By Pini Jason
I HAVE to return to the topic of our disastrous outing in the just concluded 2012 London Olympics for two reasons. One, the culprits in this national disgrace had resorted to their trademark blame-game.
The Sports Ministry will blame the administrators, the administrators blame the athletes, obviously for denying them the opportunity for monetary handshake at Abuja, the athletes blame the administrators for pocketing their camping allowances, and the commentators blame the National Sports Commission! Truth is, there is enough blame to go round till we forget.
The next outing, we repeat the same bungling and play the same blame game! Nobody is bold enough to put a finger on what is wrong with our sports and nobody takes the firm, even ruthless action necessary to correct the ill.
My second reason for revisiting this subject is that the sports industry is a multi-billion dollar industry. Sports and entertainment are the two most important sectors for youth empowerment. A poor youth from the poorest neighbourhood can box, run, jump, swim, sing and dance his or her way out of the ghetto and out of poverty.
Athletes at the Olympics
Most of the athletes at the Olympics and footballers in the leagues of the world were born without any spoon at all; some, like Mohammed Farah of Team Great Britain, are refugees; many had seemingly insurmountable backgrounds; these youths, particularly Blacks, would not be the celebrities they are today but for sports! It is, therefore, sad that Nigeria still treats sports like a mere past time for the idle and unserious. That should not be. We need to get serious!
We have paid lip service to the revival of our sports till the lips are blistered. It has not worked because we have ignored the fundamental truth about sports. All sports are first and foremost entertainment. Once it fails to entertain, it dies! The death of our football is the most lamented today.
Yet, week after week, we play in empty stadia! International matches are often offered for free to spectators to fill the stadium. Yet no question is asked.
The revival of our sports, especially our football, must start by answering the questions, why do we play in empty stadia? Why are sponsors not interested in our sports? Identify the ills and find people who can provide the solution. Money thrown at problems we have not identified easily ends up in private pockets.
There are still people who remember that before football, athletics, which has taken the back seat today, was the king of sports. In the sixties the household names were the Violet Odogwus, Sam Igus, Emmanuel Ifeajunas, David Ejokes, etc. Others were boxers and we produced African, Commonwealth and World Champions too numerous to mention here, and Olympians like Jerry Okorodudu, Davidson Andeh and Peter Konyegwachie.
Even after football made a bold entry into our sports, athletics held its own and produced the likes of Mary Onyeali, Falilat Ogunkoya, Dele Udoh, Innocent Egbunike, Yususf Ali, Tina Iheagwam, Henry Amike, etc.
Our football was a great entertainer and national unifier! Our economy was also robust then. There are not many of our foreign legion of professionals today who were as good as Segun Odegbami and his generation and the generation before them!
And when I say “as good”, I mean patriotic, passionate, dedicated and disciplined! The simple reason why the Odegbamis did not play in foreign Leagues was purely economic. In their time our economy was so good that one British pound was only equal to 68 kobo. So there was really no incentive to play abroad.
Moreover, our sports, especially football, were in good hands and our footballers lived well here! Keshi was forced to go abroad to save his career when the NFA overzealously banned him and Tarila Okoronwata. That’s a story for another day.
Key to our success in the past was the calibre of our sports administrators then: great men like Sunday Dankaro, Isaac Akioye, Chief Ojido, Chief Orok Oyo, Chief Lekan Salami, Samuel Ogbemudia, and Chief Jim Nwobodo. These were men who brought integrity to sports administration and made personal sacrifices to the growth of sports. In their time there were no scandals as we have it today.
In their time, there were more people watching Eagles in training than watch matches today! After them, thugs and corruption took over the arenas and drove away fee paying spectators. Meanwhile, the collapse of our economy caused an osmotic outflow of quality footballers for greenbacks, while bad administration forced athletes like Francis Obikwelu and Gloria Anozie to take foreign citizenship!
Manner of vultures
Without spectators our sports died and the few sponsors folded their tents and left. Then all manner of vultures picked up the carcass of our sports and fed fat on it. The FA started hawking matches to Governors who could afford it! They neither accounted for such money nor cared if spectators came to the stadia or not!
Football has a tradition. The only time the English FA Cup final was played outside the Wembley Stadium, was when Wembley was under reconstruction! When they took matches away from the National Stadium, Surulere, away from the prying eyes of critical Lagos fans, they perfected the fraud and self-deceit! Nowadays Nigerians hardly know when and where our FA (they call it Federation) Cup final is played!
And they don’t care! In only 18 years, South Africa has built a respectable League! Our so-called professional league is so corrupt that winning away match is inconceivable! As for athletics, all the competitions that used to prepare our athletes are all dead!
I observed during the Olympics that almost all the dramatis personae had a sporting pedigree. It was not long ago that Lord Sebastine Coe, the London 2012 LOC Chairman, ran and won gold medal for Britain. Many of those who handed out the medals were past Olympians.
Was it a coincidence that Akioye and Dankaro were also footballers? How can it be that as old as I am, I cannot recall when many of those running our sports today, except Chief Patrick Ekeji, played the game? Today, those who have no business in our sports have used blackmail, propaganda and bootlicking to sideline those who ought to run the sports. For us to progress, this must stop.
We must do what is necessary to save a very important employer of our youths; dissolve all the associations and let those who understand and have passion for the sports run them. Sepp Blatter, President of FIFA, is advertised to be visiting Nigeria in September.
The Federal Government, I repeat, must impress it on him that as things are, our football is NOT yielding returns on our investment and may continue the free-fall and never serve the needs of our youths.
Sack the NFF. Let those with proven business acumen and interested ex-footballers chart a new FA Board and run it like the English FA—as a business! Government must not fund the new associations and FA for more than five years within which they should be able to fill the stadia and learn how to make money through merchandising.
The idea that sports cannot survive without free government money is a lie that feeds the opportunists in the arena of sports; the same people who run to Zurich to shout about government interference!