition of lifting the trophy.
But as Nigerians, we should not have been surprised.