LAGOS, Nigeria — After his lunch of peppery chicken and rice, and before his pre-match nap, Bernard Mitchell sits outside his dorm and explains how he began playing football.
“I started playing in the sand. It was just raw talent. We had no positions,” said the muscular 19-year-old Nigerian. “One day, a scout spotted me and gave me the address of the academy.”
Bernard is now the team captain at the Emmanuel Amunike Football Academy. This school has housed and trained him for two years just outside Lagos, Nigeria’s chaotic coastal megacity of some 15 million people. It plans to send him to talent fairs in Europe this summer. Bernard, like all his classmates, dreams of a soccer career in the West.
The Amunike academy is one of a growing number of private soccer schools in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country with 152 million people. Many soccer schools have been set up by retired Nigerian soccer stars in response to what they see as falling standards. Emmanuel Amunike, who played for FC Barcelona and also for Nigeria, set up his school in 2008. He describes it as part of his “responsibility” to his country.
Chris Nwaehi, a Nigerian coach who also worked for top clubs in Spain, opened his academy at the start of the year. A former goalkeeper for Nigeria’s women’s team has also recently established a school. In most cases, the students are selected on merit and do not pay fees.
The aim is to return the country’s soccer scene to its mid-1990s heyday, when Amunike was on the national team. Nigeria was once the continent’s great footballing hope; it won the African cup in 1994 and the Olympic gold medal in 1996. But its recent teams have been more lackluster.
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Bookmakers had put the odds of Nigeria winning this year’s World Cup at 100-1. They lost their first two matches in the first round, to Argentina 0-1, and to Greece 1-2. Nigeria then tied South Korea 2-2. That performance knocked Nigeria out of the World Cup.
In response to the Nigerian team's woeful performance, President Goodluck Jonathan announced that he would pull Nigeria from all international competition for two years to give the country time to restructure its soccer program. However, when FIFA, the body governing world soccer, announced that Nigeria would be penalized for taking that action, Jonathan rescinded his decree and said the Nigerian team would stay in international competition while it undergoes restructuring.
The saga over whether or not Nigeria would compete shows how seriously many in the country feel about soccer. And it highlights how important the soccer academies are to the country.
The academies hope to promote promising students like Bernard in Europe, where they can hone their skills at the world’s best clubs and still represent Nigeria in international contests. Amunike’s school has three players on loan to a Finnish team and hopes they will be bought. Players from another academy in Kwara, a quiet farming state in central Nigeria, are attending trials in Belgium.
Unfortunately, Nigeria’s domestic league does not interest the country’s strongest players or most ardent spectators. The fans prefer to watch higher-quality European games on television and the players prefer to earn more abroad.
“All our good players go to Europe. They earn as little as 30,000 naira ($200) a month here, but they can earn $120,000 (£80,000) a week there,” says Nnamdi Okosieme, sports editor at Next, a Nigerian newspaper. “Those who remain here are either not good enough or not lucky enough to leave.”
Amunike’s academy houses 30 young men aged 15 to 22 years old. Their day starts at 7 a.m., with two hours of jogging, press-ups and stretches. After a hefty breakfast of yams or plantains, the boys have theory classes where they study team formations. They then play until dusk.
The Kwara students are likewise at the gym by 7 a.m.. They do extra press-ups if they are late. Their plush complex contains an academic school, where the boys study algebra and literature.
These commendable soccer schools, however, face an uncertain financial future. Those run by ex-players rely solely on their founder’s cash. In many cases, this is running low. The Kwara academy is funded by a group of private sponsors that includes four African banks. But they have only put forward enough money for the rest of the year.
The schools say they will break even once they start selling players. But competition is tough. While Nigerian soccer is on the decline, smaller and poorer African countries are improving their game and attracting talent scouts. Ghana put in the best African performance of this year's World Cup, reaching the quarter-finals before losing to Uruguay on penalties, while Nigeria failed to survive the first round. European scouts have even started looking at Togo, a country of 6 million people that first qualified for the World Cup in 2006.
So, while the Nigerian academy students show great promise, they might have to try harder than ever to get their break.
“When the Nigerian team did well in the ‘90s, we thought we had arrived,” Amunike said. “Then everyone wanted to buy Nigerian players. But now they are looking elsewhere.”