SOLILOQUY: The National Stadium As A Metaphor Of Our Sports Development

By Michael Effiong

I was at the National Stadium the other day, and I could not help but shake my head at what that intimidating edifice has become. What used to be a beautiful bride is now a worn, ugly old hag, a monstrosity of the highest order.

How time flies. In truth, as I drove into the facility, all the memories of my days in the sporting arena and in the Surulere area just flooded back in torrents.

How can I forget those days, when we will spend our holidays and free time playing table soccer? There were no suffocating home works and assignments as schools these days heap on our children. Holidays were for fun and relaxation.

Table soccer? A smile just broke through my lips as I reminisced. This is soccer played with bottle tops as players with the cap of Smarties as the ball. The goal posts were made from cutting one half of the St Louis Sugar pack into two. It was so much fun. After table soccer, we played what we called set, and then went on to play the real thing through street vs street football competitions.

It was fun growing up. But I must add that it was not all smooth sailing, many times, we got flogged for staying away longer than expected or even stepping out of the house at all. But boys will always be boys, the flogging of last night will not deter you from sneaking out again a few days later to catch your fun.

Football was it. I remember vividly that one of the places we used to sneak to was the Stationery Stores Camp in Lawanson. It was at least a full 45 minutes or so walk. Hmmm, only if our parents knew the risk we took. But Surulere of the 70s, like Nigeria at the time, was relatively safe.

We will be atop the moon with excitement as we watched the likes of Peter Rufai aka Dodo Mayana, Ebitimi Collins aka Barb Wire, who died in last year, just relaxing at the Club House.

Yes, the team had a functional club house! On match days, we used to go see them depart, what an experience, the songs by the supporters, the energetic dance steps of the players and the whole atmosphere was one that was worth all the risk.

Long before I became a journalist, my friends knew me as a story teller, I would always have stories to tell and how can you tell stories without experiences. So outings like these, are the ingredients used to regale my friends with sweet tales of what they were missing.

Not to far from home was the UAC, that is the facility we now call, Teslim Balogun Stadium, I watched many Principal Cup and league matches here. Clubs such as First Bank, Julius Berger and Nepa FC and of course my own Super Stores were the most prominent at the time. But going to the National Stadium was another matter all together.

The National Stadium, for any child who grew up in Surulere was a huge edifice that we saw from the outside and dreamt about.

My first real experience of the Stadium on big match day was during a Challenge Cup Final Match.

My excitement reached a feverish pitch when one of the many “uncles”, no relation of mine though, came to inform my mum that he wanted to take me to the Challenge Cup Final. It was a game between Stationery Stores and Bendel Insurance. We were all heart and soul for Super Stores, it is a club of my hood and to be honest, I could not sleep the night before the match.

The “uncle’ ‘s invitation was a surprise because I knew he was a die-hard Enugu Rangers Fan. We had a good mix of supporters in in my area.

Our maroon Jersey with gold stripe was by far more attractive and was the envy of my friends who rooted for Sooting (IICC Shooting Stars), they wore what I usually described as dull blue and Enugu Rangers’s dirty White and Red. Stores was the darling team of Surulere and we strutted around proudly like peacocks.

But I have to add here that Rangers had a lot of support base in my area too and anytime Rangers came to town, we were usually swarmed by their supporters. My street, Olaitan Odularu was take off point on match days and their chants..Holy Holy, Holy, Holy Enugu Rangers…still rings in my ears even till this day.

On D Day, I was teasing my sponsor that I hope we would not have the kind of experience Rangers had in 1978 as we made our way to the Stadium.

Many fanatical fans of Rangers will never forget 1978. Rangers was the African Cup Winners Cup Champion of 1977, they had National team stars like Emmanuel Okala, Christian Chukwu, Alloysius Atuegbu and a lethal striker, Nnamdi Nwokocha who was defender’s nightmare.

Anyway, Insurance team of David Adiele, Henry Ogboe, Felix Agbonifo etc shocked the all mighty Rangers 0-3.It was an earth-shaking upset.

But on this day, it was Stores vs Bendel Insurance. I was too optimistic to think of a loss for my darling team. By the time we got to the stadium about noon, it was already packed.

Of course, I had been warned that it would be a long, tiring wait, Who cared about any wait or tiredness? Being inside the National Stadium for a Challenge Cup Final meant that any other thing paled into insignificance.

I was on top of the world because I was going to watch some of the stars of the Green Eagles, that was how our national team was then called and that was enough.

Those days, there were no phones or computer games to occupy you, all you had to do was seep in the atmosphere, the lovely songs, the taunts and the fun.

I was not even hungry. I took mental note of key points to share with my friends who had already noted “Udo, this one wey you dey go watch Final for National Stadium, we no go hear word. Trust me “dem no hear word for weeks. I made sure I was releasing my exclusives from the arena in bits and pieces.

Back to the match, I could remember that there was an Under-15 game that kept us occupied before the main game, but the stadium came alive as soon as the players stepped onto the pitch for warm up. Every inch of the arena was filled, it was dizzying for an 11 year old.

Trust us, the Lagos football fans, we outnumbered the Insurance guys three to one and our excitement was sky high.We were vociferous. The match started on a high, but ended on a sad note because we lost 0-1.

I was devastated, that is why today I can relate to the emotional state of some of my friends who support clubs like Arsenal, who keep witnessing losses week after week for so many years,  that day, I was heart broken and I cried all the way home.

It was very painful, but two years later, we blasted Niger Tornadoes 4-1 to lift that same Challenge Cup. But that first experience will forever be etched on my memory.

It was not only with clubs that my romance with National Stadium ended. The Green Eagles used to camp at the famous Kilo Hotel in Surulere I used to keep vigil at the hotel which was a walking distance from my house.

That proximity to the stars inspired me to become a regular at the stadium and watched many Green Eagles matches, if I was an autograph hunter, I would have banked the signatures of all the leading stars in Nigeria, I was that close to these guys.

Why am I waxing lyrical and fantasizing about the now decrepit National Stadium, it was a national pride, but now the shame is on us all. Why have we allowed such a wondrous facility to go to waste?

The state of the national stadium, is a clear indication of the state of our sports, everything is in tatters.

Take our football for instance, it is in shambles. Let us start from the grassroots. There is no grassroots football anymore. I remember that Stephen Keshi, Nduka Ugbade, Samson Siasia all played for St Finbar’s College and were spotted at that very young age.

Igbobi College, St Gregory’s College, CMS Grammar School, Ansar Ud Deen, Baptist Academy, Zumuratu Islamiya, CKC, all produced stars. YSFON used to hatch players too. But that production factory have all gone comatose.

Our National Nationwide league is a huge joke. Can you believe that after recruiting players, training almost every day, the Nationwide National League 1 teams played only 3…Yes, I, 2, 3 games and the league season was rounded off. The NNL began with great promise even getting a sponsor but today, it is barely surviving.

Now, lets go to the Nigeria Professional Football League (NPFL) our equivalent of the premier league. to be honest, the league is professional only in name. There is nothing professional about the structure and the operation of the league.

The clubs are almost all owned by the State Governments, which means governing structures are weak and unpredictable. The Managers of the various clubs have no direct stake in terms of investment so, the clubs are run like a typical government property which does not aspire to excellence.

How many Nigerian Premiership clubs have their own stadiums or even have audited accounts?

The weak rules is now about to lead to a major problem when the new season begins as two teams from two different states will be playing in the NPFL, how will the almighty administrators handle this situation when its rules clearly says no two teams with same owners can play in the same league?

Futhermore, I don’t know any professional league where the players have no defined contracts. Contracts are drawn up but never kept, that is why players are owed months of salaries and the League Management Committee cannot do anything about it. Some players even have to stage protests to get paid. Clubs are fined and they don’t pay the said fines and there are no consequences.

The other day, Kano Pillars players were unruly during a Super League game with Enugu Rangers at the Agege Stadium.

Rabiu Ali, the Pillars captain had instigated it all with the way he reportedly charged at the referee after the final whistle. His action led to a pitch invasion, which would have been deadly, if not for the timely intervention of the Police.

The LMC fined Kano Pillars N8million and slammed Ali with a 12 game ban. I doubt if that fine had been paid till date and we are about to begin another season. And to make matters worse, Ali’s ban was later reviewed and reduced!

What of the state of the playing pitches, that is another matter all together, if you check out the requirement stipulated in the NPFL document, you will applaud, but many of the pitches are not worthy to host a top tier match if truth be told.

Well, even as bad as our league is, I often wonder why clubs like Super Stores, 3SC, Rangers, Enyimba, Akwa United, Kwara United cannot sell thousands of jerseys and other forms of merchandising to raise funds for the running of their operations.

Look at the shameful way our numero uno league was conducted last season in what was called an abridged league? Yet we are going on as if everything is right.

And then, I don’t know where we learnt this bad habit that anytime our national team is participating in a major tournament, the league must go on recess? Even while Russia was hosting the World Cup, some games in the lower tier were still on.

I believe shutting down the league is just an excuse for the officials to go on their usual jamboree. Even when we said we would align our league with that of Europe and the rest of Africa, we are still wobbling and fumbling.

Where are the stars to watch? The National team in the past few years have been filled with players playing in low quality teams or third rate leagues. Unlike the past when Adokie, Odegbami, Muda, Olukanmi, Chukwu, etc who played for the Eagles were here shining in their clubs.Everything today is mediocre. That is why we now have more supporters of Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester United, Real Madrid, Barcelona in Nigeria than ever before.

It therefore should not surprise anybody that the stadiums are empty except for a few matches. What would attract you? Is it the quality of players, the quality of pitches or the quality of the game? Why cant we have a 10-club Professional league that is up to standard than this contraption that has not lived up to expectation?

Just as run down as the National Stadium is at the moment, our football is also on a downward slide. I wonder what NFF President, Mr. Amaju Melvin Pinnick will leave behind as his legacy.

Amaju is one savvy gentleman that has injected fresh ideas and some panache to football administration in Nigeria, I am impressed with his connections with FIFA, but what has he achieved in terms of building the right structures for our football to grow. He has to start now to think about this otherwise, he would come, go and become another footnote in our football history like some before him.

Still on the stadium. Today, when you go to the stadium, you are made to pay N100 as levy per car, who keeps that cash and what is it used for?

I saw that the swimming pool has been privatized and it has been renovated and looks sparkling clean, good move, but why is the whole facility not given to a concessionaire? Who is selling off this our national treasure ?

Why are we cutting the place up, like the whale that we saw that was being cut by some people till its bare skeleton were left behind?

Let’s leave football and delve into boxing? Has anyone been inside that Brai Ayonote Boxing Gym? That is another cause for concern? I could not believe my ears when I was told that the National Boxing Team trains there. The flooring is pulling off and the place is so dusty and unkempt that you can’t stay there for twenty minutes without catching catarrh.

Look at the issue with the basketball federation. For over two years now, we have two boards laying claim to the operations of the association and not even the former Minister could whip them in line. Where is our pride and our sense of shame?

Nothing typifies this lack of shame more than the shocking occurrence at the Athletics Federation of Nigeria (AFN). The system has become so rotten, that we do not care a hoot even if it will lead to international embarrassment.

We are all now familiar with the story. In case we have forgotten so easily as we often do, and move on to the next scandal, it had to do with a simple transaction.

The world athletics governing body, International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF) as part of its commitment usually sends each federation a tidy sum of $15,000 for developmental purpose.

In 2017, the IAAF sent the money as usual but instead of the $15,000, the officer mistakenly sent $150,000.

After waiting for months for our Athletics Federation of Nigeria to do the needful and it did not, the IAAF wrote to us indicating that it was an error and that the $135,000 be returned.

The AFN and the Sports Ministry under Mr Solomon Dalung began to play hide and seek, and as we speak the matter had not been resolved.

It was even reported that the former Minister promised to pay the money in installments! Who did to us?

That Minister should have been disgraced out of office for disgracing the nation in such a manner but this is Nigeria where any thing goes, he was at his post till the very last day. Everywhere you look, you are confronted by barefaced impunity!

Gone are the days when we used to shine at Commonwealth games and the Olympics, with the likes of Innocent Egbunike, Falilat Ogunkoya, Chidi Imoh, Davidson, Deji Aliyu, Chioma Ajunwa, Christy Opara-Thompson and Mary Onyali

These days, we only participate and come back home with our tails between our legs. Our claim to fame at major tourneys in recent years are the exploits of the para athletes, how are the mighty fallen.

The reason for our poor outing are not far fetched, we have left the National Stadium to rot. We need to wake up and fast too.

For us to begin the quest to restore our lost glory, we need to restore the National Stadium to its lost glory. We cannot have such an edifice and allow it to rot.

That was the reason, I was so excited when news filtered in that the Ministry of Sports was making plans to hand over the National Stadium to the Lagos State Government, whatever had been the clog in the wheel of that deal, I am appealing to Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu to pursue it with vigor and conclude it.Lagos deserves more than the astro turfs in Agege, Teslim and the new Onikan.

How has Lagos, eko for show, fallen so low to the point that we never host first class National Team matches anymore? Governor Sanwo-Olu has to rewind the hand of the clock.

The refurbished National Stadium would not only be a wonderful achievement for Sanwo-Olu, it would return Lagos to its pride of place as the authentic Centre Of Excellence in Sports. In addition, this will certainly mark the beginning of our return to the days of glory.

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