By Chioma Gabriel, Deputy Editor
Damishi Sango was the first Sports Minister under President Olusegun Obasanjo.During his time, he described the then Director of Sports Development, Dr. Amos Adamu as the â€˜Ã³nly guruâ€™ in sports.
However, years after he left office, the Plateau-born politician said in an interview that he could not perform to his optimum because of the â€˜mafiaâ€™ in the ministry who â€˜misdirectedâ€™ him.
In this encounter, he answers questions on Nigerian football, the problems in the game, why there are no new generation stars and gives reasons why Nigeriaâ€™s performance in world tournaments is dwindling. Excerpts:
Would you say Nigeria is fully
prepared for the World Cup tournament?
In the game of football, there are many players on each side. Itâ€™s a game of 90 minutes and once you qualify to be in the World Cup tournament, you should be prepared to encounter any team. You must be prepared to face any country and to be able to win and become the champion, you must play your best. If you can avoid to play with some countries at some stages, there would come a stage when you cannot avoid them again.
In Nigeria football today, we donâ€™t have the best anymore. Gone were the days when we had the best of Nwankwo Kanu, the days of Daniel Amokachi, the days of Jay-Jay Okocha, the days of Rashidi Yekini and all these stars that won the 1996 Olympic gold medal. So, you could see that during that era, we had the tops of football superstars. But in this generation, we donâ€™t have them.
Are you saying we are retrogressing?
Sometimes, you have the best, sometimes, you donâ€™t. This time we donâ€™t. You donâ€™t have stars always. Some countries have stars at each point because they spend money on football and have academies and football has become an industry to them. But look at Nigeria, we donâ€™t have a league. Most of the players that we have are based in Europe.
Go to Brazil and you will find that those that play in the football tournaments are from their local league. So, I think that we have to go back to youth football, we have to go back to youth academy and begin to train our boys and then take them up for bigger training where they can learn. So far, in the country today, we donâ€™t have a strong academy that will produce the kind of stars we used to have in the past.
In other words, you think we should generate local talents and build them rather than collating players that play for different clubs in Europe?
No. There is nothing wrong with foreign-based players. The players from abroad are professionals, they are playing for their money.
They are earning a living. This is what they do every week and they are always in top form because they train all the time. But what Iâ€™m saying is that even those playing abroad, we donâ€™t even have much of them that are young like Mikel Obi. Something is basically wrong. What we have now are old players who are aging. We donâ€™t have young players. We have a lot of old players. We donâ€™t have people like Messi who is 22.
Besides, these â€˜oldâ€™ play-
ers come from different parts of the world to play whenever Nigeria has a competition and they come on short notice and donâ€™t usually have the time to blend before the real competition. Would you say the team heading to South Africa are well blended for the competition?
Let me tell you something, the most important thing about our Europe based players is that they are fit. They have been playing. Two weeks is even enough to blend them because they have been playing and if we have a good coach, they can blend in a short period. For instance, Chelsea played last Saturday ( May 15). The players in that club are fit. Somebody like Drogba is very fit. Mikel Obi is coming back. This Saturday (May 22), they are going to play the UEFA Champions League. And they will join their team after Saturday.
So, these players are fit. If you look at some of our players, Yobo has not been quite fit. Aiyegbeni has been sick for quite sometime but can pick up. And Nsofor just played their match with Malaga last Saturday (May 15). So, they are okay and can blend within two weeks. If the coach is good, there is no problem because if you review the matches some of these players have played, then, you will believe that we have a good team and we can know how to match them.
Is the Nigerian government investing enough in football?
They are not and one thing about football is that if you want the players to excel, you have to invest. There is no cheap team. You have to spend money and train the boys right from their academy and even when they are playing abroad, you have to monitor them, their achievements, their rating and performance.
What do you think of the Group B to which Nigeria belongs. Itâ€™s like countries like Argentina are larger than life and dreadful in the game?
We shouldnâ€™t be discouraged by any team. We should encounter all of them boldly. Football is eleven people against eleven and therefore there is nothing to be scared about. African football generally is fashioned in line with Latin American football and I believe Argentina is also afraid of Nigeria and donâ€™t want to encounter us as well.
Why are our boys sometimes heavy and sluggish on the field when compared to others. Is it something to do with their diet?
What I want to tell our players is to go there and restore the pride of Nigeria. Let them play very well. Some of our players are afraid of getting injuries because that could mean the end of their professional football but they should give their best for Nigeria and God will protect them. They should restore the pride of Nigeria.
Mikel Obi has an injury at the moment which can affect his performance…
Yes, he has not been playing for the past three weeks or four because they want him to recover for the World Cup. But the news we got just last week is that he is already training which means that in the next two or three weeks, he will be able to join his colleagues. When he gets to the camp, the doctor will assess him and I tell you no player wants to miss the World Cup.
Even when such player will be benched most of the time?
(Laughter). Itâ€™s the way. The World Cup is the biggest event in football and no player will want to miss that.
It seems the Super Eagles are having hotel accommodation problem in South Africa. What do you think about that?
We should have our money for situations like this and we should always take care of such situations when they arise. They will be given a better hotel and that shouldnâ€™t be a problem at all.
Considering the time limit for this competition, should Nigeria have hired a foreign coach?
Iâ€™m one of those who canvass for foreign coaches because with the experience we have had, I donâ€™t see any of our local coaches taking us to the World Cup. Our experience with local coaches in the past was always a disaster. We were thoroughly messed up, if you remember our experience with coaches like Onigbinde. We should forget that. I respect him but not for World Cup tournaments.
So, we made no mistakes with Lars Lagarback.
I donâ€™t know him much but I believe that this coach that Ivory Coast has hired (Eriksson), it would have been better because everybody knows that he has a history. If we had picked the guy that is the Ivorian coach now; it would have been better.
If you are given the opportunity of being the Sports Minister again, what would you do that you didnâ€™t have the opportunity to do?
I donâ€™t think I will be a Sports Minister again because I am 60 years now. But honestly, let me tell you, the problem that we have with sports generally is that of sports administration. A minister for instance is not allowed to stay long enough to develop a programme. A minister is brought in and then he stays one year, or one year and a few months and you remove him, how does he develop a programme or execute the one he has mapped out?
We have to develop a situation whereby a minister will stay three years, four years or more to administer sports. A year is not enough for a sports minister to administer anything. Look at the sports minister we have now, he has just been there for one year, you donâ€™t expect him to have achieved much within one year. A minister of sports should be allowed to stay on for at least a minimum of four years. So, itâ€™s part of the problem and the government should be able to look at that.
Maybe this is so to avoid all these allegations of corruption in the Ministry or NFA.
There is nothing like corruption in the Sports Ministry. Or have you heard of any Sports Minister being taken in by the EFCC? Have you heard of any Sports Minister embezzling funds? There was never a thing like that. So, I think the government should allow Sports Minister to remain there for a longer time for continuity.
So, where is the NFAâ€™s missing $236,000?
It has nothing to do with the Sports Minister. You said NFA, not the Minister. The issue is if you allow the Sport Minister to stay longer, he can develop a policy and a programme and over the years, he can supervise it and then, you can be able to say if he has done well or he has not done well.
Now, the Minister now has nothing on the ground, he has been there for only one year and he is preparing for World Cup, so, what can he do? But if he had been there for about four years, he would have been able to have a programme and will go about it diligently.
Then, if he goes for World Cup, you can assess him properly and say if he is a success of a failure. You cannot assess any Sports Minister who was not given enough time in office properly. As it is, the Sports Minister cannot have much contribution to the World Cup because he has not been there long enough and has not really had the time to know the players or supervise them and make sure that the players that he has are those he can vouch for.
So, you feel the old generation of players were better in their days. What should be done to move our sports forward so as to remain relevant in 2020?
We should go back to the football academy. Let us go back to school sports and there must be a coordination between their administrators and the Ministry of Sports so as to enable them follow up on a talent. If you have an academy, you follow up these talents from there through their training in and outside Nigeria.
Sports academy sounds like what Odegbami and Okocha are doing?
Yes. And I think I commend them for that because you discover talents when they are young and then train them and follow them up. If you catch a player at the age of 12, then by 13, you begin to train them and when they are 16, they would be ready to play international or professional football and if you bring them to the national team, they can play for the next 16 years. But because they donâ€™t tell their correct age, you will see a player doing so well but after ten years, he drops. It is because he is old but he lied about his age.
Let me tell you about this boy Drogba. He is 32 but he is sparkling in the game and that shows his age is correct. A 32-year-old man is still strong, active and sparkling on the field of play. Drogba was the highest scorer in the Premier League. He scored about 33 goals or so out of 38 matches.
So, you can see that he is the man in the centre. But we lie. When our players say they are 32, then know they are 42 because when you are supposed to be active and you are not at your age, then, that means you have lied.So, the Nigerian government should invest in the football academy and catch them young so as to follow up the training of future stars in football.