Hello all. When you see what my subject of this week is, you might find it at odds with what you all know, and what has been published as what I stand for – the growth, development and celebration of all things African football.
But with closer insight, as the piece unfolds, we will see what I am driving at.
The European U21 Championships is going on in the Czech Republic at the moment, and we are seeing some really good performances, individually and collectively in some cases, from teams. Taking us a few weeks back, we saw the FIFA Under-20 World Cup in New Zealand, and yet again, there were some great showings there; crowned with an unexpected but deserved triumph for Serbia in the final, beating Brazil to win the Cup for the first time.
Africa went to New Zealand and made an impressive showing – at least 50% of our representation reaching the final stages. Two of four semi-finalists is not a bad return for a continent that has constantly been barraged and hounded as the seeming fall-guys in the face of any crisis (this, a topic for another day).
I then look at England, the country of my birth, the home of football, the country where football first started and the country that put together the rule books of the game for the world to follow. That is not all. England, the country that boasts the best league in the world, most commercially viable and fantastic fan base. And, as my good friend and ‘boss’, Nigeria Football Federation President Amaju Melvin Pinnick has always said at every opportunity, England, the country with the best football culture, worthy of emulation in all ways.
But where is England in the football world? In terms of results, silverware, achievements? Why are they so behind? If they are underachieving so obviously, why do people like my very good friend Amaju Pinnick want to emulate what they are doing, in every way?
Of course, in Amaju’s defence, he has never said the English was perfect. His most common statement has always been ‘The English do not have the best football results, but they certainly have the best culture, and it is this type of culture that we want to take into Nigeria’.
But then, why would England have a good culture but poor results? What can they borrow from us, in Africa? This is the crux of my message today. To let our followers know that we in Africa, are doing something right, and that the English can learn from us. But also, to say that, if we can perfect certain things, we can reach the summit of world football because we got the basics right.
When Africans go to age-group tournaments, we go with our best material available. We go with our best players. We give it our best shot. No player would be too big to play in Under-17 or Under-20 competitions. We go with our best and we strive to do well. And most times, we do.
But why has England struggled to qualify for Under-20 competitions? They didn’t make the one in New Zealand. And in Turkey in 2013, and Colombia in 2011, they were….just bad!
In the Under-21 European championship, England was made to look very ordinary. Not even the presence of Harry Kane, or Danny Ings made any difference. We haste to elevate our slightly-above-average players and give them superstardom. So Kane was the star attraction because of his goals for Tottenham (great effort by the young lad, but, the finished product? Doubt it.) And Ings, leading the line at Burnley but unable to save them from relegation, becoming an instant star despite relegation with his team, which has catapulted him to Liverpool FC due to one or two good seasons (good luck to him), was thrust in the limelight and could not do much.
Reuben Loftus-Cheek, young 19 year old Chelsea youth, showed so much promise for the Under-18s and Under-21s at Chelsea but with only a handful of first team appearances for the club, starts to get rave reviews and everyone saw the England Under-21 midfield problems solved by the presence of this untested youngster.
Most importantly though, why does England consistently make the mistake of degrading the importance of these age-group competitions? Why do they not see it as a showcase for the talent we have (not a lot) so that clubs outside of England can snap these boys up and turn them into genuine fighters who can adapt? Why can’t we have a young player being sought on loan by Barcelona or Real Madrid the way a 19 year old Gerard Deulofeu was chased and caught and used by Everton couple of years ago?
And to crown it, why leave out players like Ross Barkley, Jack Wilshere, Luke Shaw, enfant terrible Raheem Sterling (the trip to Czech Republic might have kept him out of trouble a bit more) and a few other choice players like that from the U21 squad? Were they too good to be mingling with the ‘small boys’? Or we basically do not care about results and getting the best to serve as motivation for other young generations?
A player gets one good season under his belt, and England shoot him up to the senior team. Lionel Messi served his time in the Under-20 team of Argentina before they elevated him – in spite of his prowess (and I am sure no one can dispute what that boy has been doing). Diego Maradona played in the 1979 Under-20 World Cup and won the Golden Ball. Then he stepped up, and we saw what he became. Sergio Aguero showed his stuff in the 2007 Under-20 World Cup and we now see what he is. The story is the same in Spain, Portugal, Brazil and many more.
But the story is the same in Africa as well. Kanu Nwankwo, Stephen Appiah, Michael Essien are examples of players who gave credit to participation in youth competition and blossomed beyond even their wildest dreams. So Africa does believe in using youth to excel.
And while countries like England do not get it right because they shoot their stars to the top too early without proper ‘apprenticeship’, we in Africa don’t get it right because we get good results during apprenticeship but can not seem to find the formula that can transform these boys to men.
But the England example is a point where we can be proud of what we have in Africa – a culture of building good foundations. We just need to get the building right at the top.
I rest…..for now