There is a new development in Nigerian sports that excites me despite the pall of a pandemic over our heads. The National Stadium in Lagos is about to be ‘fixed’.
For 20 years since 2000, the stadium has been in the throes of abandonment or neglect, or both. The last time that I can recall that a major football match, or any major sports events, took place there was the night the Super Eagles suffered the ‘injustice’ of the absence of VAR technology and lost a match they should have won on the balance of performance.
Those who can recall what happened on the night of the finals of the 2000 Ghana/Nigeria African Cup of Nations between Nigeria and Cameroon know what I am referring to.
I shall not dwell on that here because that is not my interest here. Rather, it is another match that took place some months earlier in 1999, whose recall now creates my present excitement, that interests me.
I am aware now that the Minister of Sports, Mr. Sunday Dare, is taking his industry and daring-do attitude to a new level. He is attempting to do what previous Ministers since 2000 have failed to do for any number of good or poor reasons.
The important thing for me now is that Mr. Sunday Dare is daring to go where they did not, period! He wants to breathe life once again into the comatose national stadium, Lagos, with the vision to make it the epicentre of an authentic sports industry in Nigeria.
That automatically brings back a particular memory to my mind, a moment in history when all Nigerians should have seen the power and possibilities of sport as big business in the city of Lagos and in the National Stadium, in particular.
Before that event the place of Lagos and the National Stadium as the basic ingredients essential for the development of sports and the industry of sports was not appreciated and understood enough. That’s why when the magnificent edifice in Abuja was built for the purpose of hosting the 2003 All-Africa Games, and all of sport was moved to the Federal Capital Territory, with the attendant neglect of Lagos, the slow death of domestic Nigerian sports development, as well as the industry, began. 20 years after that movement neither have sprouted from the barren fields they were planted in Abuja.
The confirmation of Abuja’s total unsuitability to take over the dual roles of developing sport and the sports business from Lagos was demonstrated on the night that the city hosted the biggest match in the world that weekend, the friendly international match between Brazil and Nigeria. With all the hype and marketing in the world done around the match, the 65, 000 capacity Abuja stadium, was only half full with empty seats, with many of the spectators having to fly half way across Nigeria from Lagos to attend.
After that match prospective marketers gave up hope, and abandoned the pursuit of business in that very infertile environment. Everything done in other places around the country since then have not recaptured the spirit and the fire of Lagos and the National Stadium in Surulere.
So, I recall a match that captured everyone’s imagination, that that took place in Lagos and defines Lagos’s unique place in sports in Nigeria.
Mr. Sunday Dare must be seeing now what Adekunle Raji, (aka Kantara) a Nigerian sports scholar and consultant ‘saw’ in 1996 when he gave up the comfort of a fantastic job at the Centre for the Study of Sports in Society on the campus of North Eastern University in the city of Boston, Massachusetts, USA, under the tutelage of world-renowned international sports guru and social activist, Richard Lapchick, a job that provided him assurance of an extremely bright future in the global industry, to return to the untested, uncertain and uncharted terrain of Nigerian sports and start to chase the dream of deploying his skills, his knowledge, his training, his education, and his wealth of experiences to kick-start and drive the establishment of a proper sports industry and business in Nigeria from Lagos.
When Kunle arrived Nigeria, he was burning with an infectious ‘fire’ of enthusiasm and excitement. He embarked upon one interesting project after the other, lighting up the ‘dull’ sports business space with refreshingly different approaches to organizing a few sports events and projects.
He then put up an event that best captures his innovative spirit, his experience and his vision, one that illuminates my excitement at what Sunday Dare is now cooking by reviving the National Stadium, Lagos, and bringing sports back to Lagos.
It happened in the month of June 1999.
Kunle Raji came up with the idea of a friendly match tagged ‘Taribo and Friends’.
He got one of the biggest and most flamboyant players in the Super Eagles at the time, AC Milan’s Taribo West, to be the spearhead of a friendly match to be held in his honour during that year’s summer break. Taribo West invited his friends in Europe to play against a selected side of the best players in Nigeria’s domestic league. It sounded ordinary on the surface until the calibre of players that Taribo invited was listed and included the first and only African player to receive the award of Best Player in the world – George Opong Weah. There were others as well on the ticket – Solomon Kalum, Jay Jay Okocha, and so on.
Kunle got the NFA to endorse the match and to give it credibility.
He secured a major sponsor for the event in Pepsi, a giant sponsor of domestic Nigerian football at the time, as well as several smaller sponsors including the NTA that was to provide the LIVE television coverage.
The venue was the Theatre of Dreams, the Abattoir of most African teams, the hallowed ground of Nigerian football, the main bowl of the National Stadium, Surulere, being re-constructed from its previous 60,000 capacity to a more compact 45,000 all-seater stadium.
Using his knowledge and experiences from the USA Kunle bought paint and brush, hired people and manually numbered all the seats in the Stadium, as well as all the signs leading to the 74 entrances into the stadium, a new innovation that made seat allocation of spectators orderly and accountable.
He hired more friendly private security personnel (instead of the regular Police) to man all the gates and entrances, and allowed only vehicles with passes and designated parking areas into the stadium. Tickets were not to be sold at the stadium and on match day. They were available for sale from designated places around Lagos, with seat allocations on each (for the first time ever in Nigeria) 3 days before the match. Only spectators with valid tickets were allowed into the heavily secured stadium by very friendly private security personnel.
All of these were new in Nigeria. With the media blasting away on the match, everything worked flawlessly and smoothly, as spectators descended on the stadium in a human flood such as had never been seen before, the battle for entry confined to the barricaded main entrances ringing the stadium.
Until that day no one believed such orderliness was possible in Nigerian football, with every seat sold in advance, and every seat allocated to a person.
It was professionalism at its best.
The final attraction was the presence of the most popular political leader in Lagos State, freshly minted first Civilian governor in the new dispensation, Senator Bola Ahmed Tinubu. He was the special Guest of Honour. It was going to be his first public function since his inauguration.
To this day, no match before or since has matched Taribo and Friends in superb organization, publicity, marketing, public interest and attendance. The stadium was filled to the brim and spectators spilled on to the field up to the tartan tracks as people broke through the tight security provided to get closer to the superstars of football on the field that day.
Taribo and Friends was the best organized and the best attended football match I ever saw in Lagos. It was a perfect case study in organization. It may not have been flawless particularly with the sea of spectators seeking to gain illegal entry and break the sanctity of the organization, but the match surely set a new standard in organization, publicity, and marketing, and offered itself as a showcase of what can possibly be achieved.
That match lit up the prospects of Lagos as the best environment in Nigeria for the take-off of the sports business. It reminds me of the power of Lagos and of the National Stadium in sports.