By Babatunde Jose

“Poor is the Nation that has no heroes, but shameful is the Nation that has them and forgets.” – Author Unknown

Every country on earth has men and women who lived their lives in the service of their country. Every nation worth the name has its documented history outlining the struggles and achievements of its people. The history of a nation is usually incomplete without its great men, women and heroes and why not, its villains and scoundrels too. The main purpose of heroes is to inspire the future.

Let us consider the case of football and the generation of footballers who won laurels for Nigeria: Many people especially the young ones may not have heard of late Haruna Ilerika; ’a prodigious player from an obscure secondary school in Surulere, Lagos. He went on to play for the academicals and the Green Eagles while he was the star player for Stationery Stores (Flaming Flamingoes). Today’s children will grow up never knowing that Nigeria ever had such great footballers who brought the country continental fame and became household names. However, with the passage of time and our general decline as a nation, some of these heroes died virtual paupers, emaciated from illness and left behind a destitute family. They became unsung and the heroes in them died. However, a good many of them after football, went on with other chosen careers and became successful in life.

The reasons for the decline of the nation are not farfetched: We lost our focus and our goal. In the days of glory, we raised and nurtured these heroes from the secondary schools. Those were the days when we excelled in almost any field of sports. Just as schools had unending competitions that threw up heroes in the fields of play, clubs sprang up to continue nurturing these gifted men and women. The police football and athletics club recruited young men and women fresh from school. There was also Ports Authority or The Marines who made waves in the football pitch. Names like Henshaw of Marines readily come to mind and there was the UAC club where Cyril Asoluka was one of the big names. People like Teslim Thunder Balogun and Dejo Fayemi were not illiterates as they later travelled abroad in search of the Golden Fleece.

The proverbial ‘music died’ with the incursion of the military and the bastardization of our educational system. Murtala/Obasanjo decreed the takeover of secondary schools and things have never been the same again. As they say, ‘nothing can ever come from nothing’. A society that fails to groom and nurture its youths can never expect to excel in sports or athletics. Where are our Nduka Odizors on the tennis courts today, our Thompson Onibokuns, and Laurence Awopegba? They have been consigned to the dustbin of history. We used to have Ogbe Hard Court tournament in Benin, and the Lord Rumens Tournament in Lagos.

Where we make any tangible wave these days, are the products of individual talents that have been lucky to cross the Sahara or the Atlantic to seek grooming and sponsorship in other climes. That is the only reason we hear of such names as Blessing Okagbare, and the like. Left to this country, such budding stars could have been dimmed and forgotten. Have we produced another Hakeem Olajuwon?

In the ongoing IAAF Diamond athletics series, you hardly see a ‘green-white-green’. The ones that occasionally come to light are so intangible as to make you ashamed.

The fault is not in our stars, but in a leadership that is bereft of vision and mission, a leadership that is incapable of galvanizing the energies of its youth, a leadership that has failed in all matters particular to offer a beacon of light to its youth, a leadership that is so infantile that it cannot work out the best possible way of bringing out 11 sharp players out of a population of nearly 200 million souls; a leadership that has abdicated its role in the field of youth empowerment; a leadership that has been kidnapped, ranched and rugared. A leadership that is content with picking its first eleven from’ Ajegunle’. No wonder people are no more interested in sporting events and have transferred their preferences to foreign sporting activities such as the Premier League and other European football.

Until we salvage our image and return to the path of righteousness, we would never produce heroes in this country. Those that manage to escape the net did so only by a fluke. Segun Odegbami captured the rot when he wrote: The last decade, 2000 to 2010 is one that presents the greatest difficulty. Player-quality has dropped significantly, team achievements have been few, and truly outstanding players have not shown up as evidenced by the dearth of Nigerian players in the annual selection of Africa’s best players by the CAF. It still rings true today.

Most of our star players in those days were recruited from the academicals and after their stint in the national team, they went to higher institutions abroad or here in Nigeria. There was therefore a succession scheme whereby when a set goes another replaces it.

Adokiye Amiesimaka, fondly called Chief Justice and a former Attorney-General in Rivers State is a product of Academicals football and so was Thompson Usiyen, Nigeria’s best striker of his time. Such was the strength intensity, excitement, talent-flow and attention-capture capacity of academicals football those days. It provided empowerment through well-paying jobs and scholarship to American Universities.

It is instructive to know that many of these academicals left to study abroad and not to play for Arsenal! That did not happen because Tunde Balogun (son of Thunder Balogun) joined another striker Yomi Bamiro (Shooting Stars), Sunday Izevbigie and Muyiwa Sanya (Bendel Insurance), Kenneth Ilodigwe and Dominic Ezeani (Enugu Rangers) and Ghana’s Sam Ayi Akwa (a left back) to proceed to Howard University on Scholarship.

One season later, Ben Popoola, Segun Adewale, Olumeko (a Keeper), Damian Ogunsuyi and Emmanuel Egede (alias Tailor) all from Bendel Insurance, Godwin Ogbueze and Damian Odoh (Enugu Rangers), Obed Ariri (Vasco Da Gama Enugu) all went to Clemson University in the United States on Scholarship.

Names like Niyi Omowon of IICC Shooting Stars, a graduate of University of Ibadan and a ‘Great Independite’, while playing for Nigeria. The same goes for ‘No Moless’, late Soji Oshilowo who played for Nigeria while a student of Great Ife, and an ex-student of Mayflower School, Ikenne.

Academicals football, nay schools sports is it and there is the strong need to revive it because it provides a veritable well-pool of talent for the Eagles.

How can a system where corruption thrives, fueled by bribery, brazen lies, cheating and falsification of documents be expected to produce a football environment that is productive? A nation without heroes is nothing. Robert Clemente

“O Allah our Lord! Send us from heaven a table set (with viands), that there may be for us – for the first and the last of us – a solemn festival and a sign from thee; and provide for our sustenance, for thou art the best Sustainer (of our needs)” (Quran 5:114)

Barka Juma’at and a happy weekend

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