Categories: General, Sports Development
Written By: Segun Odegbami
I shall make my final comments on Nigeria at the recently concluded Olympic games another time. For now I am in ‘heaven’.
I am at the head of a team of Under-17 secondary school students drawn from several schools in Nigeria that is touring the United States of America. The team is the Oyo State Academicals football team, winner of the 1st Nigeria Academicals Football Championship held a few months ago. The trip is being sponsored by the Oyo State Government.
The contingent that has been in the State of South Carolina for the past one week is the pioneer of a new grassroots sports development initiative of the Nigeria Academicals Sports Committee, NASCOM, an agency of the National Sports Commission set up slightly over a year ago at the directive of Mr. President with the specific mandate to revive the tradition of academicals sports in the country. This visit is the manifestation of NASCOM’s proposed strategy for grassroots sports development linked to that of the USA, the country with the simplest and most successful sports development strategy in the world. The USA anchors its elite sports development to schools. NASCOM intends to pursue a similar strategy, creating a bridge between young talented Nigerians in schools and the American schools system.
To confirm the seriousness, importance and credibility of the project, this visit, the first of its kind in Nigeria’s history, is facilitated by the South Carolina State Youth Soccer Association. Already, it is creating waves here in the United States. So impressive were the student players in their very first match here that several other neighbouring States are asking questions about how they can get involved in the programme. Already, several high school coaches in the State have extended invitations to 4 of the Nigerian young lads to come and complete their education with them. That is one of the major objectives of the programme – to create windows of exciting opportunities for Nigerian student-athletes to get a good education and enjoy an intensive sports development regimen. American colleges and universities will benefit from the programme by using the Nigerian athletes to bolster their ambition and achieve success. This will not be anything new. It existed in our distant past.
The US had always acknowledged the abundance of talent in the most populous black nation on earth in various fields of human endeavour, particularly in the area of sports. In the 1970s and 1980s many American universities, armed with scholarships, recruited exceptionally gifted Nigerian student-athletes into basketball, tennis, track and field and football programmes. Their achievements are still visibly displayed in the universities for everyone to see. At the ‘Shrine’ of Clemson University, where the Oyo State academicals visited a few days ago, they saw on the walls framed photos of the most distinguished footballers in the university’s long history. There were the faces and records of Godwin Ogbueze, Emmanuel Egede, Christian Nwokocha, Ben Popoola, Taiwo Ogunjobi (yes, the same one – the former Secretary-General of the Nigeria Football Association), and several others. Indeed, at a time in the history of the school, 10 out of the 11 players of the university’s first team were drafted from the Nigerian national team, the Green Eagles! They became one of the most dominant university teams in the whole of the US.
As it was with football, so it was with other sports, other Nigerians and other universities. The list of Nigerians that benefited from this programme of driving sports development through the American schools system is long and impressive. Let me list a few: Hakeem ‘the Dream’ Olajunwon in Basketball (University of Houston), Chris Okoye in American Football (Clemson University), Charlton Ehizuelen in the jumps (Alabama ANM), Mary Onyali, Falilat Ogunkoya, Chidi Imoh, Henry Amike and so on, in track, in various universities.
A diaspora-sited and diaspora-driven sports development strategy is the cheapest, fastest and most effective way of developing complete athletes empowered with exercise and intellect. Nigeria could, like Jamaica is now doing, take an alternative route and develop its athletes at home through installation of the right structures, good facilities and articulated programmes for elite athletes development. But that would be a long, expensive, and complex process that is likely to fail because it would require uncommon political will, heavy financial investment, a well-designed programme and disciplined implementation to succeed. America readily provides all these and more, including excellent coaches, world-class facilities and a rich history of success. These are the essential ingredients that can make real Nigeria’s dream!
NASCOM, with the full support of the National Sports Commission, has taken the bull by the horn, and has started, silently but determinedly, to kick-start and chart this new course.
The visionary government of Senator Biola Ajimobi of Oyo State captured the vision quickly, took on the challenge and provided the funds and opportunity to become the pioneer of this rebirth. With the cooperation of the government of South Carolina State, the credibility of the entire project was put to the test by the Americans. The Oyo State academicals football team had to be made up of bona-fide students, no falsification of documents, no age-cheats or mercenaries, no ‘disappearing’ students during the trip, no scandals, nothing to jeopardise taking the project beyond this first experiment. These were the issues that truncated the previous unofficial relationship between Nigerian sports and its American development partners, tarnished Nigerians image, and made life more difficult even for the few Nigerians still emerging without any support-structures in place, to secure admissions, visas and scholarships to attend American universities for the benefit of the country.
Once those issues were taken care of, the process of going to America became smooth and straightforward.
I can report that 6 days into the on-going visit the good old days, and even better days, may just lie ahead. The trip is progressing like a dream. The students were ushered into America and, specifically into South Carolina State, like kings. The student-players and officials cannot believe this is really happening. The warm welcome everywhere has been tremendous. Their education has been fantastic. American coaches are excited beyond my imagination. The young players from Oyo State have dazzled them here. Although the team lost its first match by two goals, the exceptional talent of the players shone through. 4 of them have been immediately offered open-tickets to return and join high schools here. There are 3 more matches to go and more of the students will attract even more attention.
When the players eventually return to their schools in Oyo State, for many of them, their lives will never be the same gain. NASCOM shall do the necessary follow-ups and ensure that the correct processes are done so that the players selected and that are interested to pursue their sports along side academics, can become Nigeria’s first ‘ambassadors’ in the re-birth of USA-Nigeria sports relations. Going forward, particularly at this time when the national outcry for new initiatives in proper sports development by the Nigerian public is at its zenith, the USA will become a catalyst in the revival of national interest and effort in grassroots sports development in Nigerian schools, as well as a major hub and contributor to the development of elite athletes discovered from secondary schools through the American Collegiate system.
The breeding of these diaspora student-athletes will precipitate the development of a new generation of world champions in some selected sports for Nigeria. In the next few months States academicals champion teams in track and field, basketball and tennis shall join the USA-bound trains of playing tours this will catalyse the kind of sports revolution that is in every body’s mind at the moment. The State and Federal governments must seize the moment, convert the present poor sports situation into a great future using this simple and ‘innocent’ project that is sprouting in South Carolina State with the Oyo State football academicals. It is a model that illuminates the possibilities of Nigeria’s sports development into the immediate future!