These days, Brazilian legend Pele is almost as famous for his inaccurate predictions as for his football ability. And no prediction has been as wrong as his call that an African team would win the World Cup by 2000.
As the World Cup rumbles on, Egypt, Morocco, and Tunisia have already exited centre-left. Nigeria and Senegal have given themselves a shot at progressing to the Round of 16, but few people would tip them to go all the way.
Why have African nations struggled? How come a country like Nigeria with 180 million people has failed to mine 23 players capable of conquering the world at senior level? And what can we do to change this?
Building for the Future
In 2012, England opened a National Football Centre. It was not a novel idea. In 1998, the German Football Federation invested just over £1 million to create 121 regional centres to develop youth coaching.
In 2017, England won both the U-17 and U-20 FIFA World Cups. And Germany succeeded Spain as World Champions in 2014.
In each case, the seeds of success were sown long before. Germany's 2014 World Cup triumph began 16 years prior. No African country has been as diligent with planning, and this manifests in several ways. First, players don't gel or develop together. This understanding is often the difference in International football, since players rarely play week in, week out. Belgium's current squad features a number of players born within a year of each other that have played together from youth level.
Also, a lazy approach to youth development means African teams rely on European clubs to develop their players, and they tend to value physicality over creativity with African players. Current Nigeria captain John Mikel Obi is a good example. Despite starting off as an advanced midfielder, Mikel was played as a more defensive midfielder.
One source of frustration is how dominant African teams are in FIFA's cadet championships. Nigeria has finished runners-up at the U-20 World Cup on two occasions. Both times, the winning team has gone on to secure success on the senior stage, usually with those U-20 players as the spine of the team. Among the Argentineans that defeated Nigeria in the 2005 U-20 World Cup Final was a certain young player named Lionel Messi.
Even more disturbing is Africa's record at the FIFA U-17 World Cup. Nigeria has won the tournament a record five times.
Why has this success not led to senior glory?
Although part of it is poor federation leadership and team management, another pressing issue is age cheating. Nigeria's current goalkeeper, Francis Uzoho, is the latest player to have his age doubted. While the young goalkeeper looks innocent (literally), many of his predecessors – particularly at youth level – are not. The problem with age cheating is that while it brings success at youth level – because overage players use their physicality to bully their way to victory – it impedes youth development.
General Sports Mismanagement
Nigeria's general approach to management has been haphazard at best, with a lack of patience or foresight when dealing with important decisions. Since Brazil 2014, Nigeria has had six national team coaches and technical advisers. That's six different styles for players that often have different club instructions. That leaves little room for developing techniques with players.
The African game is also sadly riddled with corruption. The recent expose by Ghanaian investigative journalist Anas is a timely reminder of how many use football for personal enrichment. We see the influence of money and corruption in the local football leagues, and it also haunts the national team. What's sad is that in a country as difficult and tough as Nigeria, sports provide a substantial way of harnessing talent for personal and national pride. Every failure to act is not just a national disgrace, but a sorely missed opportunity.
There is much more to be done to compete on the global stage. Refereeing standards need to be improved. Nigeria has never had a referee at the World Cup, and recent manipulation accusations show that we have a long way to go. The domestic league needs to be marketed well and locally supported. Our fields, squares and stadiums are barely full, and for the more prominent ones like the Uyo and Abuja Stadiums, a waste of tax-payer funds. This has contributed to the league languishing in 12th place in the CAF League Rankings. Many of these issues require the political will to act, but they also need visionary and honest leadership at the NFF.
There's a sobering certainty that we will not return from Moscow with the World Cup. We might not even go, let alone return from Yaounde next year with the African Cup of Nations. But our work today could set the seeds for tomorrow. After all, no one wins a prize for having the best-designed jersey.