By Uzor Maxim Uzoatu
Nigeria’s past sporting heroes have no greater supporter than Governor Willie Obiano of Anambra State. This uncommon testament comes from no less a personage than the former captain of the Super Eagles of Nigeria, Kanu Nwankwo.
The two-time African Footballer of the Year and a legend of the English Premiership Club Arsenal FC of London, Kanu Nwankwo recently paid a courtesy visit to Governor Obiano at his country home in Aguleri where he stressed his joy over the great compassion the governor had for ageing sports stars especially the pioneer players of Rangers International FC of Enugu who had played with so much determination to restore the pride of Ndigbo after the Civil War.
According to the former star player who set up the Kanu Nwankwo Heart Foundation, “No other Governor in Nigeria has shown such appreciation to ageing footballers who had brought joy to the people with their gifts when they were young.”
The captain of the Nigerian team that won Africa’s first soccer Olympic Gold Medal at the Atlanta 1996 Olympic Games expressed profound gratitude to Governor Obiano for showing kindness to the aged footballers. He then urged “other governors to emulate Governor Obiano who has shown a worthy example by encouraging sportsmen and women in Anambra to give their best in service of the people.”
Governor Obiano’s model, as celebrated by Kanu Nwankwo, is indeed noteworthy given that our past sports heroes have almost always died broken and unsupported. Former National Team goalkeeper and 1980 African Nations Cup stalwart Best Ogedegbe died unsung. The ace Green Eagles defender and IICC Shooting Stars captain Sam Ojebode also passed on without any help forthcoming.
Before the coming of Governor Obiano, the Green Eagles 1980 Nations Cup midfielder and Enugu Rangers mainstay, Aloysius Atuegbu had things very rough in the last days before giving up the ghost. His erstwhile colleague, Okey Isima, went he same way. Foster Ikeagu, also of Enugu Rangers,lost the battle of life without being assisted.
Former Stationery Stores master dribbler Haruna Ilerika of the Green Eagles gold-winning team of the 1973 All-Africa Games in Lagos, equally passed away without requisite assistance. Peter “Eusebio” Anieke suffered the same fate. The saddening list is indeed endless.
Due to Obiano’s intervention, the legendary goalkeeper Emmanuel Okala of the then Green Eagles and Enugu Rangers is now in the care of the Anambra State Government. Former Africa’s fastest sprinter Mary Onyali is a sporting ambassador of Anambra State in Governor Obiano’s scheme of things.
The inescapable fact is that the exertions through sports in one’s youth eventually take a heavy toll upon the advancement of the years. The knees would start to give up. The joints would then be jangling badly. Even in the United States, the travails of arguably the greatest boxer, Muhammad Ali, before his death were a clear and present pointer to the prize that stood to be paid after many years in sports.
The ageing sportsmen and women of today had their heyday in sports when football and sundry sports were not money-spinning as is the case today. These sports stars deployed their talents with passion towards the promotion of the nation and indeed Anambra State that takes pride of place in producing Nigeria’s most eminent champions such as Albert Onyeanwuna, Dominic Ezeani, Ngozika Ekwelum etc. They participated to safeguard the pride of the motherland without asking to be paid unlike what obtains today when elite sports stars insist on having to be paid before participation.
In tune with Governor Obiano’s pioneering drive, there is the need to put in place a sports endowment fund for the upkeep of the retired stars. A nation that maltreats its past heroes will only make future stars to lack the sense of patriotism. These neglected stars used to be the role models of the youths, and any maltreatment meted out to them may redound on how the young ones approach national duties.
Sports rehabilitation for old sports stars should not be limited to individual states. A national policy is needed to follow the Obiano example. Even with one million naira in some instances, some of these former heroes can be rehabilitated. It is incumbent on the Ministry of Sports to have an inventory of Nigeria’s past sports stars. This way, they can be given regenerating roles as coaches, advisers and scouts. When they fall ill they do deserve free medical care. The former stars who earned Nigeria her esteemed place in the sun of the sporting world should henceforth be made to stop suffering neglect.
Kanu Nwankwo has shown remarkable prescience in boldly stating that “since Governor Obiano assumed office as Anambra State helmsman, he has placed all the pioneer players of Rangers International Football Club on a monthly welfare package and has been picking up their medical bills.” To cap it all up, Kanu Nwankwo presented a Super Eagles jersey to governor Obiano as a token of his appreciation for his excellent performance.
It needs to be put on record that Governor Obiano’s support of the ageing sports stars is not a one-off as he has also promoted the musicians of the 1970s who lifted the spirit of the Igbo after the war. The concert of the great past musicians, anchored memorably by the governor’s hardworking Principal Secretary, Sir Willie Nwokoye, clearly showcases Governor Obiano as a man with a profound sense of history and commitment to the Igbo place in history.