There is a mood, a particular quality, among these Golden Eaglets. They move calmly around the training pitch with none of the nervous energy so common in teenagers. Having won three U-17 World Cups, Nigeria always rank among the favourites, but there’s more than just confidence in this squad gathered in the desert city of Al Ain. There is freedom.
Coach Manu Garba, when asked to describe his philosophy of football, pauses, takes a breath and, in the way of someone about to shock with a brash answer, responds: “Total Football.”
Ask any of the other 23 coaches here in the Emirates if they’re planning to employ an approach as expansive, fluid, difficult to master, as Total Football and they’ll likely laugh in your face and politely excuse themselves. But Garba just smiles, folds his arms and sits back leaving you with mental images of the 1970s, Total Football’s heyday, and its short shorts and long sideburns.
Garba is not a naïve man. He is a serious man. He understands the freedom, the fitness and intelligence, the 90-minute commitment, needed to make it work. He also knows the dangers and challenges of using a highly intellectualised system, where the comfort of set positions is totally thrown out the window, are doubled with such young players. “It’s not been an easy philosophy to pass on to these young boys,” admitted Garba, who played in the first Nigerian team to reach a FIFA finals when he won the African U-20 championship of 1983. “They have no league experience. They are amateurs,” he insists of his side who have spent two weeks in Dubai preparing for the tournament opener.
“They play for local teams, or at their secondary schools, but it is this youth that can make them very adaptable to new ideas,” he adds, a tone of warning building in his voice. “They are right to call us favourites.
“I give my players a special freedom, a freedom to express themselves,” he continued, conjuring the spirit of the Rinus Michels, the late coach of Ajax and Holland, who is credited with founding, or at least refining, Total Football. “When we have the ball, we all attack. When we don’t, we all defend,” said the coach, who was an assistant in 2007 in Korea the last time Nigeria won a U-17 World Cup. “Take a chance; go forward, another man will cover you. All my players have the freedom to go anywhere, and it’s a responsibility they understand. Think Barcelona, think Spain, think entertaining, think passion and possibility.”
One would be tempted to think this all just bravado and bluster, but Garba sells it. He dropped Theophilus Solomon, a young striker dubbed the ‘Nigerian Ronaldo’ by media back home, due to a slight injury. But even without a marquis player, his confidence in his crop is plentiful. “I don’t see any defence that can stop us,” he said, citing an 11-0 win over Spanish club Espanyol’s youth academy team last month as a rather forceful example. “We know a World Cup is a different story, but, man, my attack is blistering. They can destroy any team on their day.”
Title or bust for boys in green
It’s clear. No false modesty here. This is a man who believes in his boys, his system, and expects a record fourth Nigerian title here in the Gulf. Anything less simply would not do. “We don’t rely on just a few players to score or lead,” he added. “We have so many attacking options, we’ve multiplied them. We can hurt you from all over the pitch. We’re not just 11 individuals playing a game. My players aren’t just numbers on a chalkboard. They are individuals with their own personalities. I have faith in them.”
Faith or not, football – Total football or any other kind – is played on a pitch, not in a hotel lobby. Goals win games and in their mouth-watering Group F opener against Mexico, Garba and co will meet up with the defending world champions in this age category. “I like the way the Latin American teams play, the way they ping the ball around, it’s a lot like Ghana, a lot like us,” he said. “But we can beat anyone.”
Garba is a man with a plan. It’s clear when he stalks the touchline during training sessions. “Enjoy yourselves, enjoy!” he often shouts, at the top of his lungs, urging his young players to express themselves. Total Football, after all, is still a kid’s game, with 22 bodies, a bouncing ball and a pair of goals.