Young lads, hardly 12 years but they are already having a taste of what being a future champion can bring. They are students of St. Barnabas LGEA , Ilorin who are Nigeria’s representatives at the 3rd Milo African U-17 Championship which kicked off in Lagos on Friday, May 30. It is not possible to describe the transformation being part of the event has brought to their lives and as confessed by team’s captain, Olakunle Olusegun when he said, “I don’t know how to describe my life since we started camping at the Kwara Football Academy because it is something I have never experienced but I am very very happy”. But like other kids their age, most of the players admitted to being home sick and would have loved to have their parents, brothers and sisters around. captain of the team, Olakunle Olusegun and Adams Mustapha were the first to express a desire to have close relations around but also noted that the fact they have been together from Ilorin has made them develop brotherly affections.
Olusegun reasoned that “ we started being together from school but then we were coming from our homes until we were camped at the Kwara Football Academy and now here. I am sure my parents would have loved to be around, I also miss them but we are fine as a team and already relating as brothers”.
After a trip to Lagos for a Media launch of the tournament activities organized by Nestle PLC at the Protea Hotel, Maryland, the players returned to Ilorin to start a two weeks camping exercise managed by Paul Adams Odey, one of the Coaches at the first of its kind football academy in Ilorin, Kwara State.
Odey is a widely travelled Coach and have overseen the rise of many youngsters to prominence in football as a coach of some former top league clubs. The exercise initially scheduled to last a forthnight extended to over another week as the General Manager of the Academy, Mutiu Adepoju accepted to have the lads stay on before their next itinerary which was another camping exercise at the International Sports Academy in Wasinmi, Ogun State founded by yet another ex-international and captain of the then Green Eagles, Chief Segun Odegbami (MON).
During the duration of the camping in Ilorin, the kids were conditioned for competition playing quality friendly games against youth teams within Ilorin and they came off with good results, testifying to the quality of drills they have been put through. Assessing the performance of the team after one of the numerous friendly games, Odey had this to say, “I am satisfied with the performance of the boys, you know they are very young and their mind is very impressionable at this period of their development, so we took them through the basics to provide them the needed grounding to become all round players in the future”.\
Tope Omodara is only 11 years old and prior to the trip to Lagos for the media presentation of the team hasn’t made such long trip outside his native Ilorin. Tope who plays as a forward and has aspirations of playing professional football is already looking forward to the competition. This confidence received a boost when the team was paid surprise visits by two of Nigeria’s illustrious former national team players, Emmanuel Amuneke and Nwankwo Kanu, both former Winners of the African Footballer of the Year Award.
Amuneke, presently the Coach of the National U-17 team preparing for the African Youth Championship was the first to arrive the camp and he had his routine cut out. The former Barcelona of Spain player took the boys out to the field and complimented the efforts of the team’s coaches in an early morning drill that lasted until about 11am. Not done, he sat the lads down and offered motivational talks, leading them through his own career path and admonishing them to work hard, be determined and play for each other.
Amuneke afterwards shared his impressions thus “those were wonderful kids that brought back pleasant memories of how I began from the school to play football. In our time, there was nothing like an Academy such as where the boys are camped but we played on the streets ,open grounds and God made us achieve what we became. So, it was a huge honour for me to have shared experiences with the boys knowing that one day they will also enjoy the opportunity that I have had with them”.
Papilo as Kanu is fondly called dropped in after Amuneke and according to one of the players, Timilehin Oluwaniyi, “ Kanu told us to be confident in ourselves, to be focused, determined and work hard and we can achieve anything we want to”.
South Africa, Ghana and Kenya are the other three countries that are represented at the tournament which began in 2010 in South Africa. Nigeria won the first edition in South Africa through Ashegun School, Oyo State and the second edition was hosted and won by Ghana with Nigeria’s representatives, St. Stephens School, Lagos finishing second.
Explaining Nestles involvement in the youth development tournament, Managing Director, Mr. Dhamesh Gordhon said it was aimed primarily to promote cross cultural ties and discipline through football. “At Nestle PLC, we are pleased to be a major private sector contributor to the development of sports in Nigeria as part of our commitment to promoting physical activities and enhance quality of life through sports”.
All the teams were hosted to a welcome dinner at the Intercontinental Hotel, Victoria Island where the draws for the matches were also held. The young boys also were treated to a tour of the GET Arena early on Friday before the opening ceremonies and kick-off. The finals holds on Saturday with the third place match starting at 1pm and the finals at 4pm-.