By Ade Ojeikere
THE good days of Nigerian football are gone. Gone are the days when you struggled through the turnstiles to gain entrance into the stadium – six hours before the kick-off. It was fun sitting at the stands playing scrabble, Ludo, Whot cards, snake and ladder etc, to kill time. Not forgetting the pre-match analysis. Indeed, as soon as the two teams arrived, the likely loser was known, given the quality of those selected by the opposition.
In fact, you dared not come to the stadium at 2 PM on match days hoping to get a ticket. Clubs were diligent in the sales of ticket that they earmarked big stores, petrol stations, the popular ones etc to sell their tickets. It was fun in the weeks preceding big games, with supporters raising the ante with pre-match analysis. Big writers used the dailies and television programmes to do massive media awareness on such games. The day never lacked the trappings of all that was expected from both sides.
We had trained Coaches such as Alabi Aissien, Adegboye Onigbinde, the late Willy Bazuaye, Monday Sinclair, Eto Amaechina, Josiah Dombraye, Godwin Etemike, Carl Odywer, the late Joseph Ladipo a.k.a Jossy Lad, the man who made defunct Leventis United FC of Ibadan, the greatest brand in our country, having emerged from the third tier till the top, Sebastine Brodericks-Imasuen, Amusa Shittu, Ufere Nwankwo, Charles Bassey, the late Solomon Ogbeide, Ben Duamlong, Lawrence Akpokona, the late Kelechi Emetiole including foreigners such as Kowalick (I hope I got the spelling right),who handled Enugu Rangers, Allan Hawks, whose off-side tactics was a delight to watch as it caught unprepared teams to their consternation. In fact, coaches of the Eastern team (Enugu Rangers, Spartans of Owerri, Vasco Da Gama, Sharks FC, Blue Angels), made the competition among teams keener and exciting.
Enugu Rangers rose from the ashes of the better forgotten Nigeria Civil War to become a symbol of a race. And it typified how they played the matches – as if their lives depended on such a match. Rangers fought their battles to the finish and were the biggest crowd pulling side, who got inspired by supporters One man crowd Ulo enu (aka Up stair). Watching the Eastern teams anywhere in the country was like witnessing an orchestra, the way the supporters blew their trumpets and the melody of their collective activities behind the instruments work everyone up. They sang songs known to everyone – it raised the tempo of the game and they players, were galvanised to only give their best.
Looking at today’s league clubs, what strikes me as the missing jigsaw from the past is that they are no longer the traditional teams- clubs growing their popularity from different parts of the country. Traditional teams such as Stationery Stores of Lagos, Kano Pillars, IICC Shooting Stars of Ibadan, Bendel Insurance FC of Benin City, Racca Rovers of Kano, DIC Bees FC of Kaduna, Plateau United, defunct BCC Lions, Mighty Jets of Jos, Sharks FC of Port Harcourt, Enugu Rangers, Spartans FC of Owerri, Calabar Rovers, New Nigeria Bank FC of Benin, Eselemo Diamonds of Warri, NPA Warri, e.t.c had tremendous followership and their militant fans knew when to vent their spleen on the boys, when they faltered. It was a symbiotic relationship that worked either way, for good and for the horrible.
It was much easier to fill the stands for these clubs with massive followership at home. Some, such as Enugu Rangers, IICC Shooting Stars, Bendel Insurance, had the capacity to fill any stadium when they met. Many have not forgotten how in 1972, Bendel Insurance then known as Vipers and Mighty Jets forced the country’s oldest competition’s final game into a replay, with the disputed game resolved in Ibadan.
In 1977, Rangers and IICC took their rivalry to Kaduna in a continental competition and did association football a big favour with the way their fans filled the stands and rooted for them till the final blast of the whistle. It was the best citation for the country’s game on the continent. It said a lot about the quality of players on both sides, who were members of the country’s senior side, then Green Eagles. Need I waste space to name them?
In fact, politicians such as Jim Nwobodo and Orji Uzor Kalu built their support bases in the Eastern region spending their money and time to support Rangers and Enyimba everywhere they played. Little wonder Nwobodo became Enugu Rangers’ chairman and Kalu, took his passion for soccer to Abia and revolutionized Enyimba FC of Aba to become easily the most successful Nigerian side on the continent. There wasn’t anything extraordinary done by the system beyond the fact that players wanted to play the game. The players of yore’s passion for the game was matchless. The players felt fulfilled playing for the traditional teams. Not so anymore, even though many have ascribed the death of the game now to exodus of players to Europe and the country’s dwindling economy.
Majority of the fans are no longer inspired to part with their hard earned money to watch NPFL matches since the supposed stars don’t stay long enough at their respective club sides before they are exported to some obscure clubs in Europe.
The reality is that fans all over the world are attracted to stars who entertain with their skills and talents on match days and when the stars are whisked away to Europe at the slightest opportunity, the spectators may not have any motivation to go to the stadium and watch league matches.
However, we have players who have stayed loyal to the domestic league such Rabiu Ali, Mfon Udoh among others. Udoh remains the only player to have scored 23 goals in a single season in the NPFL yet resisted the temptation of jumping at ‘slave deals’ in obscure leagues abroad. But it’s not enough to just have them around if they are not going to earn good salaries that will see them take care of their families and not be left broke after retirement.
Not all the players are educated or have a fall back project to rely on after their playing career, so paying them very well is key. Setting up a scholarship scheme and other lollies for their kids will be a massive lure for more young and exciting players to play in the domestic league. It may look difficult to implement but it is achievable.
Our local clubs need to learn how to make these players heroes because they are the centrepiece of their existence. Sell club merchandise with players name on it and create games or programs primarily for the promotion of the club activities and a few players inspired events won’t hurt.
Yeah, you guessed right, I just gave out a few tips on how we can grow our league and the players, not administrators or referees should be the main attraction. Also, schools can be involved in helping to spread the love for our domestic league again. For example, players such as Ali and Udoh that are household names can be used as the face to promote the league. They can visit schools to talk about the essence of being a professional footballer and help inspire kids to visit the stadium with their parents and gain match-day experiences but security at match centres must be fixed.
Each time we prosecute our football matches in the last two decades with mostly the ‘foreign legion’, I wonder if our soccer administrators appreciate the damage they do to the ‘’beautiful’’ game. Our administrators see soccer development from the prism of participating in competitions outside the country. No programmes to catch the talents young, train and retrain the coaches for a workable template. For them, success is wining trophies, even if the players come from the moon. No surprise the dearth of competitions here.
We can’t be talking about growing talents at the nurseries without standardising the academies that abound in the country. The fraud committed by some disgruntled folks in the name of soccer academies can only be curtailed if the NFF through its state affiliates compel all such bodies to register with it. That way, the authorities can identify who the fraudster is if such allegations arise. This collegiate arrangement will eliminate age cheats because a kid discovered in Edo State, for instance as Ikponwonsa Ikponwonsa in 1988 as a 12-year old, cannot be Etim Etim in 2008 claiming to be 16. The details of his data from his first registration in Edo State will give him out even as Etim Etim.
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