Talented youngsters light up NPFL U-15 Promises

By Fisayo Dairo

The NPFL Clubs Under-15 tournament which got underway last Monday has so far lived up to its billing of helping to chart a new developmental cause for football in Nigeria.

In what is an unprecedented move in the history of the round leather game in Nigeria, players not more than age 15 selected by the twenty top flight clubs are given the opportunity of competing under the same facility that the established league professionals strut their stuffs week in, week out in the Nigeria Professional Football League.

The first week of the NPFL Under 15 Promises tournament saw breathtaking football action from teens at the Owerrri and Osogbo centres in Groups A and C. While Groups B and D will follow in Kaduna and Abuja in the third week of April, few of the enormous future stars on parade made this writer's team of the tournament for those at the Owerri centre of the competition.

It was indeed a bunch of kids with expected lovely football nicknames such as Messi, Hazard, Ronaldo, Kante et al and some of those with such names showed something similar - if still very raw - to what the superstars they are called after repeatedly showcase at the global stage.

Having watched all the 10 games at the Owerri centre, here is my team of the tournament:

1. Ezekiel Vincent (Akwa United): This JSS 2 student was a calm and assured figure in goal for the Baby Promise Keepers. His idol is Vincent Enyeama and apart from being a namesake of the Lille stopper, he captained his team in two of the games and was instrumental to his team's two victories at the tournament. A shame they failed to progress but Vincent did just enough to beat Rivers United's Bright Joseph for my goalkeeping slot.

2. Babatunde Bello (FCIU): This energetic lad exhibited what many players at this level always have - versatility. He could have easily been my chosen right winger or left winger but I have to settle for the right back position where he played twice to devastating effect. The Lagos-born lad scored on the final day of completion against Rivers United and was definitely one of the stand out performers of the championship.

3. Joseph Wakama (Rivers United): A very assured player full if life going forward and discipline while defending. He is also versatile as he switched to central midfield position in his team's penultimate game against Enyimba. He is also very dangerous in set-pieces especially corner kicks. Surely one to look out for very soon.

4. Japhet Bilya (FCIU): Nicknamed Kante, this midfield star never allowed any ball to pass him. He was a shield in front of the FCIU defence and also very good on the ball. His movement up the pitch seldom lands him in scoring positions and he showed his dexterity in front of goal in their crucial game against Akwa United where he netted both goals in his team's 2-1 win.

5. Wisdom Nwazaigbe (FCIU): Full of wisdom and power. This defender of average height for his age was a rock in the FCIU backline and a starting point for many of their attacks. He combines good anticipation with impressive discipline in the way he smothers opponents' attack. Future Rio Ferdinand maybe?

6. Bassey Paul Paul (Rivers United): United's dependable centre back who played every minute of their four games. Strong in the air and decisive on the ground. He is one of the reasons why goalkeeper Bright Joseph conceded just one goal from open play throughout the group stage.

7. Ebenezer Samuel (Rivers United): One of the many players nicknamed Messi at the Championship. Full of trickery. His dribbles, nutmegs and mazy runs continually had spectators on their feet during the games and his presence was felt when the Ogoni-born lad missed the last game due to a thigh complaint.

8. Archibong Archibong (Akwa United): A big fan of Ifeanyi Ifeanyi of the senior team. Archibong is a set-piece specialist and apart from scoring directly from a free kick against Rivers United, he created assist from one for Elisha Jonah against Enyimba and was a torment all through the week from dead ball situations. That gave him a spot in my selection.

9. Elisha Jonah (Akwa United): Joint top scorer in the Owerri group stage with four goals, the Ikot-Ekpene born lad was a thorn in the flesh of defenders. His technique belies his fragile frame and his aerial prowess also goes beyond his average height. He made an instant mark on the opening day, second half hattrick and then headed home the late winner against Enyimba. Ubong Friday of the senior team is the mentor of this boy that excelled considerably in a team that created very little for him.

10. Nansel Bussa (FCIU): This Plateau-born left-footed player was the leader of the FC Ifeanyiubah team. He hardly gives the ball away and has an excellent vision with which he picks his teammates from afar. He is also a brilliant dribbler and can play either as a Number 10 or as a winger. He loves Seka Pascal and hopes to be ready to replace him in the first team very soon.

11. Nathan Collins (Rivers United): After taking up the role of unsung hero for the team in their opening games, creating a pair of assists for Kenneth Clinton, Collins hit the spotlight by himself with a hattrick performance in their penultimate game against Enyimba. He took up a central role on the second half of the final game against Ifeanyiubah and did considerably well to occupy the FCIU defence as they got a late equalizer.

Other Mentions: It was a very tough task to arrive at this Selection because so many of the youngsters distinguished themselves in peculiar ways. Some of those that came close are the likes of Rivers United goalkeeper Bright Jospeh who showed great reflex and maturity, Akwa United centre back Idongesit Bassey, Enyimba captain Samuel Francis, a defender of the Chinedu Udoji school of thought, Enyimba's effervescent midfielder Ifeanyi Ugochukwu - their own Kante - and Rivers United's Felix Ojuah Okechukwu, a brilliant midfielder who narrowly missed out to Archibong Archibong.

In the attack, Abia Warriors' duo of Henry Udezuka and captain Chukwudi Igbokwe made their while not forgetting Enyimba's duo of Godswill Anyanwu and set-piece specialist Chinonso Romanus. FCIU's Arinze Nwafuru wraps up the list of the notable mentions and really, it could have been more. Easy to monitor the names from now.