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Nigeria soccer schools seek to build new talent

Disappointed with World Cup results, Nigeria focuses on the future.

Nigerian soccer players
Young students practice their soccer skills at Emmanuel Amunike Football Academy, one of Nigeria's schools designed to improve the country's talent in the sport. (Shyamantha Asokan/GlobalPost)

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.

Read more GlobalPost World Cup Coverage

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.