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Nigeria soccer schools seek to build new talent

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

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.”