Veteran journalist and Chairman of Akwa United Football Club of Uyo, Paul Bassey has, for the first time, since leading the Promise Keepers to their NPFL title spoken about the team’s successful campaign in the league, the quality of his technical staff led by Kennedy Boboye and above all the support from the government of Governor Udom Emmanuel of Akwa Ibom State and the supporters.
However, he also expressed his fears as the club prepares to take on the best of African football in the CAF Champions League. Bassey spoke with Jacob Ajom. Read on.
How challenging was the season?
It was very challenging. In football generally, in the post-covid era, especially in Nigeria where we have been struggling for the past two seasons to get the league completed, to get the league started and to get the league played without a sponsor, there have been a lot of challenges, indeed. Also in a country where you are having a lot of security problems and football happens to be the only unifying factor; which means that you have to go to Kwara, Ilorin, Gombe, you have to go to Katsina, and so on. Psychologically, physically, it has been very challenging.
At the end you won the league. Would you attribute it to the expertise of the coacing crew or that you had the best collection of players that made this possible.
A lot of factors were involved. First of all we have to thank God Almighty because we have always believed in this club that human performance has a limit and where your ability ends, then God takes over. Also very important is the state factor. We operate in a state where the welfare of workers salaries are paid as at when due and workers’ welfare is not toyed with. At least for the past four or five years, no player will tell you he is being owed salary, bonuses, allowances and so on. I don’t envy my colleagues, especially some of them who tell me six months, seven months owed salaries. But we don’t have that challenge. So my governor has been wonderful and the state has been fantastic in that respect.
Then you come down to my principal, the Honourable Commissioner of Sports. You know very well that in most of the clubsides in this country, the chairman of the club and the Commissioner of Sports are always at loggerheads for one reason or the other. I have had a fantastic commissioner, very understanding and very supportive.
Boboye as the coach is very experienced. He has been there before; national team, club football. He has brought that expertise to play, in an environment that is conducive. You could have a very good coach but if he hasn’t got the environment to operate, he may not succeed. So he came and the environment was good for him.
The club structure, in terms of code of conduct, discipline again, the Boboye factor comes in here. He likes young players. We are not a club of super stars, but a club of disciplined young men, working for each other. The management structure is very hard working and the supporters too, very, very committed, sometimes to a fault. So all these factors contributed. Yes, maybe after a lot of hard work, it has happened this year. Remember in the past four seasons, we have always been close up there, very near. The advent of Governor Udom’s administration became a factor in Nigerian football. We missed it by the whiskers; second, third, fourth, and here we are; champions. It is as a result of hardwork by everybody.
What does this result mean to the Akwa Ibom people. So, what is the significance of this victory to the people?
You needed to be in Uyo when we played our final match. Over thirty thousand people came to that stadium. The atmosphere, the ambiance and the razzmatazz. The Governor came, commissioners, members of the state house of Assembly, federal legislators, everybody came to identify. It was a day when you didn’t have PDP or APC, you didn’t have Muslims, you didn’t have Christians. Everybody came in their thousands. I mean in 25 years since the formation of the club, and then suddenly you won the league. The people were so happy because it was so historical.
At the beginning of the season, some of my colleagues were telling me that I said I did not want the FA Cup. That was not how I put it. I said we had won the FA Cup, won the AITEO Cup and if we win it again it would be nothing fantastic about it and that we were going for the league title and it turned out to be possible.
As a person, how do you see yourself, as one who God has used to bring this trophy to Akwa Ibom, for the first time?
God used me and for me, I have spent all my life in football. Football has made me what I am today. I used football to educate my children, to build my houses and buy my cars. People forget these days that I was a consultant to Sunshine Stars in Africa, I was a consultant to Bayelsa United in Africa, together with Linus Mba; I was a consultant to Kwara United in Africa. So I have been around.
And then I have also been a boss to young men who graduated from being journalists to become sports administrators. Emeka Iyamah at Abia Warriors, Fan Ndubuoke at Heartland, Moses Etu in Warri Wolves, Alloy Chukwuemeka with ABS, Godwin Enakhena with MFM. So these are young men who challenged me. So when I came in, it was only imperative that I should do well because while they were there, I also offered a lot of support; spiritual, technical and so on.
So, I used all this and I have been a member of CAF and FIFA, Nigerian Football Federation as member of the Technical Committee. So this helped me when I became Chairman of Akwa United. At the end of the day it worked out. Of course, somebody needed to give you the platform. That is why I keep mentioning my Governor and my Commissioner without which it would not have been possible.
The trust and confidence I had from them was total freedom to do my work.
Akwa Ibom has two clubs in the top tier of Nigerian football. How do you feel each time they play against each other
It’s a good thing they came. When you have more teams like that it offers more opportunities to expose more talents, it offers employment to more young people. I can admire their courage because the team is barely three years old and Akwa United is 25, yet they(Dakaada) try to meet all expectations and try to prove that they are there at the top as well. Before now, Akwa United was like a breeding ground, a nursery for Akwa United; every season we brought up two or three from there and two, three or four that we dropped went there. Every match we play is always very competitive. Even this just concluded season was the same thing. The first match we played ended goalless in Uyo. The second match in the second stanza was very crucial because we needed to beat them. They put up a lot of resistance but we beat them. I fear playing Dakaada more than against any other team. They too want to prove that they are at the same level with United. The number of spectators that come to watch Akwa United versus Enyimba is not always as much as when we are playing Dakaada. No regret having them up there.
You mentioned being consultant to a number of clubs at some point when they were in continental competitions, what preparations are you putting in place to ensure Akwa United do well in next season’s CAF Champions League
Our victory this year has been so celebrated. For the first time in four years, the league ran its course and you had a winner in 38 weeks, people believe so much that we can do better. We were there in 2015, won away, came back home and lost on penalties. We went back in 2017 in the Confederation Cup; that is why I am even happy we are in the Champions League because in the Champions League, two victories and you are in the Group Stage. In the Confederation Cup, we won, but had to wait for some clubs to drop from the Champions League. We lost 2-0 in Sudan and then came back home to win 3-1 and we were edged out through the away goals rule, which I am happy the Europeans are trying to abolish,
So we have some experience in Africa and that is the experience we want to bring to bear when we go back to the continent. But again, we are so strangled by the situation back home. The continental competition is supposed to start in September and we have just ended our league. We are going to rush into registration, rush into beefing up your team and the league would not start when you begin the continental campaign. So you don’t even have the chance for the new and old players blending and putting the team in competitive gear. Those are some of the difficulties that we are going to take to the continent. We just wish for the luck of the draw so we don’t draw a top team. If the continental had started when we are in our own league and the boys are in top shape, playing and hardened we wouldn’t have bothered. As we speak, the players are on break for one week and when they return, they would need time to adjust. And suddenly, they would be in the continent.
In the continent. In the continent, you need to prepare, in the continent you need to know the climate you are going into, you have to find out if you would be playing on grass or artificial turf. In the continent, the flight arrangements are very key; you must go to Europe before you come back to Tunisia. You need the funds to be able to secure seats on a plane in a commercial flight. In a continent where North African clubs have their own planes or charter flights, there are a lot of obstacles along the line. Before now, I used to say the government should have no business running football but I have found out that without the government running football, who can survive. The tragic story of Ifeanyi Ubah and others because it has become so expensive and you get nothing in return. There are no gate takings, no sponsors. Just nothing. Aside from that, accommodation, feeding, the wear and tear and all that.
These fears you are expressing, are they responsible for our clubs not doing well in the continent?
It is a very big factor, because the structure must be well defined at home before you venture into the continent. Remember, sometime ago we said we were going to structure our league to align with the European calendar but we have not been able to do that. This year, we were in the middle of the league when one of my players, Ndikefre Effiong, who was the leading scorer, suddenly left for Libya because when we were still playing, their transfer window was still open. Immediately the league ended, the best central defender in the team, Olisa Ndah left for South Africa. As I am talking to you now, I am talking to the boys, I have asked them to be open to me. If you want to leave, let me know. If you have three or four boys leaving then you have to replace them. Before you know it, you have 40 to 50% of the team to replace. So how can you cope?
You talked about the structure back home. It’s indeed a problem. Don’t Nigerian clubs sign two, three years contracts like it is done in Europe, where a player cannot just leave without the club’s consent? Why do our players leave a club in the middle of a competition?
Because we are not in Europe. The players’ agents are always resisting any clause that would tie down their player. The dream of every Nigerian player is to play in Europe and so you cannot tie them down. When they sign a contract there is always a clause that says if they want to leave, they can leave. They don’t mind forfeiting one year’s wages when they want to leave.
However, it is a terrible thing to tie a player down in this clime. Most players here are breadwinners of their families and you are paying a player N600,000 a month, and he gets a club abroad where he earns about $15,000 a month. change that to Naira and you know it will be very wicked of you to hold him down. So by the time you want to sign them, their intermediaries or managers would insist on a clause that would give them the window to leave whenever they want to. If only the league was structured, like I said, you sign for one season, you play till the end of the season. So these are some of the major challenges.
Morally, as a father, a player would come to you, prostrate to you and begging, please sir, don’t allow this opportunity pass me by, you will, especially when there is a clause that he can leave when he wants to.
Did I understand you very well when you said this season’s league was about the best, in terms of scheduling of matches and keeping to schedule? Did we have the best season ever?
I don’t know what you mean by best. What I said was that for the first time we concluded the league after 38 matches. For me it was very, very competitive and you can say worthy winners emerged. Till the last day of the league, it wasn’t clear who would finish second. Can you imagine the fate of Nasarawa United, very pathetic. Till the last day, they were second on the log; Champions League position and only one match saw them move to 6th position and out of contention on the final day. Then they went to AITEO Cup, played in the final and lost.
One cannot imagine the kind of structure that we have. You play the League on Sunday and Wednesday and play the AITEO Cup final on Friday. It was killing. It was a terrible thing. That is why when we were eliminated from the AITEO Cup, I heaved a sigh of relief, no matter what people were saying. It was terrible.
If Bayelsa have won today, in all modesty, they have won well. They had enough time to rest because they were not in the league, the NNL was on break. It’s only ironic if you take a roll call of the calibre of teams they beat along the way; Rivers United, Rangers International, Lobi because we could hardly compete. We were on the road most of the time. So they had that luxury of resting well. But I am not taking anything away from them. However, it was such a crucial league for us and we just thank God for everything.
You talked about insecurity in the system. I remember the last time I interviewed you, you had a deal with an airline which was flying your team to distant match venues. Has the contract collapsed?
The deal was morally terminated. It was a season’s contract. Suddenly the state now has an airline, Ibom Air, one of the best in the country. So we could not have been flying Dana when we had an airline owned by the state. But again, the logistics of Dana flying us have not been activated by Ibom Air. So we had to wait for the season to end. I am happy that top men of Ibom Air were there in our final match of the season and they saw for themselves what leverage Akwa United can give to their image and services. We couldn’t continue with Dana. We pray that Ibo Air will fill the gap.
I spoke earlier about lack of sponsorship. It saddens me that 99% of our clubs have their names on their jersies: Rangers International, Akwa United, Lobi Stars, etc. and shirt sponsorship is one of the cheapest things open for sponsorship in football. Here we don’t have industries that can do that because they are not buoyant. For them to talk about sponsorship, they have to break even first.
But we need them to thrive to be able to pay our players well, to travel more and do more things for the clubs. For instance, in the course of the league we flew our players to about five or six matches. How many people can do that?
Despite the odds, what is your promise to Nigerians concerning your impending Champions League campaign?
Definitely, we will give it our best shot. Like I said earlier, I have been a consultant to most clubs in the continent, apart from working for CAF and for FIFA, I know what it takes . I also know that football is one terrible game that you either win, draw or lose. But you can expect us to give it our best shot. We have the coaches and the players are going for a break for one week after which they will come back.
The coaches have identified players that they want to bring in and have also identified those we can let go. We are getting set. And then, with the support of the state government which, as the governor said he is going to give us all the support as we have conquered Nigeria, he was giving us the mandate to go and conquer Africa. So we are set. We need the prayers of all Nigerians as it is no longer Akwa United of Akwa Ibom State, but Akwa United of Nigeria.