By Ayodele Okunfolami

I DIDN’T have that sense of entitlement with the news that the Super Eagles would be returning to Lagos. I had argued previously that time had changed from Lagos being the seat of power and Nigeria having only a handful of stadiums of international standard. Political capital has moved to Abuja and since the advent of democracy, Nigeria is now spoilt for choice with good enough stadiums to host international games all around the federation.

I also maintained that the Super Eagles can’t and shouldn’t have an eternal home because unlike England where professional sports are not government run and the football association owns Wembley, Nigeria is different.

Demand for more developmental dividends of democracy has rightly shrunk budgetary allocations to sports, making it more financially taxing for the football authorities to have a permanent ground. Political, cost and other opaque considerations compel managers of our football to take it away from Lagos (or Abuja).

I had proposed that in a free-market world, professional sports should be completely free of government and that the Super Eagles should not be restricted to any particular ground but that national spread, stands size, condition of the playing turf, accessibility to fans, security, hotel accommodations, TV friendliness of the stadium, importance of the match, opponent disadvantage and the like would be considered along with commercial partners in choosing where Super Eagles play their matches.

And attaching the seesaw performance of the Eagles to their inability to have a perpetual home ground is balderdash. The invincibility of the Super Eagles of the ’80s and ’90s was never in doubt. Their opponents were intimidated into submission not because they were to play in Lagos, Eagles won their matches because they were Super. There was no need for traffic advisory those days as the streets were deserted before and during their games as everyone closed shop to seek a place to watch the Super Eagles.

My sentiments aside, I was happy the Super Eagles could play in Lagos again after over two decades and decided to make the most of it. Being the hub of democratic activism to commerce and entertainment, Lagos historically is positioned to be the pacesetter for the rest of the federation. However, I was taken aback when a section of the Lagos public raised a fuss about the traffic advisory issued by the state government ahead of the match.

Lagosians should know that this is standard practice everywhere in the world when events of such magnitude take place. Residents should have instead channelled their angst to the lack of effective public transportation in the state. A working network comprising rails and water transportation would automatically reduce the volume of vehicular traffic on Lagos roads making non issues out of travel advisories.

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And when such predictable, safe, flexible and rapid multi-modal mass transportation network is federated, it would be easy for anybody to travel to watch the Super Eagles wherever they play in Nigeria. Then, the team would not be playing in front of Lagos or Uyo fans, but always before Nigerian fans.

Sports had always been a made-for-television event and less a spectator event even before the COVID-19 pandemic. Sports is the reason we keep paying our television providers premium. Moreover, we were getting used to the new normal of empty terraces the pandemic brought. All the more so developed climes are cautious about opening up; so I wondered why the organisers requested for a reduced number of fans for the Lesotho game on account of the pandemic.

With that decision to open the gates for a limited number of fans, considering that Lagos is also the epicentre of the pandemic in Nigeria, the organisers could have just restricted the spectatorship to the health workers that braved it all. It would have been an opportunity for the state government to appreciate and showcase them to the world.

Alas, it was almost a stampede getting into the stadium as every single COVID-19 protocol was disobeyed. No social distancing, fans pushed and shoved, the security officers mismanaged the crowd, and at the end impatient fans that had been left restless on the unmoving queue stormed the gates to get in minutes after the match started. This left some people that didn’t have tickets get into the stadium while legitimate ticket carriers were stranded outside.

Lagos with its experience of hosting bigger events can do better. I have always advocated that the Nigerian sports industry be taken away completely from the hands of government and take a cue from the entertainment industry. Why was the ticketing not outsourced to ticketing agencies and transparently advertised? Must one have gotten to the stadium on matchday to get a permit? Why didn’t they explore getting tickets online or using decentralised means of eateries or other sales points? What happened that day was that tickets (that we later heard was supposed to be free) were black-marketed to fans.

Let me use this opportunity to give my penny worth suggestion on how to handle the perennial match violence in our local league and packaging it for greater good. First, our “professional” league should be made for television. By this, I don’t mean just showing it on television, but that there should be multiple cameras with sweet flowing stats-filled commentaries to capture all the controversial events, excellent dribbles, passes, tackles, goals and fan reactions with instant replays from different angles.

It makes refereeing transparent and the games more emotionally engaging. What we have now is amateur camera coverage unpleasing for viewership. Sadly, after covering two World Cups, only two cameras were on ground to cover the Lesotho game. A friend who watched on television asked how videos I posted of the match through my phone were clearer than what he watched on NTA.

No space to talk about refereeing but let say a word on ticketing. We still carry professional sports as a social service in this country. It is in this same economy that people pay over N10,000 to get the rearmost seat and millions for VIP stage side seats in comedy and musical shows. But when a whole Super Eagles game is going for as low as N5000 at black market price, then expect thuggery and chaos at football venues, something that we never hear in those entertainment shows. Stadium football should be such that one can go with his family or date.

Even if the match was free, our security personnel should be schooled in crowd control. Why fans were not permitted to enter as early as noon beats me. It is this same Lagos that hosts those gospel musicals every December with millions in attendance without any negatives. Well, the pitch in Teslim Balogun was lush green perfect. Sound system was crystal clear. The giant monitor was colourful. Flood lights were bright. Nigeria won three nil.

Final whistle, the joyful fans transited from a well lit stadium to become darkened citizens journeying home through Funsho Williams Avenue that had no street light on. They held their phones and other belongings tight through that terrible Lagos-Badagry expressway. Went to bed hoping those little drops of joy the Super Eagles brought to Nigerians would be repeated sooner.

Okunfolami, a sports enthusiast and analyst, wrote from Festac, Lagos

Vanguard News Nigeria

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