I have never found it more difficult to write about football in all the years of my writing than I do now. Suddenly, after so many decades of living in denial and in hope, I am about to give up on football and its future in Nigeria outside of the token contributions being made by a few individuals and a tiny number of corporate organisations, all of which do not amount to much in terms of what can be achieved were things appreciated better, done properly and differently. The only authority I have in arriving at my current state is my personal experiences through the years that can neither be ignored nor disregarded because they cannot be bought in the market place, and they come with the evidence that separates the wheat from the chaff in Nigerian football.
This is 2019.
With all modesty, only very few persons of my generation, of the generation before and even of now, can boast of the same vast array of my experiences. These are the only authority with which I want to beam some light on an issue within the current ‘darkness’ that Nigerian football has sunk. I want to talk about the state of Nigerian football today because, things have never been this bad in our country’s entire history. The 2019/2020 league has not taken off and no one knows when it will. The Football administrators and a current sponsor are being chased, hounded and harassed (justifiably or not, that is for the government authorities to determine) by anti-crime agencies. Administrators claim those are the reasons for their inability to secure sponsors for the domestic professional leagues. The truth is that sponsors’ loss of interest has been going on for some years now when the promised benefits derivable from their sponsorships were not be met by public interest and patronage.
At national team level, the situation is different. The power of good football is still fueling interest and transcends developments in the administrative set up. That’s the key – good football. That’s why FIFA, ravaged by the worst scandals in its history, suffered tremendously, but the sponsorships of their competitions remain unaffected. Good football is never affected by politics, that’s the bitter truth. The people will watch great matches irrespective of who their football administrators are, and untouched by any shenanigans in the political arena. So, I look at football today and I weep inside.
I hear people ask why the new generation of Nigerians, despite their passion and patronage of European football, demonstrated weekly by their insatiable appetite for the foreign leagues, have turned their backs, in most parts of the country, to the domestic game. European football supersedes any other activity in followership and patronage in Nigeria. Even women and children have joined in the weekly social engagements of going to watch great football matches on television in the countless number of television centres all over the country. Meanwhile, the local fields in most parts are empty of decent football followers and full of miscreants! The main reason is simple. Some decades ago, domestic football was followed crazily. A new generation explains that times have changed and the world is no longer the same place as it was during our time. True, the world has moved on, but rather than remain on our attained respectable plateau, they have retarded and retrogressed the game, and taken it to its lowest ebb. Let me tell you a little of a past that the present can learn from.
It is not rocket science to appreciate that the most important ingredient in the entire football business, without which football would never be the game that it is. It is what drives the quality of performance on the field, the quality of presentation to a global audience, the appreciation of quality coaching, quality teams and tactics, reasonable analysis by ‘experts’, excellent media and television coverage, emergence of the best players, crowds to the terraces week after week all over the world. This ingredient is taken for granted as an absolute necessity by established football cultures, but never even discussed or considered in our environment as the evidence of the past three decades, since professional football was introduced into the country, shows. Yet, it is the simplest and cheapest thing to provide – a good playing field made of lush, flat, well nurtured green grass constantly nursed as a mother would her infant baby.
The football field is the most important thing in football, in developing it and in marketing it!
Let me tell you how we have treated it in Nigeria. In 1995, some Israeli contractors were hired to excavate the main bowl of the Liberty Stadium and replace it with the most modern watering system in the world at the time – the Cell System, where wetting of the field was to be done from underground and not above the surface. The Israelis were well into their demolition job when they halted what they were doing, called us aside and told us what they found underneath the field in Liberty stadium. The watering and drainage systems were as good as any they had found in all their field construction work around the world!
Why, they asked, did Nigeria want to get rid of what many stadia in Europe did not have, and replace it with an untested system that even Israel did not embark because the system could not easily be supported by the required technology, personnel and facilities? Why? None of us could provide an answer. Those in charge of Nigerian sports at the time simply instructed them to go on. The Israelis ‘obeyed’ and did an irreparable damage to the best sports facility in the whole of Africa at the time, a stage that every Nigerian and foreign football player that had ever tasted playing on it wanted to go back to, over and over again because it made the game beautiful to play and to watch.
Liberty stadium used to host some European and South American teams on its lush green turf that compares to what is available in today’s Nou Camp, Stamford Bridge, the Emirate Stadium, Maracana, and so on and so forth! Out of sheer greed to harvest from bloated contracts, administrators, without knowledge, conscience and experience, destroyed a people’s greatest sporting heritage. Till this day, some 24 years later, Liberty stadium has not been able to host a single national or international match again. It lies idle today, ‘weeping’ in desolation. That’s what some people ignorantly and maliciously did to Nigerian football, got away with it, and left the rest of us to carry on in excruciating agony and pain. Many of us know that the present times, different as they are from the past, could still have been better had we not placed our future in the hands of those loaded with theoretical postulations without any experience.
There is nothing worse for footballers, for television coverage, for television viewing, than a match played on a bad field. It is the ultimate turn off. That’s what makes the biggest difference between European and African football. A great and entertaining football match will always attract money in terms of sponsors and spectators. That’s why with all the crisis that FIFA went through, including all the scandals, world football still thrives as a business. What has dragged football backwards is the neglect of the small details, particularly that of the playing fields that should attract even retiring superstars and give new talents a platform to advertise themselves. A bad ground would never allow any of these things.
It takes a special eye to see and realise these things and do something about them. Gernot Rohr expressed this to Osasu Obayiuwana some weeks ago. Walter Gagg, formerly of FIFA in the days of Sepp Blatter, expressed it when we sat together in 1995 to watch a professional league match at the Onikan Stadium. That’s what Pele did not know (how we treated our grounds in Nigeria) when he saw Nigerian players in 1989 and prophesied that Nigeria would win the World Cup before the turn of the last century. The present reality is that football in the country is at its lowest ebb. Going forward, the government must play a big part by changing it attitude and, of necessity, influencing a change of guards and structures, because, politics has played its part long enough (for three decades) and failed woefully.