By Paul Bassey
This weekend, the 16th edition of the flagship club competition of the Confederation of African Football CAF, the Orange CAF Champions League “CL2O12” will kick off all over the continent.
Nigeria’s Sunshine Stars of Akure will fly Nigeria’s flag.
Uncharacteristically, Sunshine is the only surviving Nigerian club still in the competition.
This time last year, Enyimba International Football Club of Aba in the Champions League and Sunshine Stars FC and Kaduna United in the Confederation Cup were in the lucrative money spinning group stage.
I remember noting then that despite the travails of our domestic league, for us to push three clubs into the group stage was a feat that could be surpassed if things were serene back home, even as Enyimba and Sunshine progressed to the semi finals.
This year we could not eat our cake and have it. This may be the only country in the world to play two consecutive league seasons without any visible form of sponsorship and endorsement. And we have paid for it, with accelerated ousters from the continental front even by clubs considered viable and potent on and off the field.
Consider as an example the case of Dolphins whose players, ill advised, chose the wrong time to boycott training in order to ask for the settlement of their dues. Yes, a labourer deserves his wages, but I have always taken every opportunity available to me to advise footballers to discard the wrong notion that they are playing solely for their employers.
The CAF Champions league and Confederation Cup are a veritable pedestals for our players to launch themselves to stardom. The case becomes even more amplified now that the NFF is well disposed to offering opportunities to players on the home front. (Don’t forget that the winner of the CAF Champions League gets the opportunity of playing in the FIFA Club Championship)
So, Dolphins players held the state government to ransom, some say blackmail, got their dues but by the time they returned to the field of play they had lost focus, missed the bigger picture, recorded a slight victory at home and crashed out at away.
The case of Warri Wolves can also be explained away, that of recruiting a coach and perhaps names in the short term for the purpose of winning a competition. Given last year’s erratic football calendar, where the team had little off season periods to prepare for the continental outing, including blending and adapting to the politics of playing in Africa (Ask Felix Anyansi) failure was not too far away.
In the midst of all the disappointments Sunshine Stars stood firm to spare Nigeria’s blushes and in style too.
Due to last year’s commendable showing in Africa, creating a record as the first club to debut in a CAF competition and go ahead to play in the semi final, they were given a bye this year as draws for the Champions league was held, making them rub shoulders with great clubs of African football like Al Ahly, T. P. Mazembe, Al Hilal, EST, WAC and Zamalek among others.
Ordinarily, the argument would have been that since Sunshine did not win the Nigeria Premier League, the honour of a bye should have gone to Dolphins, but on the contrary, Dolphins went into the preliminaries and Sunshine occupied pride of place in Africa.
This has been the case in the past three years as Sunshine has proven, arguably to be the best club side in the country, not without controversies.
Before calling on the Chief Segun Adagunodo ( Alias Santana ) led Ondo State Football Agency to take a bow for proven administrative let me identify the executive Director Mike Idoko, one of Nigeria’s celebrated football administrators who belongs to a board that also has experience typified by the likes of Elder Dickson Adejube.
Perhaps greater mention should go to the technical crew led by Coach Gbenga Ogunbote and a crop of players who have always risen to the challenge. I remember with glee the 3-0 demolition of Recreativo De Libolo of Angola after they had lost 1-4 at away.
It is this same team that is fighting multiple battles on and off the field in the home front, fights that dissipate her energy and blunt concentration. The management of Sunshine will tell you that efforts are not spared on the corridors of the NPL to make sure that they do not succeed. Some of their sins are traceable to Hon Akin Akinbobola SA to Governor Mimiko on Sports who dared to contest the chairmanship of the NPL and insisted on his rights to the point of being suspended.
Sunshine will reel out to you what they consider as schemes to truncate their ambition, among them the insistence that they honour a league match two days to their departure date for a continental assignment and the refusal to postpone another, even when over six of their players were trapped abroad during a military putsch in Mali.
That, was yesterday. Today, Sunshine Stars are our sole representatives in Africa and we must all queue behind them to guarantee success. Before now, the Nigeria Football Association was solely responsible for the upkeep of teams that represented the country in Africa. CAF still recognizes that position hence the allocation of a certain percentage of all monies earned by clubs in the group stage to the Nigeria Football Federation.
It is always disheartening to see Sunshine playing top continental teams in an empty stadium in Ijebu Ode. This club has been a great ambassador of Ondo State (Still waiting to be invited to their State honours event) The people of Ondo state must rise to the proverbial twelfth man position in football by trooping to Ogun State en mass. Politically the management of Sunshine have always attributed their successes to “sports loving governor Mimiko” how I wish this can be practice with his physical presence in Ijebu Ode. The day His Excellency will rise to go and support Sunshine, the whole of Ondo will follow, the NFF big guns in Abuja will join suit and the players in traditional club parlance “….will commit suicide on the field and live to tell a positive story”
This year, Sunshine is up against formidable foes, starting from this week end when they engage the defending champions Etoile Sportif De Tunis.
Last year, this club beat the dreaded Al Hilal of Sudan home and away in the semi final and went on to beat Wydad Athletic Club of Morocco in the final
This year, they have hit the ground running, thrashing Dynamoes of Zimbabwe 6-0 at home after drawing 1-1 at away on the way to the group stage.
Other teams in the group are also as formidable including Etoile Sportif of Tunisia and the Algerians ASO Chlef who dismissed Al Hilal to the Confederation Cup play off.
There is no gainsaying the fact that the first law of Group Stage success is winning all your home matches ang going for some crumbs at away.
Go Sunshine FC of Nigeria, GO