John Obuh is no newcomer to the world of FIFA youth competitions. In 2009, he led Nigeria's Golden Eaglets to second place in the FIFA U-17 World Cup. Two years later he was in charge of the Flying Eagles as they campaigned in the FIFA U-20 World Cup in Colombia and later this year he will again lead the Nigerian U-20 side when they compete at the showpiece event of world youth football in Turkey. FIFA.com spoke recently to Obuh about his preparations for the tournament in Turkey and about youth football on the African continent.
In that conversation, the straight-talking Obuh stressed the value of experience in these international events, and said he is confident that these learnings will be put to good use as the Flying Eagles try to win their first FIFA U-20 World Cup. "The experience I have from the finals in Colombia in 2011, or even from 2009, when we hosted the Under-17 World Cup finals, is something that I can use now as we prepare for Turkey. It will also come to good use at the finals themselves."
The 53-year-old said one of the main challenges that he has learned as a veteran of coaching is the difficulty of getting the best out of his sometimes overwhelmed young players. Especially at the largest tournaments, he says, you never know what you will get from youth players compared to full internationals. "The older players are more mature which means they will perform under more pressure."
His charges will be feeling the pressure as he takes the side to Turkey, where he will not be underestimating his Group B opponents. "There is no group that is cheap. All are strong nations, some are very strong,” he said when asked about Korea Republic, Cuba and Portugal. However, Obuh insists he is confident that his team will arrive at the finals well prepared. "We conducted a training camp in Germany with 30 players and then I took 23 of them to the Toulon tournament, where several of the other teams that will compete in Turkey were also playing. The seven players that I left behind were those who were already in my plans. I wanted to give the other players a chance to show me what they can do."
The team achieved a morale-boosting 1-1 draw against Brazil in Toulon, and Obuh believes that the participation in the tournament will help the team at the finals. "I think few people can argue that African players do not have the skills. The skills are already embedded, but the character is lacking and that is something that we are working on."
Gunning for consistency
When discussing how to improve Nigeria and Africa’s already impressive youth record, although only Ghana have won the FIFA U-20 World Cup in 2009, Obuh laments the fact that there is so little continuity amongst African teams at youth level. "Many teams only start preparing when the competition is almost at hand. What should happen is that players should go from one level to the next and as many players as possible should stay together."
He believes that there is also not enough done to monitor the progress of players. "When I went to Germany and England for coaching courses, I saw how they work with their national youth teams. They are monitored throughout the season and when they play internationally, the players for the squad are called-up and the coach then works with those players. In Africa, a whole group of players is called up and the coach then still has to select his squad from those players. The coaches alone should be left to make the selection of players, but when the team is about to compete in a tournament, I need a lot of eyes to assist me to scout for players. It is very difficult to scout for players and coach them at the same time.
Obuh is both passionate and critical when he starts talking about football development in Africa. "Not enough is being done at the grass-roots level. Not enough people are working for development. They are not interested in what they put into football, but more interested in what they can get out of it. People involved in football should not be involved because they want to benefit financially, they should be involved for the love of the game and the sport. I have never seen anybody who wants to build a training facility. We have to depend on the government because there is little or no support for such things from the private industry.
"What we have to do in Africa is think ahead. Consistency is most important and we need to do well for a few years. Often when a team does well, they sit back and do not follow up that success. We have to look at younger players. We have to have sustenance for success."