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Ofoje: Nigerian football needs identity

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•Speaks on Rangers, gives recipe for soccer development

By Jacob Ajom

Ikechukwu Ofoje, remember him? Yes. He was one time captain of the all-conquering Rangers International Football Club of Enugu. Ofoje is now the  head coach and director of soccer (football) of University of South Carolina, USA. He is presently holidaying in the eastern part of Nigeria and he has admitted that he is having a swell time.

Ofoje being interviewed by a US journalist

“I am really having a good time with my mother in the village,” he said. Ofoje is from Umuoji in Anambra state.

As a football buff, Ofoje could not stay aloof when matches are going on all over the place. He took time off to watch Nnewi United take on Bendel Insurance Football Club of Benin at the popular Rojenny Park in Oba, near Onitsha. His impression? “Disappoint-ment,” he noted. “The general ambience in the stadium was disappointing. The home fans were yelling at the coaches and the referee. There was practically no control as the people were just awful. It made the place rowdy and I was disappointed because I had never seen anything like it before.”

As a former player of Enugu Rangers, Ofoje sounded sentimental as he recalled how they partied for long hours, days and weeks on end, after the team won the league last season, for the first time in 32 years.

“It was a great feeling. I never knew the last time we won the league was when I was in the team. All of us(Ex Rangers players in the United States) celebrated the victory and partied for long.”

He was, however harsh on the management for failing to manage the team’s success well. He attributed Rangers poor form this season to lack of proper planning. “They failed to do the necessary things after winning the league. When you win the league you have to review the season and see where you need fortification. You buy players and support the right technical personnel,” he said.

Ofoje, 49, who has worked at the American university for about 20 years observed that Rangers’ dependence on government for funds was inhibiting the club’s growth. “Indeed, it is working against football development in the country. Rangers are an institution. The club should have gone public and if they offer shares to the public people will buy. That is the quickest way of raising funds in modern football.”

The former Rangers captain said football in America is run differently from what obtains in the rest of the world. “Football is mostly played in the universities. It is a fringe sport in the US. We have a body, the NCCA which sets the rules and, to encourage participation, ensures fairness and equity. It is basically an amateur sport. Professional football is a recent development in the US.

“On the flip side, US football is the best managed in the world,” he said. And he defended that assertion. “My university, for instance, gives me all I require to achieve my target in a year. They give me a budget which takes care of all our operations – equipment, apparels, travelling, lodgings, etc. You make sure your money covers everything you need, including recruitment. But you don’t go over it. The system runs itself.

“I can’t go to admin and say I don’t have money to pay for this or that. You can only hear this in Africa, where players’ allowances are owed for reasons bothering on lack of funds. Administrators here don’t plan ahead. You can’t hear such things in Europe or Asia and to some extent, north Africa. But it is not the same in Nigeria, Mali, Cameroon and black Africa generally.”

Ofoje believes Nigeria football needs a ten-year development plan to actually rediscover itself. “We must go back to the grassroots. I started playing from elementary school, then I moved to College of Immaculate Conception, Enugu and Onike Grammar School. After school, I went to play for FRCN football team. We were the pioneers of that team before I crossed over to Rangers in 1982. When Alloy Atuegbu retired in 1984, I became the captain. We lifted the last but one League trophy that took another 32 years before the team won the league again last season.

“When I went to America, our standard was very high and I could play against anybody from any where in the world. We had sound football tradition. Things have changed now. We can still make it good.

“Every elementary school should have a playground because that is where we develope talents and they should have competitions. There must also be coaching education which the coaches must go through. In America, one must possess a National Youth Coaching A Licence. I have mine. You have a curriculum on how to coach – it goes from age to age. If we can do that, we begin to develop a national playing pattern, a system one can identify with us. If you watch a German team play you know what to expect, so it is with Italy, France and so on. But when you come to Africa the players are talented, strong and you can always see the skill but no discernible pattern. I think Nigeria should adopt a system that will be typically Nigerian.”

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