By Olusegun Odegbami
Ordinarily, this should not be headline news, that a football club has returned to the Premiership of Nigerian football. Except of course, if there is more to the club or the circumstances of the club’s return than meets the eye.
In this particular case, it may be neither. Bendel Insurance Football Club of Benin deserve to appear as headline news again a few weeks after I had written a piece on them in this column where I lavished well-earned encomiums, not for any recent achievements but as a nostalgic recall of a great past, the story of a once-great Nigerian Club, one of a very few clubs to have metamorphosed into an institution, a movement of the people of their part of the country.
That was then.
This is now. In the past few days, Bendel Insurance Football Club have ridden with the tide of recent changes in the administration of Sports in Edo State, once Nigeria’s sports basket, the environment that produced some of the best athletes in many fields in the 1970s up to the early 1990s. Needless to name names across the spectrum of sports, Edo and Delta States, the two states that made up Bendel State when Bendel Insurance was created by Dr Samuel Osaigbovo Ogbemudia, have produced the largest number and highest quality of athletes in Nigeria’s sports history. Even in these current twilight years, despite the country’s relative average achievements, the States are still dominant in Nigerian sports.
This past year, Edo State has changed gears slightly. They adopted the formula that seemed to have worked with Lagos and Delta States that replaced their old sports councils with new sports commissions under technocrats from outside the political realm.
That was something beyond the change of name, as the three States, in particular, now appear to be ahead of the rest in their sports development measured through recent success at the National Sports Festival. The States were the top three in terms of medals after Abuja 2018. Of particular interest is Edo, because of Bendel Insurance FC.
In the past few days, Bendel Insurance FC, the most priced sports ‘property’ of the Edo State government, still passionately followed by its millions of citizens of the State all over the world, played in the qualifying Super-8 playoffs for one of the four slots for promotion to the elite Premiership of the Nigerian Professional Football League (NPFL). They successfully meandered through minefields of recent ‘dangerous’ politics in Nigerian football and emerged unscathed, topping their group convincingly and have now been promoted to the Premiership after a 10-year hiatus in the doldrums!
The entire State is in celebration. Bendel Insurance is to Edo State citizens what Rangers International FC of Enugu, Shooting Stars International FC of Ibadan, Rovers FC of Calabar, Enyimba FC of Aba and Stationery Stores FC of Lagos are to their different followers in their home States. So, there is great excitement in the air. The Ogbe Stadium, the traditional home of the team is undergoing serious renovation in preparation for a return of the huge Bende crowds to their hallowed ground.
I recall with nostalgia the many battles we fought on that ground when I was in Shooting Stars FC when the stadium would be filled to its 20,000-plus capacity of fanatical supporters that would never accept been defeated by any team on home soil. The myth was that Bendel Insurance FC never lost a match played whenever it rained. So, we played against the team and their second team of rainmakers in those days. Probably, that’s why we never defeated them despite the obvious superiority of my team until 1978 when they turned us in one season to training materials. In that year, they were Nigeria’s best team. The return of Bendel Insurance to the NPFL is a great incentive for fans to return to Ogbe Stadium and re-ignite the spirit of local Nigerian football.
Hopefully, when other teams like Rovers of Calabar, Shooting Stars of Ibadan, Stationery Stores of Lagos, and the like, manage to find and fight their way back to the top a Bendel Insurance FC have done successfully, it is that domestic football in Nigeria will start to rise again to the levels of traditions that took the game to unprecedented heights in the good old days.
I use this opportunity to congratulate the Edo State government, the officials and citizens for supporting the return of one of Nigerian’s legendary football teams. Welcome back Bendel Insurance. Up Bede!!!