When Nigeria lifted the FIFA U-17 World Cup in Chile earlier this month, it was the side's record fifth time – 30 years on from their first success at what was then the U-16 World Championship in China. In between those successes the Nigerians have dominated the event, reaching eight finals, including four of the last five.
Disappointingly for Nigerian fans, the country has not been able to repeat that success at other levels. The country's U-20 team has twice made it to the U-20 World Cup final, losing both, while the Super Eagles have qualified for the finals of the FIFA World Cup™ five times, but never managed to get beyond the round of 16.
FIFA.com talked to some of the heroes of the Golden Eaglets at China 1985 to see if they had any insight about the current crop's success and the achievements of the new class of stars.
Fatai Atere nearly never made it to China in 1985. “It's actually a funny story,” the defender remembers now. “I was just one of many players invited to train with the Golden Eaglets ahead of the first-ever U-16 World Cup. At the time I was only 13 years old, and I was seldom given the chance to actually play in the time leading up to the tournament. But in one of the sessions, a player was injured and the coach saw me sitting on the sidelines. He noticed that I was not wearing my boots and he asked me why. I told him that I did not think I was going to get a chance to play. He told me that if I did not immediately put on my boots and enter the field of play, I could go home and need not come back.
“So I put on my boots and played. I changed the complexion of the game and from that moment on, I was in the starting line-up.”
The 13-year old Atere played in every game the Golden Eaglets played in China, including the final which they won to be crowned as the first world champions at that age level. Two years later he captained the side that again made it to the final. Atere missed out on the semi-final and final though after picking up an injury.
Atere says that the pressure on the youngsters now is far greater, but he thinks the team that recently emulated the 1985 heroics can push Nigerian football to bigger heights. “The team that won in Chile has some tremendous players and I think they can go far. I was particularly impressed with the captain, Kelechi Nwakali, and the top scorer Victor Osimhen. They are certainly players who can take Nigerian football forward and both of them have been called up to train with the U-23 side.
“When we played, we had little chance of being used at a higher level. But things have changed between then and now. The tournament is of course much bigger and the preparations are so much better. When we went to China, many people did not even know that we went. Today the while country was behind the side, and the players can concentrate on simply playing football.”
Coming full circle
Captaining the 1985 team, and thus having the honour of being the first ever captain to lift the trophy was Nduka Ugbade. Ugbade is certain that without the success he and his compatriots had in China 30 years ago, future generations of Golden Eaglets would not have been as successful. “When we came home with the trophy and medals, everybody understood what could be done. All the generations that came after us went into the tournament knowing that Nigeria was as good as any other team in the world. I think if we had not won, Nigeria would have probably won one or two tournaments, but not as many as we have. Since China, every two years all footballers of that age have the dream of playing for the Golden Eaglets and they work really hard to achieve that goal,” he told FIFA.com.
There is another thing that draws a line from the class of '85 to the present one. As he was in 1985, Muhammadu Buhari is Nigerian head of state. In 1985, he was head of the Supreme Military Council, but lost his position at the end of August 1985 when he was ousted. In May this year, he was democratically elected as Nigeria's new president. For Ugbade the elections represents the hope of a promise fulfilled. “When we won in 1985, we were each promised a house and scholarships. That never happened after Buhari was ousted, but he has now promised that he will fulfill that promise made all those years ago.
“For my team-mates I hope that this happens as they deserve it. After all, I think they deserve some of the credit for the Golden Eaglets success, even now in Chile.”