Nigeria has the World's Best Youth Team. Why can’t it win at the World Cup?

Published on: 28 May 2014
Nigeria has the World's Best Youth Team. Why can’t it win at the World Cup?
John Obi Mikel shows his skills in a 2013 Confederations Cup match against Spain.

There have been 15 international FIFA Youth Championships. Nigeria has won four of them, including the 2007 and 2013 titles, and finished second another three times.

The Nigerians are also the reigning champions of Africa, have one of the best World Cup pedigrees outside of Europe or South America, and a roster that features a handful of household names. Why, then, isn’t Nigeria a serious contender in Brazil?

The answer is that, historically, Nigerian football has been synonymous with self-sabotage and dysfunction. “Traversing the minefield of Nigerian football is no task for the faint-hearted,” writes Osasu Obayiuwana, a BBC journalist and expert on African football. “Pulling defeat and sorrow out of the jaws of victory … is a well-established Nigerian tradition.”

It’s tough to know where to start. How about the fact that current coach Stephen Keshi won the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations but still didn’t get paid? There’s also the recent match-fixing in Nigeria’s domestic league that led to the farcical scores of 79–0 and 67–0. And consider that the secretary-general of Nigeria’s football federation once said it was OK for refs to take bribes, so long as they don’t let the money influence their decisions.

These scandals are nothing new for a country that has become a symbol of the ills plaguing African soccer. The line between corrupt soccer and corrupt politics is almost invisible. Nigeria is, after all, the country where there was a Senate investigation into the country’s poor performance at the 2008 Africa Cup of Nations, and the nation’s executive branch once took over the national team.

Amidst all this, it’s easy to forget that Nigeria has been a force on the field,performing admirably at last year’s Confederations Cup and in all of those under-17 and under-16 world championships. But in its four previous World Cup appearances, Nigeria has never gotten past the round of 16, and it hasn’t even gotten that far since 1998.

Could Nigeria be a victim of its own youth success? Tactical expert Michael Cox has written about how European teams frequently sign promising young African players and then change their style of play, asking them to be less creative and more physical. The result is that most young African players are often shoehorned into “the Makélélé role”— named after famed French international player Claude Makélélé, who almost never crossed the halfway line—transforming into defensive midfield enforcers rather than attackers.

John Obi Mikel, Nigeria’s captain, is perhaps the best example of this phenomenon.

“[He was] a young, strapping lad in the No. 10 jersey, languid in style but absolutely majestic in his control of a football game ... his game was about economy of movement, finding the right pass at the right time to unlock a stubborn defense,” remembers Colin Udoh, a prominent Nigerian journalist.

But when Mikel moved to Chelsea, he was forced to play a very conservative role, freeing up players like Frank Lampard to dictate play. Mikel returned to Nigeria a worse player.

“[He] lost the creativity that catapulted him onto the world stage,” complained Samson Siasia, a Nigerian coach. “Chelsea destroyed the player Mikel once was.”

That seems to be the trend for a number of players in this Nigeria team. Today, the squad plays well-organized but not particularly creative football.

Still, Nigeria is in an easy-ish group—though beating Bosnia to get second place is a tough ask—and could make a run. But most likely they won’t, and the Super Eagles will fly home to their usual tune of interference, corruption, and infighting.

Match Schedule: Nigeria is in Group F, and it opens its World Cup campaign against Iran on June 16—a must-win if the Super Eagles are to advance. Nigeria then lines up against first-timers Bosnia and Herzegovina on June 21, in what is a likely battle for second place. Nigeria will be hoping Argentina will be through to the second round by the time those two play on June 25.

How They Line Up: A cross between 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3. Nigeria has varied its approaches in the past several years, sometimes pressing and sometimes siting back. 

Key Players: Fenerbahce’s Emmanuel Emenike will offer pace and power up front, while Chievo’s Victor Obinna also has a good record for the national team. In midfield, Victor Moses (Liverpool, on loan from Chelsea) will add width, while Chelsea’s veteran John Obi Mikel will hold down the center, playing simple passes in a much more conservative role than he used to play for this team.

The defense is young, but has a remarkably large number of caps. Middlesbrough’sKenneth Omeruo, for example, is only 20 but has played for the national team almost 20 times. Champions League fans will recognize Celtic’s Efe Ambrose, who will play alongside Monaco’s Elderson. And in net, it's Lille’s Vincent Enyeama—a decent shot stopper who is also phenomenal at taking penalties. He could be a double hero in a shootout.

Rising Star: CSKA Moscow’s Ahmed Musa, who has been a revelation in the past couple years. He’s been phenomenal for his club, and with Europe’s top teams already hunting his signature, it’s tough to say he’s still a rising star. But, amazingly, he’s only 21. This will be his first World Cup of several.

Previous entries: Australia, Iran, Costa Rica, Honduras, Algeria, Cameroon, USA,Greece, Croatia

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Comments

  • kwasi
    says: 5 years ago
    Nigeria can win the world cup and make Africa proud.
  • Richie
    says: 5 years ago
    well you can easily call it the "curious case of eaglets button". these guys are at dia pinnacle when playing U17, even sometimes U14. after such tournaments they are already 32years and can't run for sh!t. GROWN MEN IN BABY JERSEYS
  • Viper
    says: 5 years ago
    Calm down,success at youth level doesn't translate to success at senior level especially at U17 level,very few players come through the ranks.
  • Pinkus
    says: 5 years ago
    The truth of Nigerian youth teams is that there is nothing youthful about them. They are all adults camouflaging as youth. Age cheating is what make Nigerian and indeed Gambian teams look great. The question is why can't the senior Gambian national team qualify for a mere African cup of nations when their so called youth teams have won the world cup? The answer is simple; age cheating. I knew a Nigerian under 17 who was 27 years at the time he played for the under 17. So please give us a break about Nigeria wining the world cup. The quality is just not there. Michel Obi who is Nigerian best is not even getting playing time at Chelsea. How did Nigeria qualify for the last two world cups? Was it not through match fixing? Give us a break!!!
  • papsy
    says: 5 years ago
    It's called age cheating. They send 20-25 years players as U17 and U20 and by the time they start the senior team, they are already 29-30 yrs. If they stop cheating they might do well with the senior team in terms of World tournaments
  • Kwabena
    says: 5 years ago
    Hahahahaha. Do you really wanna know? Because those players you call the U17 actually have children who may be 17 yrs. We are age cheaters. The cheating difference lies btn 5 to 20 yrs,
  • troot tella
    says: 5 years ago
    Simple answer. Their youths are simply not youthful. Give it a sec to sink in.
  • ginger
    says: 5 years ago
    What of wakaso who claim to be 23yrs and already have grown son who should be around 10yrs?, age cheating is everywhere in african not only in nigeria, imagine all sort rubbish comments u pple are making against naija,ghanasoccernet should stop posting article dat has to do with nigeria, u people should face ur problem on how to qualify from ur group nd leave naija alone....dominic adiyah was around 35 when he played under 20 wc in 2009
  • ginger
    says: 5 years ago
    I don't like insulting pple but some ghanians just hate naija why???...gsn had never posted anything positive about naija,what is our crime to ghanians for God's sake??..I'm beggining to hate u ghanians walai
  • Cap'n Planet
    says: 5 years ago
    ITS THE CLASSICAL CASE OF,CAN'T TELL THE MAN FROM THE BOY.IT'S NOT ONLY NIGERIA,BUT ALSO MOST OF WEST AFRICAN COUNTRIES,INCLUDING OUR OWN GHANA. . LET'S TAKE DEDE AYEW AND HIS ALL CONQUERING WORLD U20 CHAMPIONS.WHERE ARE ALL HIS CONTEMPORARIES?SOME MIGHT BE EVEN GRANDPAS.BUT LOOK AT DEDE;WAS BORN IN EUROPE,THEREFORE NO TEMPERING WITH BIRTH RECORDS AND IS STILL PLAYING.WITH THE EXCEPTION OF A FEW PLAYERS,YOU CANNOT HEAR ANY OTHER NAME THAN BADU ON WORLD STAGE.EM ALL OLD ROGER IS DEAD AND GONE TO HIS GRAVE! SHOULD I ADD THE WAILINGS THAT FOLLOW?
  • kenalex
    says: 5 years ago
    whats with the hate ghanians?...come to think of it we nigerian love ghana.....you claim we won under 17 throug age cheat,,,i expect you goats to tell us we won nations cup through age cheat..rubbish....ghana won the under 20 world cup....yet..have fail to win common afcon for 32 years.,..even a common jacki chan cup..you lost to a lowly ranked libya..with all their economy crisis...truth be told i love ghanians...
  • ken alex
    says: 5 years ago
    whats with the hate ghanians?...come to think of it we nigerian love ghana.....you claim we won under 17 throug age cheat,,,i expect you goats to tell us we won nations cup through age cheat..rubbish....ghana won the under 20 world cup....yet..have fail to win common afcon for 32 years.,..even a common jacki chan cup..you lost to a lowly ranked libya..with all their economy crisis...truth be told i love ghanians...
  • tones
    says: 5 years ago
    Nigerians are known for age cheating, there is no doubt about that, their under 17 team are full of grandfathers, that is why they fail at the national team, Ghana have won four African cups long time where were super chikens then? They luckily won African cup and their president declared public holiday, Mikel obi scores and it public holiday
  • phlin
    says: 5 years ago
    Nigerians are the best age cheaters in the game, don't be surprised, they fix matches against minor African teams to qualify the world cup. I have name them super vultures of Nigeria, that is their new name
  • jax
    says: 5 years ago
    if that is the case i tink u guys shuld start cheating as wel so u can win trophies lyk 9ja...a case of hatered and bitterness grown outa jealousy and envy, cry ur own cry!!
  • phlin
    says: 5 years ago
    How many.afcon have the vultures won? It was two.and now three chikens Ghana have won it 4 times fools
  • Godwins
    says: 5 years ago
    I blame it all on GSN. This write up is a reflection of how Ghanaians hate NIGERIANS. GSN is only preaching HATE.. A popular adage in my place says: ANY BODY WHO IS TRYING TO PULL SOMEONE DOWN IS ALREADY ON THE GROUND
  • aquah
    says: 5 years ago
    a country lyk ours cannot progress in soccer if all wot we're after is seen other rival teams fail...i must say the writer of this article must be tinkin wit his a.nus
  • phlin
    says: 5 years ago
    Nigerians are age cheaters, even the English know them as age cheaters and match fixtures, all their under 17 team ages are 25 to 26 many of them are married with kids. I am not surprised
  • Dells
    says: 5 years ago
    Sincerely, Nigeria does not have a youth team. I love their complexion though, especially the ladies.
  • jax
    says: 5 years ago
    i guess u're proud of bucket-like trophies gaynians won 32 year ago...which i believ u neva saw wit ur big red eyes..its painful u neva saw bs lift a spoon nt 2 talk of a cup. I understand ur anger.
  • phlin
    says: 5 years ago
    How come Ghana have four afcon and nigeria 3,how come the chickens won afcon but are bellow Ghana and cape verdé??? How come nigeria never reach where Ghana have reached in the world cup. The last time you went to the world cup your best player kaita was fighting konfu with the Greece players konfu fighters
  • risky
    says: 5 years ago
    Nigeria is well noted for age cheating. Nigeria were banned in the eighties for age cheating after sending 30yr olds to win the 1986 u16 wc. Even common sense will tell us that after winning u17 tourney a team must do well in u20 tournament. But Nigeria has never won the u20 wc because by the time the so called 17 reach 20, they can't eve run for a shit.
  • risky
    says: 5 years ago
    No country is an angel when it comes to the age competition. But in the case of Nigeria, the difference is so wide that they careless to bring a 30yr old to compete in an u17 tourney. So they will continue to dominate the u17 wc, but they can't never win the u20 wc.
  • risky
    says: 5 years ago
    By the way Nigeria is also noted for fixing matches. Otherwise the super eagles will find it very difficult qualifying for major tournament let a lone winning it.
  • solo
    says: 5 years ago
    Guys dont mind this blak pu$$y faced gaynians..jealousy go kill an entire countryg. lmao!!!
  • omo eki
    says: 5 years ago
    So much hate and jealousy on this site. Naija has won so many trophies that these black apes feel insecured and have nothing but hatred to spew about our achievement. Some said the players we present at under 17 are old hence the reason we've not won u-20 world cup. Like seriously, are ghanaians this daft? Haven't we won the olympic gold medal which is more competitive than the u-20 world cup? oh, i forgot we presented 40 years old players at the tournament. Bunch of fools. Need i also inform you twats that we've also played the u-20 world cup finals twice? the word intelligence has really gone extinct in ghana.
  • tony
    says: 5 years ago
    Ghanians are very stupid I pity 4 u guys wen last did u win a trophy
  • cars
    says: 5 years ago
    Super chikens will never win any under 20 world till thy Kingdom come, nigerians are known for their 419 and fraud in football. Nigerians are known for match fixing, they can't qualify without bribing and fixing games to save their chikens, Ghana have dominated the super chikens of Nigeria hence the motive behind the super chikens tag. Nigerians are chikens in any ghanain eyes and fraudsters in our eyes
  • phlin
    says: 5 years ago
    Nigerians are the best age cheaters in the game, don't be surprised, they fix matches against minor African teams to qualify the world cup. I have name them super vultures of Nigeria, that is their new name.
  • Assemblyman
    says: 5 years ago
    Charle,forget about Africans cheating on age.What about Edson Cavani?There were allegations of age cheat claim during his move from Napoli to PSG.One document claimed he was born in Bogota whiles the other claimed he was born in another village three years older than he claims.It was his nursery school teacher who confirmed this.After the age claim report surficed.But what did the world do about it?absolutely nothing!Let him be African and the world will be going gaga about it.Besides what's the truth in Samuel Eto's over aged saga?The man seems to be running fine and going about his normal business on the pitch.Just a peeved lazy and dishonest Italian ex girlfriend of his whom he jilted for some reasons claiming Eto is over 40 yrs.I think this is a silly revenge,if she her idea is to sabotage the man's career after leaving him.Why didn't she come out at the time when things were rosy between them abt his so called false age!this doesn't make any sense.Its just another nkwaseasem.If the are looking for the truth.Then they should back up claims with their own evidence or shut up.Because age even doesn't play ball.Its about form and activeness.Dunga was 40 when he lead Brazil to second place in France 98,whiles others like Paolo Maldini and in recent times Zanetti have followed suit.These guys can claim to even reduce their 40 yrs age bracket by 10 yrs to 30 yrs and still compete better than these youths of today.Forget about age I say,it doesn't play football.How old is Donovan from the US national team?31 and he was dropped because he cannot run like the youths.I learned he scored 2 goals after being dropped.But the truth is,he can't run.His form is bad!!Now compare him to so-called 40 yrs old Eto from Africa.Who amongst them is better in shape?am sure Donovan has a real age.Just judge for yourself here
  • bodz
    says: 5 years ago
    str_repeat('*',strlen('Fuck')) Nigerian:-Bn
  • phlin
    says: 5 years ago
    The chickens are down by one goal
  • ginger
    says: 5 years ago
    Useless people,useless site with black mentality, nothing good will ever happen to ghana if u keep on jelousing our progress..4 ur information we fielded our fringe players nd game ended 2 2.ur black ass team lost to montenegro with their full squad...kwekus nd abenas
  • freeman
    says: 5 years ago
    take it easy guys,this hatred amongst us will not take us anywhere...
  • Nigeria the best in everything
    says: 5 years ago
    All that is good in you brings jealousy, hatred, and malice. Nigeria is the biggest economy in Africa, the current AFCON champions, under 17 4 times, Olympic. and other's, please haters shut up, who Jah bless no one can cause.
  • emeka
    says: 5 years ago
    When will u ugly black chimpanzee Ghanaians get a life, when did Ghana last won a major championship, Ghana is a small country country compare to Nigeria with widespread poverty with to many illiterates and ignorant people that is why they are too black like chimpanzees