Nigeria's Flying Eagles: The good, the bad, and the future

Nigeria's under-20 players have copped the flak normally reserved for the adult sides after a poor showing, according to fans, in Poland. Aitor Alcalde - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images

Not since Fanny Amun's 'wobbling and fumbling' Flying Eagles team of 1995 has a Nigeria under-20 side been so poor as to draw the amount of vitriol that Paul Aigbogun's team has attracted.

And even that team did manage to make it through to the third place playoff where they won bronze. They were were then outdone in 1999 by Thijs Libregts' team, who huffed and puffed at the World Youth Championship hosted by Nigeria before they were dumped out by a Seydou Keita-inspired Mali.

On Monday, the current team posted arguably their best performance of the 2019 FIFA Under 20 World Cup in Poland as they went down 2-1 to Senegal to call time on their campaign, but the damage had already been done. 

An opening day whitewash of Qatar on the back of a 4-0 scoreline failed to mask obvious foundational cracks in the team. And by the time they were out-thought and outclassed by the USA on the road to a 2-0 defeat, the alarm bells were well and truly ringing.

A 1-1 draw with Ukraine saw the Flying Eagles squeak through to the quarterfinals as one of three best losers, where they met the smooth-playing Junior Teranga.

Behind the results however, were the intangibles. The team was tough to watch. Their play was disjointed, and on the basis of their (lack of) technical ability, the majority of the players looked like they had never had any basic coaching, and it was hard to decipher exactly what sort of tactics were on display.

Naturally, Nigeria's Twitter fandom was unforgiving.

What went wrong?

Just about everything.

For starters, they looked like a bunch of strangers who had only just met for the first time, even against Qatar.

Inexperienced as the Qatari team were, they still found ways to carve up the Nigeria defence and only a lack of quality up front stopped them from scoring.

Spatial awareness looked like an alien concept to the Flying Eagles. Players had no idea where their teammates were and constantly ran themselves aground when a simple pass would have made a world of difference.

This feature of running into cul de sacs was a particular staple of the Nigerian team for most of the tournament, as players choose to dribble rather than pass.

Against the USA, it was clear that they not only failed to scout the opposition, but were overly confident in their abilities to play blind, pressing high in an attempt to overwhelm the Americans with numbers and pace. Team USA stayed calm, weathered the storm, and hit back. Hard.

Individual performances did not help matters either. Tijani Muhammed, who started at centre forward, was so ineffectual against Qatar, he was dropped for the USA game. The fact that he was reinstated for the last game says all there needs to be said about his replacement, Akor Adams.

Their lack of invention was notable, especially in the final third where their attempts on goal came down more to hit and hope than proper planning.

Overall, this looked like a team that had trained together for less than a week, and players whose leaden touches suggested they only started playing football a month before.

It wasn't all bad though...

First, their strength of character is to be lauded. They faced adversity against the USA, Ukraine, and Senegal and never stopped trying. They may not have had the smarts to recover in two of those games, but at least they did not bow their heads and roll over.

By the second half of the USA game, they were dominant, pinning the Americans to their half of the field and improving on their own play. And they did create a few good chances from which they could have made fist of it, if only they had a good finisher.

It was the same story against Senegal. After going two goals down, the Flying Eagles rallied to play their best football of the tournament, rattling the Senegalese time and again, and on the balance of that second half play, could be said to have been unlucky to lose.

Aniekeme Okon was a bright light. An all-round midfield dynamo who came on in the second game for Manchester-born Tom Dele-Bashiru (another good 'un), he dominated the midfield and drive Nigeria forward in all three games he played. If there were a Nigeria Player of the Tournament, Okon would be it.

Man City's Dele-Bashiru showed proof of his European football education with his economy of movement and slick passing, while Maxwell Effiom put in one of the bigger shifts in the team, tracking back every single time to cover for his fullback. Defender Aliu Salawudeen also earns some credit for his positional play and defensive strength.

What now?

Complicated question.

The current state of the Flying Eagles did not happen by accident. For years, the country's youth football success was based on the nationwide organisation and planning of the Youth Sports Federation of Nigeria (YSFON). 

Over the years, that organisation has been left to dwindle and it is now all but defunct. None have risen to replace it. Instead, Nigeria's youth football development is structured on a fragmented academy ecosystem driven by profit, agents, and their go-betweens.

Selection for cadet tournaments is done during an inefficient system of open screenings where coaches travel the country to hold tryouts and select players. This flawed system leaves the door open for agents to try to "convince" the coaches that their player is good enough to merit selection.

In the last few years the NFF has moved to eliminate this by organising the Future Eagles project, where kids are groomed from as early as 11 years old through to 15, from where they are selected to the national teams. One high profile product of that system is Kelechi Iheanacho.

It is still a work in progress and by no means perfect, but the results are already showing that it is the way to go for he future.

And it has to work, if Nigeria are to avoid seeing a version 3.0 of a "Wobbling and Fumbling" Flying Eagles in 2021.