Each time we prosecute our football matches in the last two decades with mostly the ‘’foreign legion’’, I wonder if our soccer administrators appreciate the damage they do to the ‘’beautiful’’ game. Our administrators see soccer development from the prism of participating in competitions outside the country. No programmes to catch the talents young, train and retrain the coaches for a workable template. For them, success is wining trophies, even if the players come from the moon. No surprise the dearth of competitions here.
We have relied so much on the ‘’foreign legion’’ that is doesn’t matter if kids from Europe populate our age grade teams. We must not win age grade competitions. We should de-emphasise winning, even though it is the ultimate. We should insist on getting kids who can return to the grassroots to serve as icons for others to emulate. Otherwise, we may get the ‘’foreign legion’’ as administrators of our sports to drive home the point.
There is the need to ask these administrators where those countries get the talents we scramble for to change their nationality. We are experts in spotting Nigeria-born kids, forgetting that they evolved from a planned system, which isn’t alien to us. In those countries, there are established academies at the grassroots where these young boys and girls are introduced to the game usually under neighbourhood schemes. Hence, when such talents blossom, the neighbourhood is proud of them as they return to be celebrated.
Nigeria has perhaps one of the best records at the U-17 cadre, yet only the exceptional ones actualise their dreams of playing professional soccer in Europe. These players’ movements are frequent among those who headed straight to the European market after the World Cup feats. The unlucky bunch return to our domestic leagues to rot out of existence.
We have lost budding talents to mismanagement, even after the Federal Government had directed that their future be nurtured by past soccer federations. Our administrators bask in the euphoria of being recognised in the world, leaving the game’s development on the lurch for shylock European scouts to exploit to the disadvantage of our young ones.
Civilised countries develop their sports through the neighbourhood system where facilities are built to engage the youth and push them away from social vices. Nurseries serve as the bases for storing the data of those discovered. Such information help to nurture and monitor the good ones to stardom. Besides, nurseries lay the foundation where the athletes are taught the rudiments of the game. It’s at such factories that playing styles and patterns unique to such countries are evolved.
The refreshing difference in this new NFF is the focus on youth programmes, with Barrister Seyi Akinwunmi showing clearly that the results count for nothing if the products cannot solve the problems for which they were inaugurated. Akinwunmi’s is emphasis on quality talents – not quantity – and the insistence of going for kids in schools are some of the tools to reshape our football to conform with the Millennium era. The only snag in this initiative is that it appears to be restricted to Abuja and Lagos, which do not represent all of Nigeria, even if the players come from the 36 states and Abuja.
We can’t be talking about growing talents at the nurseries without standardising the academies that abound in the country. The fraud committed by some disgruntled folks in the name of soccer academies can only be curtailed if the NFF through its state affiliates compel all such bodies to register with it. That way, the authorities can identify who the fraudster is if such allegations arise. This collegiate arrangement will eliminate age cheats because a kid discovered in Edo State, for instance as Ikponwonsa Ikponwonsa in 1988 as a 12-year old, cannot be Etim Etim in 2008 claiming to be 16. The details of his data from his first registration in Edo State will give him out even as Etim Etim.
Pilot schemes of this initiative should be spread across the country, especially when a sponsor as big as Zenith Bank Plc is involved. Sports friendly governors should be cultivated to embrace the project. These governors will key into it since it encourages the synergy between the Sports Ministry and the 36 states and Abuja’s Ministry of Education, where the bulk of the grassroots talents reside.
Our soccer chiefs should reinvent those secondary schools’ competitions, such as Principal Cup, Governor’s Cup, Grier Cup, Hussey Shield, Lady Manuwa Cup for athletics, Morocco Clarke Cup for cricket etc. Such remodelled initiatives will boost the return of the biannual National Sports Festival, which must be hosted by the Sports Ministry not made a political tool by self-seeking state governors.
The governors will be encouraged to speak with their friends and government contractors to contribute towards the project’s sustenance by sponsoring competitions, not just soccer, in their Local Government Areas (LGAs). Secondary schools’ inter-house sports were always a spectacle, especially the last races – the 4×100 metres invitational relay races for schoolboys and girls. The dearth of competitions crippled sports, not forgetting the conversion of playgrounds into make-shift schools under the guise of offering free education to everyone.
Free education killed boarding houses, the nurseries for sports talents among schoolboys and girls. Inter house competitions were like carnivals in Government College Ughelli, no matter the sport.
Governors’ could impress it on proprietors of schools to construct playing grounds for kids to unwind and compete with others in sports. The idea of schools hiring playgrounds or stadia for their inter-house sports doesn’t encourage participation in sports. Growing up in Government College Ughelli from 1972 to 1977, students knew what category of sports wears they took to school. There was a calendar for sports, which is missing today. Only few sports, such as table tennis, badminton and the elite sports, such as golf and polo have discerning calendars of yearly activities, which they follow religiously.
Sports cannot thrive in Nigeria without the government’s intervention. It is the government’s responsibility to provide facilities and create the enabling environment for the industry to function with support from the corporate world. Blue chip companies will be willing to support sports if they know government’s level of commitment towards the industry. The government should offer incentives to sports friendly firms.
Once the government can persuade the corporate world to key into sports programmes, the federation should ensure that their foreign coaches are part of the development, such that they are forced to look towards the products of such efforts to replace our ageing stars instead of combing Europe to beg kids who have never been to this country to play for us.
Peter Rufai, George Finidi, Stephen Keshi, Rashidi Yekini, Samson Siasia, Mikel Obi, Nwankwo Kanu, Segun Odegbami, Henry Nwosu, Tarila Okoronwanta, Edema Fuludu, Emmanuel Okala, Christian Chukwu, Adokie Amiesiamaka et al were not discovered in Europe. They are products of previous systems in place to scout for talents.
Even foreign coach partook in the scouting system, such that Clemens Westerhof and Johannes Bonfrere were adjudged to have excelled because of their feats in fishing out young players in the domestic league to displace established stars in our national teams. Daniel Amokachi, Friday Elaho, Uche Okechukwu, Benedict Iroha et al were some of the domestic league players Westerhof discovered and exposed to clubs in Europe.
The domestic league is ugly to watch because our national team’s stars don’t play there. It was box office fixture anytime IICC Shooting Stars met Enugu Rangers anywhere in the country because both teams paraded our best players in the Green Eagles. Football fans in the neighbouring states and those who could afford to travelled long distances to watch the game. The pulling force was the boys in the Eagles playing for both teams.
The corporate world supported clubs because they could connect their products and services to fans of IICC and Rangers who pulled the crowd everywhere they played. IICC had the late Best Ogedegbe in goal. Rangers had towering Okala. IICC had Odegbami, the late Mudashiru Babatunde Lawal, Sam Ojebode and the late Kunle Awesu. Rangers had Chukwu, Aloysius Atuegbu, the late Christian Madu, the late Ogidi Ibeabuchi (we became friends at the University of Benin, Benin City) and master dribbler, Amiesiamaka, for instance. Need I list others?
Of course, the spiral effect of these stars’ exploits was best captured in 1978 when Coach Alabi Assien brought Bendel Insurance FC of Benin City to Lagos to discipline IICC 2-0 in the semi-final and Rangers 3-0 in the finals of the Challenge Cup with new kids, such as Agwo Nnaji, David Adiele, Kadiri Ikhana, the late Felix Agbonifo, Lotis Boateng, Francis Monidafe, Christopher Ogu, George Omokaro, Peter Egharebva, Henry Ogboe and Ebenezer Badger.
Pundits and gurus, such as the late radio commentator Ernest Okonkwo looked forward to an IICC Shooting Stars vs Rangers’ Challenge Cup final in 1978 inside the main-bowl of the National Stadium in Surulere, Lagos. It never came to pass- no thanks to Coach Aissien who invaded Lagos with grassroots boys to change the narrative of the domestic league with the Bendel boys. It didn’t come as a surprise when Bendel boys, such as Ikhana, Adiele, Ogu, Boateng and Monidafe played for Nigeria subsequently.
The Zenith Bank cum NFF initiative is the right way to go but effort should be made to ensure that those discovered are nurtured and exposed to the big game through the federation’s transfer systems, not through shylock agents who transfer them to slavish deas in all manner of leagues.