Since the Flying Eagles made their debut at the FIFA U-20 World Cup in 1983 in Mexico, they have gone beyond the quarter-finals only three times. At Moscow 1985, they finished in third place. The Flying Eagles then finished as runners-up twice in 1989 in Saudi Arabia and 2005 in Holland. Sadly, after the bronze and silver medal successes, the Flying Eagles haven’t gone beyond the quarter-finals again.
It is on record that after 2005, the Flying Eagles made their first quarter-final appearance on home soil in 1999. They again reached the quarter-finals at Canada 2007 under the present coach of the team. The Flying Eagles other quarter-final appearance was in Colombia in 2011 when Ahmed Musa, Olarenwaju Kayode, Abduljeleel Ajagun, Uche Nwafor, Edafe Egbedi and Peter Suswam were in the squad. And their last quarter-final achievement came in 2019 in Poland.
So, after 2005, there have been lethargic performances from the Flying Eagles who promised so much but delivered so little. In fact, when Egypt hosted the tournament in 2009, the Flying Eagles failed to progress from their group. It was another disappointment but the consolation was that Ghana ensured Africa didn’t host the world in vain. Nigeria’s neighbours won the Cup for the first and last time for the continent.
After attending the next three editions of the championship in 2011, 2013 and 2015, the Flying Eagles failed to qualify for the 2017 event which was held in South Korea. The team returned to the tournament in Poland in 2019 where the Paul Aigbogun led squad was knocked out in the Round of 16 by neighbours Senegal.
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So, even as the Flying Eagles also boast of two silver and a bronze medal in the tournament , the team has failed to match the expectations of Nigerians. The fact that Nigeria has dominated the FIFA U-17 World Championship but failed to lift the U-20 trophy even for once has raised a lot of questions over the way Golden Eaglets players are managed. The argument is that if the squads of the national U-17 team that won the world title in 1985, 19993, 2007, 2013 and 2015 graduated into the Flying Eagles, then Nigeria should have won the U-20 World Cup at least once. Therefore, the consistent failure of the Flying Eagles is becoming a national embarrassment.
Well, the national U-20 team has another opportunity to make history and atone for its past failures at the ongoing championship in Argentina. As stated earlier, Nigeria with her abundant talent has never moved before the quarter-finals in recent years. However, this evening, history beckons on the coach of the team, Ladan Bosso and his players as they take on South Korea for a chance to reach the semi-finals for the first time since 2005.
Nigerians are expectant and Bosso is still talking tough but we must not raise our expectations too high because the Flying Eagles are blowing hot and cold in Argentina. After they struggled to beat debutant Dominican Republic 2-1 in their opening match of the tournament, they put up a commanding performance against European giants Italy in their second group match which they won 2-0. However, the joy of most Nigerians who were deceived by that performance ended abruptly when the Flying Eagles fell to a 0-2 defeat to five-time champions Brazil in their last group match.
Had FIFA not made provision for the best losers to progress out of their groups, the loss to Brazil would have ended the run of the Flying Eagles. So, saved by the best losers’ ticket, the boys of Bosso shocked the whole world when they took down hosts and six-time champions, Argentina in the Round of 16. The Flying Eagles who lost the 2005 finals to the Lionel Messi inspired team got back their pound of flesh with a 2-0 win. For those who don’t understand Nigeria’s national teams, the victory came as a surprise. For some of us, it wasn’t because whenever the national teams are written off completely, they rise to the occasion. However, when there is high expectation, they flop badly. Against Argentina, only a few incurable optimists gave the Flying Eagles a chance to win.
Even as Nigeria stunned Argentina, only those who do not know much about football and its tactics will say the Flying Eagles were convincing in their performance. Their victory was sufficiently supported by mother luck which saved the team on many occasions. But this is not to suggest that the seven-time African champions got the win on a platter of gold. In fact, the Technical crew was smarter than it was when the team lost to Brazil. The defensive tactic against Argentina was different. The Flying Eagles sat back to soak pressure and go on counter-attacks at the appropriate time. Had they opted for the ‘fire for fire’ approach deployed against Brazil, they wouldn’t have survived the Argentines.
Well, today is another day and another chance for the Flying Eagles to break the existing semi-final jinx. It is indeed a chance for the much criticised Bosso to silence some of us are seen as being too critical of the coach The man himself knows that he is not so popular among Nigerian football fans and that is why anytime his team wins, he sarcastically dedicates his success to his ‘unrepentant critics’. One thing Bosso will realise one day is that some of us do not begrudge his luck as one of the longest serving national team coaches. All we demand are results that will justify the long stay in his position.
Apart from Bosso, today’s match against South Korea is a golden opportunity for the players to make history and be remembered as the squad that finally broke the U-20 World Cup semi-final jinx which has ligered since 2005. If they go all the way to the finals, most of them would end up in some of the top clubs in Europe. However, if they fumble again along the way, maybe they will end up with ridiculous contracts like the one their goalkeeper, Chijioke Aniagboso is said to have signed with a second division side in Ukraine. The haste with which the bulky goalkeeper who is said to be 19 years has signed the deal is a topic for another day.
I, therefore, conclude by advising Nigerians to be cautious in their optimism as the Flying Eagles battle their South Korean opponents in the make-or-mar quarter-final clash. The Koreans are small in stature but mighty in performance and can hurt the Flying Eagles. Moreover, after the win against Argentina, it may be time to blow cold again. But before I am tagged a prophet of doom, I wish the Flying Eagles victory in today’s match.