I got the chance to watch the first under something football tournament in honor of the late Haruna Ilerika played on the dilapidated handball courts of the National Stadium, Lagos in December 2010. That competition was my eye opener to why we are where we are in Nigerian football, age falsification, abusive coaching and biased refereeing.Let me tackle age falsification first; all the trophies we have won at age grade world competitions should be taken away from us. We have come to believe in what we do (age falsification) that we start to say things like: “this U17 is the youngest we have ever presented” (2013 U17 World Champions).
You are either 17 or you are not. But when we as a country start to convince ourselves that we are doing better at cheating, then we surely have a problem. Saying that we have presented the youngest 17-year-olds ever only means that we cut ages by four or five years (21 & 22), instead of parading 27, 28 and 30 year olds as 17. The disaster that age falsification has caused to our football is pretty evident in the results we have seen in our Super Eagles. We have players that just seem to be tired of playing the game, there is no excitement in their movements and they easily rebel against constituted authority (NFF & coaches). This is what old men do.
Back to the tournament, I sat and observed a true Nigerian sport spectacle; age screening. This spectacle is done in every age grade competition in Nigeria that we even set up age screening committees at secondary school games. When I attended secondary school, with 95% certainty, all pupils in a class were of the same age, but things have changed now and changed for the worst.
The screening exercise was done with ‘alacrity’, very quick disposal of those thought to be over the age permitted in the competition. As a player, you could not argue your case if you were tossed from the line, it was so unscientific and unfair that I believe that some kids were tossed because they looked over the age limit. For the records, I have coached in age grade competitions in Canada and the US and I am yet to meet an age screening committee.  The way they have avoided such age controversies (besides birth data base), is by allowing players to play only within the year of birth. You are hardly ever allowed to play up in age. In U13 tourneys today, all players will have to be born in 2001. It simplifies the age process and allows for age appropriate development.
When I talk sport development, I insist that good and dynamic coaching or coaches is the best way to develop a player. What I witnessed in 2010 was in one word horrendous. The coaches were as abusive as I have ever seen, and I say this for someone who played basketball from a very young age in this same Nigeria. I cannot remember any of my youth coaches in Lagos or Ibadan being this abusive. These kids/players were going through hell playing under this condition. What coaches do not realize is that abusive or constant yelling of instructions to a youth player takes away his or her creative skill development.
The more a coach is overly instructive in competition, the worse a player develops; they lose the ability of decision making and anyone that understands the game of football knows that football is the most coach isolated sport. Players should be trained over their formative years on how to make good decisions without the help of a coach. The truth is that our untrained coaches are killing the growth of players, even before they started. I have also witnessed this bad coaching behavior at the very successful Kids Cup, organized by a major television outfit. The bottom line is communication is very important to our football development and for now; we lack this very important ingredient in the coaching mix. Can I advertise here? I offer a very ‘expensive’ communications workshop for people in leadership positions, coaches, teachers and business managers. (Call me)
Referees have a part to play in the development of young football players. Refereeing, like coaching is a teaching process, and if done properly, players are better for it. I have used the word bias, not because the young referees working these games were taking sides to affect wins and losses, but they refused to protect players with how they called the games. I spoke to a few referees after their games on why they did not penalize certain actions on the field? The answer was what I call a bias; “the player had no business holding on to the ball, he should pass the ball.” What the referees refuse to understand is that they have a duty to call fouls and not let a kid get hurt from rough tackling. Good refereeing helps football development, good refereeing allows for skillful players to continue to develop ball skills and good refereeing at this stage makes for good refereeing at the professional level.
We can take care of bad coaching with a good coaching education program, same with refereeing; a good instructing referee program that tweaks football rules will help development, like no slide tackling till U16. Benefit is that our players will learn not to sell out by going to ground in the name of tackling, but stand and shadow opponents with the ball until you can poke ball away or a team mate arrives.
As for age falsification, Fifa has done us some good by fooling us with an MRI to determine proper age. FIFA will be sued to the heavens if they do a medical examination on my son without my written consent.