By Ade Ojeikere
PERMIT me, dear reader to sustain my focus on the country’s domestic leagues which ought to serve as the nurseries to discover raw talents abound the 774 Local Government Areas (LGAs) but aren’t. We have won several gold medals at the cadet levels, making the country one of the world powers in soccer, only if we understood the essence of creating age-grade competitions by the game’s owners FIFA in Zurich. Nigeria has been kings of the U-17 World Cup in 1985, 1993, 2007, 2013, and 2015. Yet, we have been unable to easily play in the quarter-finals of the senior World Cup, irrespective of the quality of coaches who took us to those cadet Mundial.
Anyone who thinks that the Nigerian coaches who led the Golden Eaglets to win the World Cups in those times did anything fantastic on the boys in those years, should perish that assumption. Those boys were picked from across the country and had contrasting styles. They were driven to glory by the average Nigerian’s zeal to always seize such platforms to excel. Those glorious groups at the Under-17 level learned the game by watching their idols on television. They were products of the functional school systems of yore. Not the dysfunctional systems we have today. I don’t want to question their ages. Rather, I will look at the positives – part of which shows that the factory for discovering talents still abound. What is missing is an effective policing of all the mechanics around the game.
Those World Cup-winning lads are lost largely because there wasn’t any coordination from the time they became heroes and now. Most of them knew that they had taken a chance on the system and needed their freedom. Had we taken the pains to comb the 775 LGAs, we would have discovered dozens of players to fill the gap created by the fleeing few. It is that lacuna that has opened the window of flooding our prestigious Super Eagles with foreign-born Nigerians.
True, they have the right to play for their fatherland, but the backlash is those kicking all kinds of round objects in the 774 LGAs have been shut now. It hurts that age-grade players are being taken from the foreign-born legions, making it imperative to ask what has happened to the domestic game? One word. The league is dead. Those papering the cancerous sore have forgotten that the stench from the sore is killing everyone. No country judges her development in soccer by the number of foreign-based players in their national teams. Those countries that have foreign-based players in their soccer squads can easily trace their growth through the ranks of the football cycles.
These foreign-born Nigerians are products of recent feats by European countries in age-grade competitions largely because those countries have the domestic leagues having cadet teams that serve as supply lines to churn out younger lads to replace their aging stars or those who have lost form. This is the missing link in the Nigeria league. Sadly, those characters running the game here think otherwise and it is unfortunate.
Were our local clubs’ cadets involved in weekly matches as we find in Europe, we wouldn’t have found ourselves in this quagmire. Many of the players would have come from the leagues, giving such clubs the basis to seek good revenue from clubs eager to sign them. Not those shylock European agents who cheat of the naive players and at other times sign into slavery playing for clubs whose leagues are nothing but novelties. The European countries where these boys are being lured to play for Nigeria couldn’t be bothered by our lazy approach to football development knowing that they have a factory that has surpluses waiting to fill the void created by such exits. In fact, these countries are happy to let those lads go, except for players whose positions their nationals can’t fill.
The advantage of having our age-grade team players in the domestic league is that it helps in gathering players’ data early. This further reduces cases of age cheats caused by greedy parents who are involved in the falsification of such vital documents. Only parents can confirm their wards’ ages, unfortunately. If our clubs have age-grade teams from ages 5 to 16, it would be easy to detect cheats through the measures ingrained in the systems. It is laughable that in the 21st Century, we still allow kids playing for Nigeria’s cadet teams to use sworn affidavits as evidence for their ages.
It is exciting to note the efforts being made by the sports minister Sunday Dare to reinvent the principal’s Cup competition. However, the organisers must be alert in clearing players to the competition. They should insist on seeing the players’ academic records. They should interrogate such records by interacting with the pupils in such schools. Any student should know the schools’ star players including his mates in class.
If the revamped Principal’s Cup is free of sharp practices, it would attract the interest of the corporate world. No investor would identify its goods and service in a system fraught with fraud and controversies. Investors love to see value in their investments. The beauty of investors’ interests in business is that it has a spiral effect once the business community identifies with novel ideals they don’t relent. Instead, they find ways to key into various aspects of the project.
This writer identifies with the honourable Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed’s appeal to the corporate world in Nigeria to do exactly what they do with sports in other climes with ours. That indeed is the only way to make the sports industry as attractive as what we find in the western world. In such regions, sports is business, not a novelty. Where this writer differs from the honourable minister is that his plea ought to have been targeted at the nurseries where these investors have their kids and relations. Interestingly, the future of any nation rests with her youth and how effectively they are engaged with works that would easily take them out of crime and other social vices.
The minister said on NTA’s ‘Good Morning Nigeria’ programme on Monday that: “Let’s assume you have brought in La Liga, and during the matches, Guinness is advertised, we will compel you, we will compel Guinness to also advertise when we are playing a local league. That is the only way we can grow this industry but as can be expected, we have had very few supporters.”
Mohammed argued further that Nigerian brands such as Guinness which run adverts during foreign matches must compulsorily advertise during Nigerian Premier Football League games pointing out that brands that create their adverts abroad but broadcast them on CNN and other international stations broadcasting in Nigeria will pay a fine of N100,000 each time such adverts are run.
Well said, sir. But do note sir, that firms are at liberty to do business with those who have programmes which they like. Do you build on nothing? The country’s sports terrain is comatose. The few sports that have thinking administrators are doing very well.
Mention must be made of Uyi Akpata who has revolutionised cricket in Nigeria with laudable projects and corporate sponsorship, with Edo State the new Haven for cricket in the country. Uyi Akpata has broken Lagos state’s dominance of the gentleman’s game, a wish may Bendelites and Edo people who played the game craved for in the past. The best and modern pitches in the country reside in Edo State. Uyi Akpata’s cricket revolution is targeted at the nurseries, including school boys and girls.
Nigeria’s sports administrators should stop thinking through their pockets. They should always look at the bigger picture of making the sporting industry the veritable ground for stemming unemployment in Nigeria. Is sports truly “play play” as one governor once described it? Who will challenge us to see sports as a platform to bolster the country’s revenue? Doesn’t the government know that sports is the best vehicle for massive employment? The honourable Sports Minister will need to meet with firms who have embraced sports to know what problems they have with the federations. At that meeting, the firms should be told what they stand to benefit from sports sponsorship. After that, a dinner with the President, essentially for sports-friendly firms, preferably after the Olympic Games in Tokyo.
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