RESTRUCTURING OUR FOOTBALL
The biggest opportunity to take football to a super level came in 1999 when I was elected the executive governor of Abia State. At the time I assumed office, the only soccer team in the state struggling for survival in the Premier Division of the Nigerian League was Enyimba Football Club of Aba. I recall with deep nostalgia the inability of the government of Abia State under the military some time before 1999 to hand over the management of Enyimba to me after I had donated a Coaster bus to the team to ease its transportation problems and paid out N32 million to acquire the club. I refused to join issues with the government over the matter in the belief that one day God would make a way for me to bring to the fore my plans for Enyimba.
So, you could imagine the joy when I mounted the saddle of leadership of Abia State as governor. The first thing I did was to set up machinery to save Enyimba from dropping into the Division One of the League from the elite club. Even though many people thought it was a mission impossible I was committed and focused. Our effort paid off when Enyimba survived to play in the Premier League in 2000. The miraculous march of Enyimba to stardom started in 2001 and stretched to 2003 with the team winning the league back to back. It also broke the jinx by winning the elusive African Championship League trophy after Nigeria had tried for 38 years without success.
Interestingly, the foundation we laid at Enyimba is still solid and this is responsible for the recent feat achieved by the club, particularly in winning the 2009/2010 Nigerian league trophy.
I must confess that our modest achievements at Enyimba have gone into the annals of our country as a record that will take a very long time to beat. This is why I have always wondered why our national teams, especially the Super Eagles, have performed so abysmally. The just-concluded World Cup in South Africa has exposed the rot in our football. It is painful that despite the many disheartening stories about the decrepit state of infrastructure for the development of football in Nigeria, the government still allowed the Super Eagles to fly with broken wings in South Africa.
I must not fail to place on record that I was one of those who spoke highly about the chances of the team to do well in South Africa. In fact, I devoted a whole edition of this column eulogizing the Super Eagles and highlighting their chances of going very far in the tournament. I based my assessment on the efforts made by the team to qualify from the African Zone for the soccer event and the assurances by soccer administrators that the team was battle-ready. I am sure every follower of the team's progress would still remember what the team went through to qualify. Indeed, the entire nation waited with bated breath for its qualification. The final qualification match between the Eagles and Kenya was adjudged as one of the best in the qualifying series. It was tension-soaked and full of suspense.
It could be recalled how the initial controversy over the bogus amount requested by the Nigerian Football Federation (NFF) for preparations towards South Africa 2010 almost marred the outing of the Eagles. We thank God that commonsense later prevailed. Even at that, the controversy over how the money allocated to the federation for the World Cup proper was spent has continued to rage. This has caused the Federal Government to take drastic measures to inject sanity into soccer administration in Nigeria.
The first step the government took was to bar Nigeria from all international soccer competitions. Despite the fact that the ban drew the ire of the world football governing body, FIFA and was later rescinded, it was able to arouse the Nigerian Football Federation (NFF) from its slumber. It was a bold step by President Goodluck Jonathan to give a new direction to football in Nigeria. Those who opposed the ban initially did so out of sheer sentimentalism. Honestly speaking, those who ran our soccer aground deserve more serious punishments for fooling all of us with such insensitivity and scorn.
I feel a deep pain when I cast my mind back to the 70s and 80s when Nigeria's soccer was at its best. It was the glory era. Think about the performances of football teams, such as Rangers of Enugu, IICC of Ibadan, Stores of Lagos, Mighty Jets of Jos, Iwuanyanwu of Owerri (now known as Heartland of Owerri), etc. These clubs elevated our soccer to great heights. Rangers and IICC won almost all the laurels in soccer in Africa, except the Champions League, which Enyimba won for the first time for Nigeria. But their performances were, all the same, commendable. Have you forgotten how Rangers and IICC, at various times, engaged the North African giant, Mehala of Egypt; Canon Sportif of Younde, Cameroun; Police of Senegal; Hafia of Guinea, etc.?
Nigeria capped its impressive run in the period under review by winning the African Nations Cup for the first time in 1980. I remember vividly some of the players that produced that impressive and historical feat. They included Chairman Christian Chukwu of Rangers, Best Ogedengbe of IICC, Emmanuel Okala of Rangers, Segun Odegbami of IICC, Sylvanus Okpara of Rangers, Aloysius Atuegbu of Rangers, Okey Isima of Rangers, Haruna Ilerika, Mudashiru Lawal of IICC, etc. Each of these players possessed rare talents that distinguished them from the pack.
I have not forgotten the tremendous contributions of other clubs, such as Leventis, VIP, and Racca Rovers. Though they have gone into extinction, their presence helped in numerous ways to catalyze the soccer atmosphere in Nigeria.
The fighting spirit of our players at that time made them achieve positive results. There was discipline and team spirit among the players. This unique attribute was showcased when Nigeria's Under-21 national team went to Saudi Arabia in 1989 to seek soccer accolade. In one of their matches -this was against Russia - our team came from 0-4 to equalize and win the match. What has now happened to that fighting spirit remains a puzzle to me.
There was some kind of revolution that swept through Nigeria's soccer between 1991 and 1994. The revolution culminated in the qualification of Nigeria, for the first time, for the World Cup in 1994 under the coach-ship of Clemens Westerhof. Nigeria, captained by Stephen Keshi and paraded such players as Ben Iroha, Uche Okechukwu, Rashidi Yekini, Sunday Oliseh, Finidi George, put up a scintillating performance that almost made it qualify for the quarter finals, if not for the Italian midfield maestro, Roberto Baggio, who scored a last minute equalizer. No matter how any other person sees it Nigeria's outing at the tournament took the world by storm and it was the finest hour of our soccer. If Nigeria had reached the quarterfinals it would have turned out a different story entirely, because I knew inside of me that the team would have got to, at least, the semi-finals.
Many factors are responsible for the retrogression being suffered by football in Nigeria, especially at the club level. In the years that preceded the recession, the clubs were the major suppliers of players to the national team. Unfortunately, club football has been beset by numerous problems that included poor financing and remuneration of players, corruption among officials, government interference, and dearth of quality coaches, making them unable to meet their obligations. The result is a national team bereft of disciplined, skilful, and committed players.
We are daily inundated with reports about unhealthy practices that go on in our clubs. Such incidents call to question the capability of their administrators to manage the clubs efficiently. The most worrisome of the allegations, and which has almost crippled club football in Nigeria, is match-fixing. This is a canker that has the capacity to destroy our soccer heritage and vitiate the effort of the government to promote the game of soccer.
From the stories emanating from the NFF and NSC about what happened in South Africa it is certain that there is no hope for soccer in Nigeria unless government designs a drastic measure to sanitize it. The earlier decision by the President to ban Nigeria from all international soccer competitions would have been the best option if not that it pitted us against FIFA. Squabbling with FIFA would have amounted to sheer foolhardiness. Nevertheless, whatever the President had wanted to achieve by banning Nigeria from international soccer tourneys can still be met if steps are taken to completely overhaul soccer administration mechanism as had been done in many developed countries across the world.
Some of the measures the government can adopt include: nominating somebody who has the will and courage to take some challenging decisions about how to get our soccer out of the cesspit, proper funding, engaging a competent and qualified local coaches for the national teams, building new national youth teams that can serve as feeder-teams to the main national team, standardisation of regulation governing soccer in the country, imposition of stiff penalties for match-fixing, development of standard football academies, appointing patriotic and experienced persons to man strategic positions in our soccer bodies, incorporating the ideas of private club owners in the master plan for soccer development, and the design of a long-term plan for development of soccer and other sports.
As things stand now, soccer development is nose-diving with many of our soccer administrators lacking the basic qualities desired of them to drive soccer administration in Nigeria. Many of them depend solely on what they make out of soccer to survive. This has exposed the football federation to devious manipulation by self-serving and desperate persons. It is a pity that Nigeria can hardly measure up to the standards set by smaller African countries. For instance, South Africa has stunned the world by the way it played host to the world in the just-concluded global soccer fiesta. It held the world spell-bound for a full month by the spectacular way it managed such a huge global soccer event. I am certain that South Africa has hoisted the flag of Africa on the world map. In fact, it has opened the way for other African countries to bid for the hosting right of the FIFA-organised World Cup.
Perhaps, it may not be out of place to advocate the convocation of a Football Summit, where stakeholders will discuss sincerely and in detail problems confronting the development of football in Nigeria. The summit should be all-encompassing and dwell on a well-researched approach for elevating the game in such a way as to position Nigeria strategically to make the desired impact before the next World Cup in Brazil. Nigeria cannot afford not to take Africa to the semi-finals, and even the final, of Brazil 2014.
It is important to state at this juncture that Africa must find a way round the problems facing the game of soccer on the continent. It was painful that none of the six representatives of Africa at the just-ended World Cup in South Africa could get to the semi-final stage. Ghana, which managed to reach the quarter-finals of the tournament, frittered a golden opportunity they had to dismiss Uruguay and shoot themselves into the semi-final. Much as I was impressed with the performance of Ghana, I was not amused by the inexperience that made them lose the game against Uruguay. This is why it has become imperative that the continent collectively does something to remedy the sad situation.
But Nigeria's exit was the most embarrassing. Our performance, abysmal as it was, exposed the rot that had been the lot of soccer administration in our nation. We have everything it takes to rule the world in soccer. However, what we lack is the will to entrench change in the way the game is played and managed. I believe that the approach by the President in sanitising soccer administration in the country would engender the required result and enthrone a new era.
Come to think of it, what stops Nigeria from seizing the initiatives to lead the revolution in soccer management on the entire African continent by building a synergy among the countries that make up the continent? By sharing ideas with other countries Nigeria will be exposing itself to the rich potentialities that abound among its contemporaries.
I believe that if the right man is appointed to handle this sensitive assignment, despite the huge challenges that go with it, our burden in this sector will have been reasonably solved. I am confident President Jonathan will not relent in the struggle to restore our lost glory in the round leather game, which brought so much fame and popularity to our fatherland in the past.