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Afcon Under-23: Amapakabo's gamble fails to pay as Nigeria's problems come home to roost

Nigeria's elimination from the Africa Under-23 Cup of Nations in Egypt, at the hands of South Africa on Friday, brings the curtain down on a miserable few months for the country's home-based national teams; and while coach Imama Amapakabo will take the lion's share of the criticism, some enduring problems have underpinned this succession of failures.

In a month and a half, Amapakabo's Nigeria lost both games at the WAFU Cup of Nations, missed out on qualification for the African Nations Championship (CHAN), and have now fallen at the first hurdle of the under-23 Afcon tournament -- missing out on Olympic qualification in the process.

The first two failures were defended -- and chalked off as learning experiences -- with the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) having identified Olympic qualification as the true prize, but Friday's 0-0 draw with South Africa in Cairo leaves the governing body's strategy in tatters.

The NFF described its strategy, in a statement published in September, thus: "As a way of preparing the U-23 boys for the U-23 Afcon finals in Egypt, the Nigeria Football Federation has decided that the U-23 squad, without the overseas-based professionals but with a number of home-based added, will play in the CHAN qualifying fixture."

The federation, in the same statement, also described the WAFU Cup of Nations as an "ample pre-Afcon preparatory platform."

It was a high-risk strategy; to gamble Nigeria's participation at CHAN, their WAFU Cup fortunes, and their hopes of playing Olympic football in Japan, on a predominantly under-23 team, with only three over-age players included in the squad that travelled to Senegal.

It hasn't paid off.

"It was an experiment that, in terms of results, went wrong," Amapakabo told ESPN after Nigeria's shock elimination from the WAFU Cup of Nations, in a penalty shootout against Cape Verde.

"But I think, in terms of exposure for these players, it was a huge step for them and for all of us around the team.

"Our situation didn't give us the chance to take most of the players who a lot of people think should have been here; so when our situation happened like this, we said: 'let us build our team around the junior team going forward'."

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Despite the criticism that accompanied Nigeria's WAFU exit, and their CHAN elimination at the hands of Togo -- with the Eagles trounced 4-1 in the first leg -- Amapakabo remained confident that the federation's gamble would pay off in Egypt, and that the national side could bounce back from the failures of October to achieve success in the Africa Under-23 Cup of Nations and thus qualify for the 2020 Olympic Games in Japan.

Nigeria's men's football team has a proud history at the Olympics -- having won gold in 1996, silver in 2008 and bronze in 2016 -- and participation in Japan would have made amends for, and mitigated, the failures in Senegal and Togo.

"For you to be successful, sometimes you have to fail," Amapakabo said in Senegal.

"These players have tasted what failure is, understand it, and I think whoever has failed won't wait to fail again. Going forward into the other competitions, we've seen our worst parts.

"Before day breaks, night must be darkest.

"We [were] down and out, completely. The night has been darkest for us. We just have to see daylight. The expectation, after all of these failures, is just success. I think we're going to see daylight very soon."

Amapakabo was retained to oversee the under-23 and home-based national teams, despite the availability of previous coach Salisu Yusuf after a one-year ban for accepting money from men posing as football agents, but the failures against Cape Verde and Togo ultimately didn't lead to success in Egypt. Nigeria toiled in their first and third matches at the Afcon tournament, falling to Ivory Coast and being held by South Africa either side of a thumping victory over Zambia.

Amapakabo's under-23 team was built around the players he'd used during the earlier failures, with the likes of Adamu Abubakar, Sincere Seth, Ndifreke Effiong and Ibrahim Sunusi all starting the decisive Group B bout against South Africa.

He'd also taken Olisa Ndah to Egypt, despite the player's underwhelming showings in the WAFU Cup of Nations in Senegal, and the error-prone centre-back 'repaid' the coach with a red card and the concession of a penalty in the opening 1-0 defeat by Ivory Coast.

Amapakabo's faith in Ndah, responsible for both of Togo's goals in Nigeria's opening defeat at the WAFU Cup of Nations, appeared increasingly misplaced, while the coach's substitutions -- opting for like-for-like replacements -- as well as his introduction of over-aged players in Senegal have also prompted criticism.

The coach will likely take the blame for failing in three competitions in such quick succession, but Nigeria's toils under him have been mirrored by the under-20 team's failings under Paul Aigbogun and the under-17s' struggles under Manu Garba, as well as the women's under-23 national team's troubles under Christopher Danjuma, hinting at a much bigger problem for the country's age-grade teams.

It's a miserable state of affairs for the NFF, for which success in youth tournaments has always been a point of pride, yet Amapakabo's task was clearly made more difficult by the federation's desire to treat the CHAN and WAFU Cup of Nations as preparation for the under-23 Afcon.

"Every coach goes into a tournament wanting to win," Amapakabo said ahead of the under-23 Nations Cup. .

"We're a nation that feels that developmental competitions have to be won all of the time, and that puts us as coaches and managers of the team in a challenging situation.

Beyond the fact that the CHAN and the WAFU Cup of Nations campaigns were compromised for a longer-term aim, the state of football in Nigeria -- where the Nigerian Professional Football League (NPFL) is only just returning to normal competition after being suspended since July 2018 -- has deteriorated in recent years.

The structures that once underpinned the country's success at in international competitions have begun to erode, with inactivity and uncertainty leading to stagnation.

While the league returned earlier this month, the problems that led to the 2018 suspension haven't entirely disappeared.

A Nigerian court cleared five officials of the NFF -- including president Amaju Pinnick -- of corruption charges earlier this month, but similar charges, brought forward by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, remain outstanding against the federation.

For Amapakabo, the stable and consistent running of the NPFL is the first step to ensuring the country's age-grade and youth teams can get back on track, and to ensure the talent produced by Nigeria is being nurtured to its full potential.

"The talent [is there], yes," Amapakabo said of the players in the Nigerian league.

"But, the other year, we played a league that was inconclusive, in this past year, we've played a league that was an abridged league, so all we've had is a preseason.

"I laugh at situations where people tell me that [I] should come and pick players from preseason tournaments. You can't use those games to judge players, you have to use the league, the competition proper, to judge players.

"There's a serious need for us to look at what's happening in our game and try and see, in the next four years, five years, 10 years, where we want to be. If we don't think that way, we're going to be stuck where we are."

Nigeria's senior Super Eagles reached the semifinals of the Africa Cup of Nations earlier this year, winning the bronze medal, and Gernot Rohr's side has made a winning start to the qualifiers for the 2021 edition, but the next generation of talent risks being undermined, and their progress stymied, by the ongoing instability in the domestic game.

With three bitter disappointments behind Nigeria, Amapakabo will doubtless be braced for the criticism that comes his way; but failure at the under-23 Afcon represents a broader trend of the nation's decline at youth level, as a result of stagnation and disarray back home.

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