By Jacob Ajom
Former Nigeria international and one-time Chairman of the Lagos State Football Association, Waidi Akanni is an exciting fellow, whose dreams and thoughts are always about football, a sport he started playing early as a youth.
He was a member of the 1985 bronze-winning Flying Eagles squad at the FIFA U20 World Cup in Russia. Akanni played for the Super Eagles between 1988 and 1990. He travelled to America to further his career and studies where he played for the Howard University team and also bagged a Masters Degrees in Engineering. In the USA, he also played for Bolton Bolts and Maryland FC. After retirement, he returned to Nigeria and has been active ever since in administering and promoting football.
He headed Lagos football for four years and has since become a sports marketer, promoter and organiser.
Last weekend, Sports Vanguard visited him at his office, off Obanikoro area of Lagos, where he opened up on the state of football in the country. It was a conversation worth documenting. Excerpts.
Is football in Nigeria improving, stagnated or going down?
Football in Nigeria is definitely going down. Every footballing nation, despite the pandemic, restarted their league long ago and the players have been busy. But here we are, we just started about two weeks ago. That means the level of our preparation and organisation, when it comes to football, is gone down. If we were up and doing, by the middle of last year, when other nations started their leagues, we too should have restarted our league England, Germany, Italy, Spain and even in Africa, the South African PSL was on. We too should have started, but because of the level we are, we couldn’t start.
Another major disincentive is that the government has not seen football in Nigeria as a business venture but sees it as recreation. They don’t see football as a business that can attract huge revenue and the much needed foreign investments. And that is the biggest mistake we make in Nigeria.
If you look at our players plying their trade abroad, and you realise what they earn outside Nigeria, you will know the power of football. If, for instance, we can ask Mikel Obi. Osimhen, Iheanacho, Ndidi, Chukwueze and all the others playing abroad to start remitting their weekly wages back to Nigerian football, you would see what Nigerian football would become. That is why we need to let the government know that football is not just entertainment but serious business and very big industry and we need to tap into it.
Football is big business but out there the media, the television, in particular, plays a major role in sports promotion and marketing. Do you think we have the wherewithal to match what is obtained abroad when the Nigerian league is not on tv?
They say it’s on internet tv, but I feel that is too limited. How many people watch internet tv? I heard there was an arrangement between the LMC and the NTA. I don’t know what they are doing because I have not watched a match of the Nigerian league yet on television.
Then they have not made enough noise yet to attract more eyeballs. Three years or so ago, Supersport were showing the games, but for whatever reasons, they stopped. I think they need to go back and look at the details of their contract so that they can come back.
However, I am not saying it must be DSTV because there are other television stations in the country that can take up the challenge. We have Channels, Stv, NTA, AIT, and to be honest with you, the NTA should be at the forefront of Nigerian sports. I don’t know what happened or what the administrative hiccups were, but I think we need to go back to NTA to help market our league.
Now, to answer your question, there is nowhere in the world where they do sports without the media. The best football leagues in the world, as we speak, are in England and in Spain. Their leagues are always on television every day, 24/7. That means we have to get our media guys together. We must involve them if we hope to catch up with the rest of the world.
This will help push our league to the rest of the world; so that whenever they are playing, let people see them. I remember in those days we didn’t have the luxury of television then, but before every game, the radio would talk, the newspapers would write and on the day of the match people would troop to the stadium to watch these games.
But here we are, with the advent of the television, radio, the internet and so forth, we have not been able to manage these things to our advantage. Seriously speaking, we must get the media back into our sports, not just football. Without the media’s backing, we cannot attract sponsors into our football. To talk about football, we can talk from now till tomorrow and we can’t exhaust the topic, but we must get the Nigerian media back into our football because without the media we cannot sell our game and we cannot get sponsors.
One major problem you have identified here is the management of the Nigerian league and our football generally. As a man who played the game and former Chairman of the Lagos State Football Association, how can we fix it?
I will not start by apportioning blame on Mr A or B, but people run football from experiences that they had from either playing or by associating with the game for a long time. But here in Nigeria, people emerge from nowhere and want to be administrators.
We have a situation where people will come from the blues, some lawyers, medical practitioners, some from the construction industry and guess what, they want to be the chairman or president of the federation; all because they profess love for the sport. But I tell you, love for the sport alone is not enough to give you the knowledge to administer football. That is where I have issues with our situation.
We must find a way to bring in the people who have the experience like former players; not necessarily ex-players but those who have made football their business. Sports must be your business wholly before you can make tangible changes.
The point I am making here is, the NPFL as presently constituted has people with names. The question is, how are they managing the league? One has to look at the way things are being done in the UK, Spain, Germany and elsewhere. There is nothing wrong with you going to understudy these guys.
For instance, the UK has about 60 million people and the Premiership is the number one money-spinning industry there. They don’t have tourism, they don’t have any other major industries but they made sure football became their number one revenue earner and they made sure they invested in it.
Look at Nigeria, with over 200 million people we lack the basic things that can make our sports become the biggest foreign exchange earner. Sports can take people off the streets as it is the biggest employer of labour. You cannot know more except you talk to the people who are managing it. There is no reason why we cannot make football the biggest industry in Nigeria.
How do we tap from the experience of those who have played the game when former footballers are not showing much interest in running the game in Nigeria?
You are very right. That is one of the biggest problems we have. The decay in every industry is also the same in sports. Everything is going comatose, sports is one of them. It is a reflection of what obtains in the larger society. In Nigeria, if you don’t have the finances, you don’t have a pressure group or respectable people who can make their voices heard, you will not experience growth in your industry.
My point is, most former footballers lack the funds and the voice that can make them become the head of the federation in Nigeria. I think that is one of the major problems we have to look into; how the government, in its capacity, can recognise former footballers and bring them in as technical experts who can manage Nigerian football. This will make these guys available for integration into the system for the growth of the game.
That is why I thank President Buhari for making Daniel Amokachi SA Sports. With his experience as a former sportsman, not just as a former footballer he will, from time-to-time, advise the Minister or at least support the Minister, who is doing very well also. My suggestion is, let the government see ex-footballers as investments so they can bring them back and tap from their knowledge for the betterment of the game.
Apart from football, I can also mention other sports, for instance, table tennis, where are those that have made their names in the sport; people like Atanda Musa, Toriola, Funke Oshonaike, to mention but a few. Let the government make it a policy by placing emphasis on ex-internationals and recognising them for their expertise and as people who can help the growth of sports in the country.
In Nigeria, we have a problem with ex-internationals. They don’t have one voice; they are not united. And when you are not united, you can’t form a pressure group. Am I right?
You are very right. From my experience, I have dealt with almost everybody that has played football in and for Nigeria. I call them to some events I organise, I have realised that we seem to have a chronic problem. And the problem has to do with a carry-over of the sentiments they had against each other in their playing days.
They still say, ‘ah, when I was playing, this or that guy wasn’t my friend’, and that is being carried over. I tell you, people still believe in keeping cliques, even in retirement. That is why we have not been able to get a united front. And until that changes, players’ union would have issues, it would be difficult to have one voice.
That played a very major role in the crisis that plagued the players union until recently that we have all agreed to come under one umbrella. We need to leave the competition we had when we were playing behind and come back to reality now and become a unified force.
Even as the players’ union is now one(which I am part of – I coordinate South West), the divisions still exist. Some of us still have the hangover from our playing days, which dictates how we relate to one another and until we do away with this chronic problem, we can’t have a united front.
Do you think the quality of the domestic league is good enough?
I have always believed in the quality of our league. I always believe that the players we have, if given the opportunity, will always want to become stars. We have got talent. Go to the grassroots, go to football academies and watch them play and you will agree with me that Nigeria is blessed with talent. I move a lot. The ones they call academies are not even academies because their counterparts are playing in big leagues all over the world.
That takes us back to the administration of football in Nigeria. Go to Abalti Barrack, you will find more than 1000 boys playing football there every day. Go to Ajegunle, Agege, Oworonsoki and many other places, you find thousands of youths playing football every day. My findings are that we have the talent here but we need to invest in grassroots and make the domestic league improve. That is why in South Africa, for instance, a lot of their players don’t go to play abroad.
The North African countries too, most of their players don’t go out, like Egypt, for example. Why is it that it is only in Nigeria that anyone that controls the ball very well in one match wants to go and play in Slovenia, Latvia, Cyprus, etc? We need to invest more in grassroots football.
You are talking about Nigeria having talent, but not good enough for the national team? Talents that the national team coach does not believe in?
That is a different ball game. The issue here is, you have a foreign coach who watches only foreign leagues. Who else does he select? It has to be foreign-based players. Until now that the coach has been compelled to watch the local league – I don’t know him that much – I believe his thinking will change pretty soon. He must have had a different perception about players from the domestic league.
But he will soon find out that Nigerian players, once you bring them together, train them real hard, they will become better footballers and can play against any opposition. Coach Onighinde, Stephen Keshi, Shaibu Amodu did it, Siasia, Udemezue, Hamilton, I can keep reeling out names of those who have done it before, while we were playing. I think he(Rohr) has just been corrected. Let us give him another chance.
Where I disagree with the NFF is, why should they limit him to four players from the domestic league for the national team. They should not put a seal on the number of players. What if he discovers more than four he feels can fit into his plan? For those guys playing abroad, it is a golden opportunity to represent Nigeria. They should be the ones begging to play for Nigeria because they use Nigeria as a platform to get higher. The fact is Rohr should be able to pick the bulk of his team from the domestic league, train them and bring them up to his standard. If he is a good coach he should be able to do that.
People are saying we have Nigerians who could do better than Rohr is doing at the moment. Do you share this view?
Yes. But of course, you have to give them the opportunity. We have the Amunekes, Finidis, even Eguavoen that was just made the technical director. These guys have been there and they can do a better job. I think we should stick with our indigenous coaches, just as we want to groom our home-based players and groom these guys from there. We all know the power of Dollars.
Who will not perform if well paid? But I believe everything should be centred around Nigeria first. And that is what the Presidency is doing. I am not saying the kids in the diaspora should not play for Nigeria, but let us reduce the number. The present practice is killing the domestic game.
I want a situation where they (both local and foreign-based) are given equal opportunities to compete for places in the national team. That would show the home-based that if you are good, no matter where you play, you can make the national team too. That, I suggest, should be a policy statement from the federation to the coach; not just four players.
You spoke of a club in the National league that just sprang up, with an administrative structure that is fashioned after foreign clubs. Tell us more about it.
The club’s name is Vandrezzer. The club is about one or two years old in the system. The management has done very well. I read somewhere that the club is the 37th most followed club in the world on the internet. The only Nigerian club enjoying such followership at the moment and, come to think of it, a club just 3 years old. They have a structure where the welfare of players comes first. They give the players contracts and they respect those contracts.
Secondly, they have brought in Andrew Uwe, a coach that people are familiar with, a coach that is used to training youth teams in Europe. His presence and expertise would impact heavily on the boys and boost the NNL.
Vandrezzer is a team that has brought home the idea of supporters really demonstrating their love for and attachment to the club by buying their souvenirs like jerseys and other memorabilia, like Stationery Stores or 3SC of old. Fans can buy the jerseys and can go to the stadium, pay to enter; not going there to enter for free. It is the gate fees that yield revenue for the clubs.
This Vandrezzer team will go places because they have a structure. You go to their website now you will see how jerseys are being sold, souvenirs and many other branded items are being sold. And there is a mechanism that monitors all the activities.
The management is top-notch and they even have nutritionists with an up-to-date medical facility. I just hope other teams will follow suit, even as most of them are government-owned, they can own websites where their supporters can follow what is happening to them, their next games, what support they can muster for the team, problems the club is facing and so on.
And that is what Vandrezzer is bringing to Nigeria and I am sure this new season, we are going to see a new thing in the NNL.