Before the bastardization and politicization of everything in Nigeria against professionalism and knowledge, many foreign countries sent their representatives to Nigeria to study how we managed to be very successful at least at “U17” football level where Nigeria was the very best in the world.
We produced world recognized sportsmen and women like Innocent Egbunike, Mary Onyali, Chidi Imoh, Dick Tiger and Obisia Nwakpa etc. In wrestling, we had Power Uti who made Nigerians proud as he attracted many respected international stars like Rocky Johnson and Mighty Igor etc. in old Calabar. Volleyball and handball were popular amongst our youths at the primary school level.
Our football pitches, officiating and commercialisation of the Nigerian league matches of today are still bad, but they are much better compared to those yester years especially with the help of modern technologies to convey the football messages to the door steps of everyone.
Nevertheless, the sad truth remains that the Nigerian football league then was more popular, interesting, exciting and acceptable to many than it is today. The Nigerian national football team, the former Green Eagles, were dreaded and feared at least by other African teams.
In those yester years, almost every state or city had a darling team to be proud of. From east to west and north to south we had teams like Rangers International of Enugu, Spartans of Owerri (today’s Heartland of Owerri formerly of Iwuanyawu National), Enyimba of Aba, Sharks of Port-Harcourt, Bendel Insurance of Benin, Stationary Stores of Lagos, Leventis United, IICC of Ibadan, BCC Lions of Gboko, Niger Tornadoes, Ranchers Bees and Mighty Jets of Jos etc.
While some of these teams mentioned are no longer in existence, one can see that some of them are still playing competitively in the Nigerian league at different levels, but obviously they have lost the glamour and the fellowships that made them thick in those good years. Their fans have religiously switched their support, emotion and love to well managed and packaged international teams like Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea or Barcelona etc. where merits and professionalism are standards.
What did we do then to achieve these heights that we are not doing now?
Instead of improving on what we had already built, we relegated professionalism to mediocrity in the name of national character. We failed to plan and to have continuity. Above all, out of greed and religious or political affiliations we myopically promoted structures that failed to recognize, respect and honour our past heroes accordingly.
In football, Shuibu Amodu qualified Nigeria for the 2010 world cup but some greedy NFA members unjustly sacked him and employed a foreign coach who went on and disgraced Nigeria at the tournament. Today Stephen Keshi is doing creditably well but yet some members of the Nigerian Football Federation (NFF) are still scheming to get him sacked or relegated so that they can bring in a foreign coach. A situation those at the helm of affairs in NFF always exploited in the past. They have been frustrating Keshi’s plan so that he will fail and they will then say,
“Yes, we told Nigerians that indigenous coaches cannot do it”. Most of these sports officers are just Nigerian business politicians without the knowledge in sports administration, but simply because they have the supports of faceless ‘godfathers’, they were foisted on us. They only care so much about what goes into their pockets to the detriments of good results. But their plans to terminate Keshi’s job in order to contract a foreign coach with questionable clause of ‘signing on fee’ will not work.
When I remember that the mother of late patriotic Sam Okwaraji who slumped and died for this nation while playing in the 1990 World Cup qualification match in the then national stadium in Surulere Lagos against Angola on 12.08.1989 is in tears because her brilliant son who gave all he had that included his education, money and life has been forgotten, when I remember how patriotic Okwaraji paid his own flight ticket from his base in Europe to come and play for Nigeria in that match that took his life, when I remember how those at the helm of affairs at the then Nigerian Football Association (NFA) claimed that they had had no money to pay for the tickets of the invited foreign professional players and patriotic Okwaraji was the only player that paid his own ticket from his own wallet, and when I remember that the federal government of Nigeria made promises to the patriotic Okwaraji in Umudioka his village during his burial that are yet to be fulfilled, eeeeehh, I feel sad and I am full of sorrow. I ask; why murder patriotism?
When I see the first Nigerian Olympic medallist in boxing (Tokyo 1964) Mojim Maiyegun Omo – Oloja in Austria, when I remember that a top sports officer who was supposed to have known once referred to him as dead, and when I remember that he is now blind and the officials of the Nigerian government do not care much about him, my heart bleeds for my country.
While these attitudes had in the past made our good sportsmen and women to change their nationalities, this self-centred and lukewarm behaviour from sports officials to our heroes is encouraging negativity that is killing patriotism in our stars and up-and-coming sports actors.
“Before the bastardization and politicization of everything in Nigeria against professionalism and knowledge, many foreign countries sent their representatives to Nigeria to study how we managed to be very successful at least at “U17” football level where Nigeria was the very best in the world”.
There were those who did not understand the precarious future or the complex nature of what perhaps had awaited some of these Nigerian sports actors that made them change their nationalities in their active days.
While these sets of people queried the loyalty of some of these actors who had also been more dedicated to their club duties than national services and called them names like unpatriotic citizens or money lovers, many who understood the huge failure of use and dump philosophy of Nigerian officials as the remote cause of the regrettable lapses also understood the dangerous positions these unfortunate situation would have meant for the actors if they had had to be stopped from their professions because of injuries and appreciated their moves and applauded them.
These reasons stated here and many more are the bane of sports development in Nigeria and why many athletes have refused to honour national calls or give their best when on white and green jerseys. Those who manage the affairs of Nigeria have always given the impression that, when an athlete is still good and active the person will be remembered but when the person is in trouble and needs help, or even when injured while in active service for Nigeria, he/she is forgotten and abandoned. … Why?
In those years when Nigeria was respected in sports circle, we had the local governments’ cup and the Governors’ Cup for primary and secondary schools while Nigerian University Games Association (NUGA) were for universities. Even though NUGA games are still in existence but they have been neglected. In the primary schools one saw our children competing happily in sports like football, high jump, basketball, volleyball, handball, athletics and table tennis.
Through NUGA games many football stars then were discovered. Somebody like Adeolu Adekola who went on and represented Nigeria with the likes of Lawrence Ukaegbu, super brat, Etim Esin and co in 1987 FIFA U20 World Cup tagged “Chile 87” was discovered through a NUGA game. These achievements were possible because we had continuity from primary schools to secondary schools and up to the university level. Failing to plan is planning to fail because champions are made in trainings but only crowned in competitions.
We should introduce a programme to catch the youths young again by going back to drawing boards and introduce grassroots sports in a way that would not be an obstacle to their education, from primary school up to university level or else the embarrassing outing of our Olympic contingent in the “London 2012 Olympic Games” might befall us again.
Remember, your dog answers whatever name you give to it. Our heroes are our pride, we should always respect and honour them for they deserve to be dignified. David Bakham was not better than our own Jay Jay Okocha but the British press and people have always catapulted him to the high heaven unlike we have done to our own hero, magic Okocha.
Accord our heroes their due respect, handle them professionally, and honestly care for them when it is good, bad and ugly as they may be cared for in their professional clubs. If this can be done the spirit to represent or serve Nigeria would be different again not only by our professional sportsmen and women or upcoming athletes, but by all in every segment of our life as a nation.
Last Word: Name the former national stadium in Surulere Lagos, where patriotic Samuel Sochukwuma Okwaraji slumped and died after him, “SAMUEL SOCHUKWUMA OKPARAJI’S STADIUM”.