Wasimi, the little rustic town, some 26 kilometres from Abeokuta in Ogun State, is under the spell of football. The once laid back, quiet town has suddenly transformed into a beehive in the past few days. Until the establishment of the Segun Odegbami International College and Sports Academy, SOCA, Wasimi had been ‘asleep’. It almost did not exist on any map. Since its birth some 12 years ago, however, the academy has driven development, slowly and steadily, but never quite like what a small and innocuous summer football clinic has done in the past two years. The event has taken on a life of its own, running on its fuel of football and taking along with it this rustic but beautiful paradise. This year an ‘explosion’ is taking place.
Yesterday, the partly tarred road from the main Abeokuta-Lagos express road to the Baptist Primary School compound, main venue of the 2019 Wasimi Youth Summer Football Championship, a half kilometre distance, was full of people, young boys and girls in a kaleidoscope of colours of all shades and shapes of sports jerseys and tracksuits that have entered the town and taken over its social heart. The Baptist Primary School compound is the hub of activities, with spectators lining the perimeter of the football ground in the middle of the school for an unusual feast of football. They easily number a few thousand. The school’s premises wore a new look. A 12 feet high wooden platform had been erected to serve as a camera stand. It stood next to two medium-sized canopies that provided a special sitting area for invited guests. A loud public address system intermittently blasted popular music and ran exciting commentaries that added plenty of spice beyond your typical lively and rowdy football ground ambience and atmosphere. Rope barriers cordoned off the main playing area from the spectators, making crowd control easy and restricting everyone to designated areas. Two comperes, local entertainers, masterfully controlled the flow of the events.
The organisers had done their homework well. All the over 2000 players were registered and their details recorded. All the teams were distinctively kitted in a mix of colours to identify them. Local jersey and T-shirt manufacturers must have been very busy and made good business. Fixtures for all the matches of the first round for the next few days were designed and distributed. Official kick-off took place yesterday and several teams started their campaign yesterday. The traditional ruler of Wasimi led several Baale’s from surrounding villages to yesterday’s opening day matches. He was over-joyed with the attention that Wasimi is getting and showered encomiums on the local teachers from the Academy that are spearheading the programme. He expressed particular joy at the heightened social and commercial activities in the town as a result of the influx of visitors who were all warmly welcomed. The town’s social life has been completely transformed.
The quality of players at the event is extremely high. These are trained children in different mushroom clubs and academies. One of the matches, an under-15 encounter, reminded me of the good old days of academical football in Nigeria. One of the young players, a 14-year old orphan from a public school in Sango Otta, put up such a sterling individual performance that the administrator of SOCA pulled me aside and sought my opinion about offering him a place at the academy on a scholarship. These past two days, I have been in a happy daze. Developments have exceeded my expectations in every way. The public response has been overwhelming. The environment yesterday was electric. The performances were good but hindered by the undulating half-sand-half-grass stumps field that diminished tactics and challenged individual expressiveness. The matches were high-octane in their excitement, drama and keen contests. This football feast has simply taken on a life of its own, driving developments around it and challenging everyone, including me, to catch up with it if we can. In the past 24 hours, I have received messages of support and encouragement from all over the country and even outside. Wasimi has become a site on the world map.
From 9 O’clock this morning matches will be played all day long at two venues – the Baptist Primary school ground and the lusher turf of the SOCA academy on the other side of the expressway. Some organisations are already offering moral and physical support. NTA will report the events. Multi-Trex will be displaying some of their food and cocoa drinks products. A university is coming during the week with their sports director to fish for young talents. Interestingly, most of the teams do not have their own means of transportation. They came to Wasimi using regular public transport. So, for the next two weeks whilst here they will make trekking their warm-up exercise before and after matches. Whilst here also each team will take care of all their logistical arrangements and bear the expenses for meals and accommodation in the small town where they can find any. Wasimi is breaking at the seams trying to welcome and take care of the needs of this large influx of visitors. So, improvisation is the new game in town. Classroom floors have become comfortable beds. The famous Chin Chin has become a staple meal. A hard life is being converted into an adventure. Here there are neither mental nor physical stresses. The participants are high on passion and on their love for the beautiful game. The next fortnight will be wonderful. I foresee football demonstrating its awesome power of transforming lives and the environment, impacting the youths, stimulating the local economy, encouraging maintenance and improvement of the few existing sports facilities available, discovering young new talents and providing them opportunities to go to school, or to move abroad for a career in professional football, influencing social integration of the assembled young players from all over the country, creating healthy competition and everlasting friendships amongst them whilst advancing, by practice, the business of football in Nigeria. As one of my friends wrote in a mail to me earlier today, this may mark the start of an annual football pilgrimage to Wasimi.
I still don’t understand it all myself, but the ship has set sail already with me inside it, and I have no options but to now steer it to safety. Yesterday, I watched two Under-16 girls’ teams put up one of the best performances I have seen of domestic women’s football in Nigeria. I was simply blown away by the quality of their individual skills on the ball on a rugged turf. Without doubt, several of the girls must have started playing at a very young age and must have shed the rough edges usually associated with girls that start the game in their teens rather than as kids. I can almost guarantee that two of the girls that I saw can fit into Nigeria’s Falconets team TODAY playing with their eyes closed.
That speaks loudly.