By Osasu Obayiuwana
If Nigerian football were in proper shape, the country ought to be looking forward to the forthcoming Africa Cup of Nations in Gabon, after the conclusion of the group draw.
Unfortunately, Wednesday’s event in Libreville, Gabon’s capital, only serves as a very stark and deeply painful reminder of the depressing depths that the Super Eagles, champions of Africa only three years ago, have sunk to.
Our conspicuous absence, from a second Nations Cup tournament in succession – an unprecedented humiliation for the nation – should remind the custodians of the national game – the Nigeria Football Federation – that qualifying for the 2018 World Cup is their ‘last chance’ bus journey.
Nigerians, myself included, will not be interested in any ‘cock and bull’ stories, should the Super Eagles fail to reach Russia. One can only hope that the team’s bright start against Zambia in Ndola, under manager Gernot Rohr, is a harbinger of redemption.
Gernot, from the conversations I have had with him and the manner in which he has managed the Eagles, so far, is keen to make a personal mark with Nigeria. He is not just here for a paycheque. But Herr Rohr requires all the backroom support to succeed. And that is not in place yet.
Believe it or not though, my first column on this page is not about the Super Eagles. Or the Nigeria Football Federation.
On Monday afternoon, I spent time with Mr Aliko Dangote, who certainly needs no introduction to anyone in this country. Before getting him for a one-on-one chat, Dangote spent the better part of that afternoon with 100 students, from the Executive MBA class of the Lagos Business School.
They had come on a visit to the Lekki Free Trade Zone, where Dangote Industries have sited the world’s largest refinery and a fertilizer plant. The complex is seven times the size of Victoria Island.
Dangote, a keen supporter of the English Premiership side Arsenal, made it very clear to me that he is determined, at the “right time,” to launch a bid for a controlling interest in the Gunners.
“It has been my club for a very long time. David Dein, who used to be the Vice-Chairman of the club, was actually a very good partner of mine. We had been dealing with sugar and that is when I developed interest and kept on going to their games,” Dangote told me. “So, I have been a fan of the club from 1986/87, which is almost 30 years now. I want to acquire majority shares that will give us control.”
But how he will persuade the likes of Stan Kroenke and Alisher Usmanov, the major shareholders, to sell shares to him remains to be seen.
Earlier in the day, he told the MBA students that his Arsenal acquisition plans would kick into gear when he had completed his multi-billion dollar projects, for which he is “heavily leveraged.”
Knowing that Dangote is from Kano, the home of Pillars FC, a Nigeria Professional Football League (NPFL) club with a fanatical following, I was curious to know whether he’d be keen to take it over and use his financial muscle and business savvy to transform the club, which could be a turning point for football in the country.
The idea did not particularly interest him. “There are other people who can do that. I cannot be everywhere. I am not a fan of Kano Pillars,” he made crystal clear. “What I am passionate about is Arsenal.”
That Dangote is prepared to spend hundred of millions, if not billions, of dollars, to acquire a controlling interest in an English Premiership club he’s “passionate” about, while having no interest in Pillars – which would cost a minute fraction of a Premiership acquisition – clearly tells us one thing – he does not see Nigerian football as a viable business proposition.
When talking about what influences his investment choices, Dangote has two principles.
“First, I only go into a business that I can fully understand. The second principle is that I have to be able to become number one or, at worst, number two in that business.
I never enter a business which is not clear to me.” My conversation with NPFL chief Shehu Dikko reveals they made investment overtures to Dangote in the past but he had not positively responded to their overtures. It might just be that their product does not meet his investment test. Until it does, he will not come near it.
NPFL chieftains have a responsibility to create a product that attracts investment, rather than one that goes abegging for it.
Will their ‘transformation agenda’ succeed? Let’s wait and see. The taste of the pudding, they say, is in the eating.