The Flying Eagles open their campaign at the FIFA U20 World Cup in Tychy against Qatar on Friday, but the social media storm that enveloped the team a few days to the kickoff, just might determine how they will be perceived in history…
In 1985, Monday Odiaka needed just 14 seconds to score the opening goal for Nigeria’s Flying Eagles in their game against Canada at the FIFA U20 World Cup in Russia. That effort remains the fastest goal ever scored at the tournament by any player. Odiaka would go on to win the Bronze boot as one of the highest goal scorers of the tournament, as Nigeria claimed her first U20 World Cup medal by finishing in Third Place.
(*Amadou Sagna of Senegal erased Odiaka’s record with his strike against Tahiti on Tuesday at the 2019 edition*)
Nigeria has since gone on to serve up memorable performances in subsequent editions, by securing two final appearances (1989 and 2005) while throwing up future superstars. The successes recorded by these U20 teams meant that Nigerian football fans look forward to watching the Flying Eagles at the FIFA World Cup…that is, until now.
The age question has been a question of the ages. Over the years, segments of the media and the public have questioned the veracity of the age presented by some of the players in almost every squad. But the outcry, usually muted, had never generated beyond the level of the proverbial storm-in-a-teacup. This is thanks mostly to the inability of the public to get a close look at the players before they become heroes, and the division of the media, which is usually split (for and against) on the reportage of the age issue.
But now, Social Media has made ‘access’ to the players possible. And while that has been beneficial in terms of growing the profiles of the players, and boosting fan support for the team – because of the platform it creates for interaction; it has also opened the doors for greater scrutiny. The Nigerian Football Federation AND the players that pull on the shirt of the national team, have massive follower-ship on social media. That follower-ship was what the NFF usually leverage on to introduce players to the fans when any of the national teams have a foreign assignment, and that was what they did for the Poland 2019 team.
Then, the age question surfaced again, but this time the storm broke the cup, and the NFF panicked. There had been the usual muted questions about the ages declared by some of the players following their qualification for the U20 World Cup, but it was just that – muted. Then the individual profile pictures of the players appeared on the social media handle of the NFF, and all hell literally broke loose. The fans (this time) have been handed the advantage of taking a closer look at the players (before they became heroes) and their judgement (on the ages claimed by some of the players) was harsh. The backlash was so vicious, that…
The NFF took down the profile pictures without any explanation. The truth is, there are young players in that squad; players that will one day play for the Super Eagles. The squad is (relatively) young, but the presence of players with questionable age-claims meant that the whole squad is now under a cloud. And the NFF further fueled the fire by reacting to the comments made on the pictures by fans. Maybe the NFF should have showcased (only) some of the players, which is a moral question. Maybe they should have taken the hits, left the pictures and hoped for a sure-fire start that would have (probably) quietened the ‘attack’. The pictures coming off the handle sent a wrong signal.
Now, no matter what happens with the team in Poland, no matter how well they play or how high they fly; the (main) story will always be about the “old” team that represented Nigeria.