Ikechukwu Ofoje, a former Nigeria international is the head coach of the football team of the University of South Carolina, Aiken. He once captained Enugu Rangers and won laurels with the Coal City outfit.
In this interview with Jacob Ajom, Ofoje said he may never be coach of Rangers International of Enugu, with reasons though. He lamented the state of football in the country, among many other issues. Read on
Much as you are far from home, are you still feeling the pulse of Nigerian sports out there?
Yes, I do, especially what is happening to my dear club, the club after my heart. The club that is in my veins, Rangers International of Enugu who are hovering around the bottom of the league.
That breaks my heart. I am making some calls to encourage them to do well to get out of that hole they dug for themselves because it will be catastrophic to hear that Rangers have been relegated at the end of the season. That cannot happen.
So what can be done? What are you and other ex-Rangers players doing to rescue them from that hole?
We formed an association out there but the purpose of our association is to help our former colleagues who are indigent and are in distress. That was our mission. Beyond that, we do what we can to give ideas, suggestions to the club management.
Through one of our members, the Patron, we see if we can raise money to help them with the recruitment of new players. We did that some years ago when they won the league. Small things like that, we try to do whatever we can to help.
Rangers is more than a football club to us. It is a movement, an institution of a tribe, a people and that is what we try to make the players understand. It’s not just a paycheque; it’s more than that.
Rangers is a representation of a people that you just cannot put a price on it. If you have that at the back of your mind, and you get a chance of putting on that jersey and step on the field, you will play out your heart and give everything you have.
Hopefully, through that influence, whatever we try to say, whatever we try to do in that regard may get, especially to the players. When it gets to the management level, I really don’t have an insight, so I cannot make speculations.
Then you get to government level, which really sponsors the club, all these three tiers, all of them have roles to play. Each tier has to do what it ought to do – the government, the management, and the players, they all have to play their parts to put the club where it is supposed to be.
What do you think made Rangers special in your time?
I think it is that spirit of it being not just a club, the spirit of it being a movement. If you get an opportunity of putting on that jersey as a player when you recruit players you need to give them an orientation on the history of the club, you educate them you are not just coming here to play, it is more than just playing, this is a movement.
We did it at our own time; we understood why we were playing for Rangers and I think that they need to continue that aspect of it. Although football has gone global now, I understand those aspects, but that spirit, that never-say-die attitude of being a Rangers player is exciting because that is what is going to project you even as a player.
If you do that it means you can get a chance at the next level. It goes both ways: you get out of it what you put into it.
When you talk Rangers, you talk about Nigerian football. Is Rangers’ position in the league table a reflection of Nigerian football?
I think the standard of Nigerian football, in general, is probably a representation of what is happening in Rangers right now. You look at the national team, we have incredible players, unbelievable talents but so inconsistent and I have a problem with where Nigeria is ranked in the world at this point.
We should not be ranked thirty-something, because our players at present are competing with the best in the world. There should be no reason we should be in the 30th range, We should not be so lowly ranked.
It is that inconsistency that bothers me. I don’t know where the problem is, and I cannot tell you I know what the solution is. But I know one thing though: I know that management is everything; in business, in government and even in your private life, the way you manage your resources is the key to success.
So, whichever way we look at it, the way we manage our football matters. World football is getting smaller. It is not rocket science to look at what other nations are doing and copy. For instance, look at what the United States are doing, they are not a big football nation. You will never hear US national team players going on strike over unpaid allowances, simple things like that.
It will be ridiculous to hear such a thing. For somebody like me, it is very painful. It doesn’t matter what your budget is, you can sign your national team players on contract. This is so simple and easy to do.
For some reason, we have found it very difficult to do. Today you hear players saying we won’t play because we haven’t got our allowances, etc. It’s never heard of in organised places.
Now they know about World Cup qualifiers, and they know they are going to start in a few months and by now we should know what the budget for playing those qualifying games is. How can there be problems mid-way through the qualifiers if adequate preparations were put in place from the beginning?
This is the time to plan and put everything in place. Your budget, if you don’t have the budget then tell those who are responsible that we don’t have the money. They will provide the money. As long as the money is there, you carry out the campaign. It shouldn’t pose a problem. We, however always have a way of making it a problem. It shouldn’t be.
I am not saying the NFF are not doing well, they are doing a great job and I know the government on their part are also doing their bit but somewhere between the management, the players and the government there is a problem.
It’s like you know the problem. What is the problem?
(Laughter) I can only tell you this. I coach at the University of South Carolina, Aikens, it’s a small school, an NCAA Division 2 School. We don’t have all the money in the world but they sponsor the football team.
Every year, the university says to me, ‘this is your budget; don’t go over this budget’. Now I will go and sit down, for instance, I will schedule eighteen games for the season, play five friendly games: this allocation is for our bus fare to and from the games, this is our meal money for the games, this is for referees fee, allowances for officials, etc.
Everything is broken down, all the expenses. So my duty is to stay within that budget. When our season starts, we have to lodge in a camp for about a week before the season proper starts. That money is accounted for.
So you don’t expect me at the middle of the season to go back to the university to say I don’t have money to go for this game or I don’t have the money to feed the players for this game or I don’t have the money to travel for that game. That cannot happen. That is why I say it’s no rocket science. It doesn’t matter if our budget here is N1 billion, it has to be managed and accounted for.
So, it’s all about planning or lack of it?
It is all about planning or lack of it because once you don’t plan to succeed, you are planning to fail. People tell me that so many times.
You know players are very sensitive. In their psyche, when they see these things happening, to them it signals there is a problem. And these are things they don’t need to worry about. Their own worry should be the execution of matches; doing what they know how to do best on the field.
Let’s talk about football in America. It appears it is becoming the hub for investors as we see the likes of David Beckham coming in with his Inter Miami and others like him. How is football growing in America?
American soccer has grown tremendously. It is just unbelievable. It’s been exponential. I think they have the European influence combined with the American style of management and organisation.
When it comes to management and organisation, there is nowhere in this world that can be better than America. This is because the people that are doing this are outright businessmen, professionals that know how to manage; they hire the right people and put them in the right places.
For instance, in Atlanta where I am based, they just bought a new franchise a few years ago and the owner built a new stadium. The marketing team is top-notch. The stadium sells out every single game, over 70,000 people. They sell out more than American football and basketball in Atlanta combined.
So that tells you how fast and how well soccer has grown in America and people like me are reaping the benefits because the overflow, the multiplier effect flows down to us.
At the University level, it makes it easy for the university to sponsor the squad. America is the new frontier but unfortunately, internationally, they haven’t gotten to the point where you can call them a dominant force in world soccer. But I think, in no distant future, they will.
About your school, what progress have you made in terms of contributing to the national football development?
Well, that is where we still have a lot of work because one thing is that soccer is still not the typical, American mainstream sport and so it is still struggling at the Higher school and the College level. For as long as it struggles there, it is still very hard for us to make that transition.
What happens is, we still maintain this style and level of play where, for some people, it is winning at all costs. It doesn’t matter what tactics are used or the technique. Some of us try to coach good football, exciting football but the American style of play and the way it is structured tend to mitigate our efforts.
For instance, you have unlimited substitutions. So some coaches use that now to win games. So you can have one set of 11 go in and run 100 miles per hour, just back and forth and make the game ugly. They can take the whole set out and throw in a new set. It makes the game unattractive.
And that is the trouble; that is where we are. But the fact that we are free to recruit foreign players, that is where the balance is. I think eventually when we can merge the two it will project American soccer to that next level.
What opportunities are open to African youths, in view of your position in the school’s set up?
That is one of the things we are selling. For instance, this morning(25/01/2020), we had a showcase at St Finbarr’s College, Akoka. We had a whole bunch of players come out to play. Some from UNILAG, while some from other universities.
What I told them today was “look at me, because I should serve as a source of inspiration to them, I started just like them. We played and somebody gave me the opportunity to go to the university on scholarship and here I am.
That is my story. So I am here trying to reach back to see how many people I can help and I have been doing that for about 20 years now. Now you could find a bunch of Nigerians, Ghanaians, Cameroonians, Egyptians that have played football with my team. You find players from Congo, from Morocco and the Carrebeans.
Within that frame, I have done and will continue to do this because we are not many at this level of coaching at the universities. I think it is my moral responsibility to look out for African kids that are yearning for the opportunity to go to school and get a degree.
Back home Sir. We have millions of unemployed youths who should be gainfully engaged through sports. It is, however, clear that successive governments in Nigeria have not recognised sports as the biggest employer of labour. What is your advice to both states and the federal government?
I spoke to somebody about it this morning. I was in Enugu throughout last week and I drove round to visit some primary schools. And what I saw broke my heart. Like the primary school I attended, St Mary’s Uwani, the field where we used to play, a big structure has sprung up there.
Then I began to look around, and I asked myself, where do these children play when it is time for recess? What about sports like athletics. It is at that elementary school level you develop an interest in something. Everything seems to be disappearing and the government doesn’t seem to care.
I went to the College of Immaculate Conception, CIC, Enugu, where I went to High School. Fortunately, we have a very strong alumni association. Right now we are building a $250 million Dollar Multi-Sports Complex, an auditorium used for weddings, meetings, etc by the school and this is a missionary school, a Catholic school.
We have also built a 450-bed student dormitory. I don’t think there is any High School in Africa with better facilities like ours. As we talk, those structures are under construction.
As we do what we are doing, we will be inspiring ex-students of other high schools to go and do their own. It is clear that we cannot only depend on the government and these are public schools. If you don’t have enough money to send your children to private schools then what do the kids do? That is why we have gone that far.
I left CIC and went to Nike. I am also involved in their Alumni and we are trying to build certain things and bring back certain things to the school.
In answer to your question, I think governments should initiate a move to invite the organised private sector and enter into a partnership to help in basic education. When I went to school it was free.
There is no reason these kids cannot enjoy such things today. And that investment pays off over a long period. We cannot depend on the government for everything.
Another thing we need to go back to is public education. In the first three years, you take all sorts of classes, all kinds of courses, even vocational so that after the first three years you will decide if you want to continue with science or you learn other skills.
Today, I met with one of the Akanni Brothers, Waidi and he was telling me they want to start a primary school football tournament and they will call it Governor’s Cup. That is where you need to identify these guys and you nurture them.
In your days what was it like, to play in the Academicals, Principals Cup, etc?
That was it that was your dream YSFON, right now there is no YSFON anymore! There is still YSFON Oh really? I thought YSFON was dead? It’s wonderful then. And that wasn’t even a government-sponsored organization, it was a non-profit, a non-governmental organisation.
They organised competitions then. If you won, you went to Europe for the Gothia Cup. It was fantastic then. When we won the national title we also went to Cardiff. Of all my teammates, I could never have dreamt of going to Europe when we went, if not for YSFON.
Today, without schools sports or organised, programmed grassroots development plan, where do we go from here?
What I really think is that, just like these guys are trying to do here in Lagos, we have to start somewhere and it takes somebody in a position to advise government – and I am doing the same thing in Anambra state.
Emma Okala is the special adviser to the Governor, a few years ago, Totti O Totti and myself wrote a blueprint or a manual on how to develop football at the grassroots and gave to him and said you can share this with the governor. It wouldn’t cost much money to put the programme in place.
All you need to do is you have coaches that are working at the grassroots level, the local government level. Let them go out twice a week to every elementary school and high school and just have them come out and play. They will select talents from this exercise and train them, maybe twice a week. Let them have fun. Start there.
These coaches are on salary, so you don’t have to spend much on them. That is their job. And believe me, it will catch on. It just needs dedication and the people to push it. I believe that is the way to go. All that is required is the political will from government and the private sector should get involved.
When I was in the village last week, they organised local village games and it was exciting. All they did was to write to some well-to-do individuals to support them financially. I was contacted too and I contributed my widow’s mite for the tournament. Some people put in N5k, some N10k and the like.
They had a very successful tournament and it was fun to watch. Imagine if they could do that twice a year and from there they try to do it more frequently. It would be good.
You talked about the American system where Universities and High Schools supply fresh athletes into the system. Can we do it here? And what would be your recommendations, if we were to adopt such a system?
I am not sure it can be done here because of the way our university system is structured. In America, a big part of sporting activity is college-based, university-based. A large chunk of what is done in sports is done in colleges and universities. It is when you play at the university level that you get drafted into the professional ranks.
Traditionally in Nigeria, although we have university games, it is not that competitive. I know we have NUGA but these days, it is held sparingly. In the US, it is all-year-round for all sports. They just finished the College American Football season.
It is big. When you talk about such things now, you talk about TV rights, advertisements, the media, etc. That is where the money comes from. That is how they make money. I don’t know how it can be implemented here.
Here in Nigeria, there are some companies that are trying to reinvent the past by getting involved in the revival of some old competitions like you have GTBank with the Principals Cup in Lagos and Ogun States, Zenith Bank with Principals Cup in Delta. But there are some states – like where I come from, Cross River State that don’t have big corporations. How then can such states compete with others?
Well, like you said, that is where people like you come in. Putting the word out there, believe me. I heard that your state has the best stadium in the country?
No. It’s in Uyo, Akwa Ibom That now tells you that something is going on there. Those banks you mentioned, I am sure they are also in Anambra, Cross River, Enugu and so on. Companies like the big multi-nationals in this country can chip in just a piece of the huge profits they make to sponsor sports.
It takes an idea. Some companies can read this and get interested because they will sell their names, products and services. They will make more profits and gain a lot of goodwill.
Some companies are reluctant coming into sports sponsorship because of the unhealthy business environment. What can the government do to encourage private sector participation in sports development in the country?
I think you hit it right. The government has the mechanism in place to encourage companies to come in. They could do it through tax incentives, maybe give them access to infrastructure. Small things like that can be very motivating.
Imagine if a state government tells a bank, hey come build your branch here, we give you land for free. Somebody at the headquarters of the organisation could be interested because of the money it would save them. They can volunteer half the money they would have put into buying the land to sponsor sports. That won’t cost them much as it would just be a fraction of their profit.
Finally, we find many ex-internationals living poor lives, begging for help to solve some immediate problems. How is the Players’ Union out there? We gathered, players Union outside this shores exists for the benefit of ex-footballers. How is it out there?
Everything we have talked about is to find a way to push it all on government. Now the way we are thinking is how do we get government out of most of these things? To start to do things outside of government.
Some of us who played for the national team formed a group; right now we are raising money for Kadiri Ikhana, Charles Bassey and another. It may not be a whole lot of money but it could mean something worthwhile, at least for their treatment. For ex-Rangers, we are doing the same thing on a regular basis.
So what we are trying to do is, we have contacted some doctors, some hospitals and we will pay a retainer fee and our sick members can just walk in for checkup periodically. As we are doing that, if we can get the private sector to chip in, it will go a long way otherwise, everything has to go back to government and the government has so much to do.
If you know the story of Christian Chukwu, if not for the involvement of some spirited private individuals, Chukwu would have been history right now. It took private citizens to come in before the NFF intervened.
If you were given an appointment to handle Rangers today, would you resign your appointment in the US and come to take on Rangers?
I don’t see that happening. I really don’t see it, because I love Rangers. It’s me. However, I have to be realistic. Can I help or can I do what is required to salvage Rangers from where they are today?
I know that technically, I have the knowledge to do it. The problem is, would I have the support and the infrastructure to implement what I have to offer? I don’t think it is there. Just visiting and talking to some of the guys, they would say, oh you are coming here and you want to bring the American system?
It won’t work here. While some would say, ‘if you come, they would want to turn you into one of them.’ Just that mindset alone is very discouraging. The best way to grow as a human being is to learn. If you know someone knows better than you, what you do is to learn from him and improve yourself.
Like we hear, whether it is real or rumour that coaches take money from players to sign them on, where in the world can you hear such nonsense?
Like you said hypothetically, should I come to coach Rangers and somebody would come to tell me or advise me to accept money from a player before I sign him; that is madness.
What is your wish for Rangers, this season?
My wish, and I pray and I know it will happen is that Rangers will not be relegated. Rangers will not be relegated. Period.