SEARCH, GROOM, SUCCEED
TOO much noise makes it more challenging to get to the root of the issues that inhibit sports development, no matter the sports. Things are worse for football where everyone has a bragging right to knowledge, wisdom, and contributions that must be respected.
I spent a wonderful Tuesday with Search and Groom, the youth development programme that targets young people, ordinary people, the poor, the neglected, those who a busy society has no place for in its busyness.
We talked sports, we vented our spleens, we asked for action and there was a lot of reason for this type of passion.
The thrust of the engagement was the negligence of female football with all the victories and successes that it brings to Nigeria. Last year, the three female football teams were the only bright light of Nigerian football and they were the three teams that were the three nominees for the AIT Football Awards, in the national team category.
Aisha Falode presented a stirring paper on the indignities female footballers suffer in Nigeria, though they are worthier representatives of the country in international competitions. Their allowances and match bonuses are pittances. They have poor preparations for international competitions and there is a poorly organised female league.
I was asked to speak on the chance of change through the FIFA Women World Cup that is only months away. I posited that change by chance would be the type of change that we would not want. More pointed action was required to stop the discrimination against women, which we have taken into our sports with disastrous implication for the efforts of our teams in all sports.
Speaker after speaker wanted change. Hans Kraemer of Heinrich Boll Stiftung, a German organisation that sponsored the event, agreed that female football needed to be packaged as a marketable product for its league to get sponsorship.
Yomi Opakunle, former board member of the Lagos State Football Association, whose radio and television programmes give extensive coverage to football for development and female football, spoke on the need for action to dwell on measures that would get promoters of female football into the politics of the game.
In one corner was Henrietta Ukaigwe, promoter of the Female Football Interest Group, who has been through sessions like this and remains hopeful, not minding the ordained discrimination that goes on in the game.
Mercy Ekpo of Channels Television said the poor treatment of women footballers was not discrimination, but a small part of the treatment women get in every area. Calls were made for the internationally suggested 35 per cent representation for women in political appointments and elective positions to encompass the interests of female football.
The bigger side was the expansive uses that Search and Groom has found for football, borrowing from the social dimensions of football that FIFA also promotes. Young women that have been abused, rejected, ejected from their homes, some so poor that their stories elicit tears are discovering, through football, education, skills, entrepreneurship, all thanks to the efforts of the programmes of Search and Groom.
The gathering was to look at more ways of expanding the opportunities in female football to accommodate these young women, whose future can change the future of other Nigerians, poor and rich. As some of them, who in addition to playing football displayed things they made, emotions heightened.
Nneka Anibeze-Ikem of Radio Nigeria, a keen advocate of the rights of female footballers, had to leave the hall to manage her tears. I never asked her why she was crying. For me, it was equally moving seeing the poverty that Nigeria subjects her people to through uncaring governments.
Search and Groom does not enjoy any official recognition from governments with all it does to help the poor through sports, skill acquisition, and education. Its street football programme suffers from financial challenges.
Last year, FIFA paid the team's tickets to be part of the street football event at the 2010 World Cup. Donations, after an appeal on the internet, produced the funds for jerseys that the team used at the competition. The team still finished second.
I left the place wondering why all the noise about poverty eradication, women empowerment when programmes like Search and Groom are neglected. The hope for change lies in the persistence of the likes of Yomi Kuku, the young man whose commitment and passion to the programme have resulted in joys that one saw on the faces of those players, as they told stories of how football changed their lives.
There will be more such stories if more of us support the activities of organisations like Search and Groom. If we decide to wait for governments, it will take much longer to hear those stories of emancipation again.