This has been an interesting month in Nigeria sports. The Nigeria Professional Football League, at last, got a new broadcast partner after two years of winking in the dark following the withdrawal of Supersport, the Super Eagles started strong in the 2021 AFCON qualifiers, bearing in mind that they only returned to the competition in 2019 after successive absence in the 2015 and 2017 editions, and D’Tigress are pushing good on their Olympic qualification campaign.
Bad news was that the Golden Eaglets, playing with more grit than tactics, got punished and bundled out so early in the the 2019 FIFA U17 World Cup, the men and women national football teams failed to qualify for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, after the home based Eagles had also failed to qualify for CHAN, and the Nigeria Television Authority proved, with both poor visuals and commentaries in the broadcast of the Nigeria and Benin Republic match, that our broadcast sector lacks capacity in equipment, finance and personnel, to support our sports.
For a Sports Minister who takes his mandate seriously, at least by his tweets and recent developments, Sunday Dare’s declaration that “it is time to find out where the rain began to beat us…to review, restrategize and develop a long term plan for football development” to “return to the basics of grassroots, pristine sports administration, sound technical coaching” for which “Government will be bold in embracing best practices in modern football” in a “new outlook which will involve critical stakeholders”, is reassuring.
For effect, he hinted on a “newly conceived Talent Hunt Program designed to provide facility, educational and training support for budding talents in five sports through a PPP model” and, last Monday, he queried the board of the Nigeria Football Federation to “provide the federal government with written explanation” for the failure of our teams in four major tournaments.
The release from the office of the Minister revealed that he further demanded the nominal roll of the NFF on the allegation that “the federation has continued to pay some people with expired contracts” and that he also has his eyes on the domestic league.
“From stock taking, it is now time to render account to Nigerians. We need to take very difficult decisions. We need to run a reality check” and “we must start with the football administration,” he stressed.
So, the Sheriff is back on the NFF just when it got acquitted of the SPIP prosecution. One might wonder at the focus on only football, especially as, win or lose, the U17 team is just developmental and seeing that, even as we have won the tournament for the highest number of times, players of countries we defeated have gone on to attain greater heights in world football. It is also as the U23 team is just a transitional formation into the men’s senior team which, as the flagship team of every nation, is fast improving in quality. Even so as it cannot be argued that Coach Manu Garba, a veteran of the U17, or Imama Amapakabo who led Rangers to a historic league victory and has been assistant coach of the Super Eagles with both World, Nations Cup and CAF club competition experiences, were bad picks. The NFF may also have done all it was supposed to do with no hint of denial of any sort against any of the teams. Still, we couldn’t be competing to lose. That is why the Honorable Minister is, indeed, on a good cause.
However, in pursuing the reforms, we must understand that football does not thrive in isolation but with the active involvement of various other sectors whose roles we need to honestly situate.
For instance, while the LMC has faced criticisms for the lull in the league in the past two years, we all agree that television broadcast provides the major revenue, and we saw that when Supersport withdrew, the indigenous Nigerian broadcasters couldn’t buy in. Even when the LMC bent back to fund the NTA to produce and broadcast, we all knew it was an aberration that negated the business. In basketball, it was Kwese, another South African company, that filled the gap before also leaving.
To put it in perspective, sports draws momentum from brand and corporate sponsorships, the sponsors invest in consideration of the mass following of sports to achieve marketing communications, the mass following derives from the media exposure, visibility and appeal of sports, and the people can only follow when they see, hear and feel it.
The absence of television and radio hampers such mobilization of a national movement which creates the emotive eyeballs around sports. This explains the lack of appeal to brand and corporate sponsors which also is a disincentive to private investors as they hardly see the prospects of recoup and return on investments.
With investment in our sports being mostly a matter of social responsibility, we have seen the divestment and collapse of hitherto leading private and corporate owned clubs. Majority of our league clubs are now run by state governments who are lethargic in making investments in facilities, technologies, management, coaches’ education, athletes high performance, players’ welfare and, most critical, fans experience. Add to these, issues with our transportation and aviation system which consigns clubs to long road trips to honour matches and the toll it takes on players’ performance. All that come together to stunt growth.
On the other hand, the foreign leagues have continued to elevate their holding through strong television and media offerings which helps them attract and colonise our fans as their market, to reap from our domestic consumption of foreign sports contents and merchandises as well as the investment of Nigerian companies in their platforms to connect with our fans. The harvest from these they reinvest for steady improvement of their facilities, players, broadcast and contents to continue to retain our market.
Unfortunately, our government does not seem to be seeing the huge global economy – the huge revenues, incomes, employment, enterprise and foreign and domestic investments that sports generates – to consider recharging and activating the complementary sectors towards industrializing the league, nay our sports, into a contributor to the national GDP, as a matter of nation building. Or can we insist that the NFF or LMC should establish their own television and radio stations, raise funds to upgrade the stadiums and market the various club communities to achieve this while every other stakeholder standby with clenched fists?
These variables apply to all aspects and categories of our sports. We can pick and choose on which to wield sticks, depending on originating interests, but we know that the failures are resultant from poor national policy and foundation of our sports.
The London 2012 Olympics in which we fired blank in all sports was a watershed. We returned with same zeros from the succeeding Rio 2016 Olympics, except for the football bronze, despite the much bashing of the NFF by the then Sports Minister. It is even doubtful if the ministry fully paid up its obligation on the management of that team. Soon we will head into the 2020 Olympics, but only with the solace that the Paralympians will return with medals. Yet, how well do we even invest in them?
In athletics, we have bandied Blessing Okagbare beyond her years until we can see now that she is withdrawing from some of the races in major competitions. At the last World Athletics Championships, we had only Ese Brume’s bronze in long jump to celebrate. Gone are the relay quartets.
In table tennis the only song has been Aruna Quadri while we had to call back the likes of Segun Toriola and Funke Oshonaike to the last Africa Games because, even in the twilight of their careers, we still have not raised new players to retire them. It is needless to talk about sports like tennis, swimming, even boxing that used to be our thing.
A national U17 team should derive from school sports but how well are we running it? We talk with nolstagia about the Principals Cup and the Academicals which provided us a national dragnet for talent discovery but where is it now when we run schools without sports facilities, with the inter-house sports now just a mockery of its purpose and with no robust inter-schools competitions, from local to states to national levels?
Why is it that only a few states like Delta, Lagos and Edo account for the bulk of our national athletes, signaling low competition in the system? What has happened to the regional and national athletics meets like the AAA and Track and Field Championships which were the flagships of our national talent hunt, nurturing, test, evaluation and even promotion? What structures are there for the training and upgrade of coaches across all sports? What has happened to the tribe of games masters in our primary and secondary schools who lay the first foundations for sports?
What is the mandate, programmes and investment of the ministry of education on sports and what has been its delivery? What is the synergy between the education and the sports ministries in this concern? What about the university and collegiate sports system which seem only existent in shadows? What about the ministry of health which should lead in using sports to drive public health?
Officials of the sports ministry always say it is the duty of the local and states sports councils to raise and build athletes and not the national. It might just be the same for NFF, notwithstanding that it has established a futures programme from the Under 13s. But how deep and far reaching can it act alone?
How can the federations build world champions from communities and schools that do not have facilities and equipment to provide grassroots access and engage young citizens, from infancy, in sports? First for the fun, then for their physical and mental development and then for the discovery and nurturing of talents? How can we expect to harness the best from our population with such dearth?
If funds is the problem, what are we doing with the revenue from sports lottery which should first serve sports before other causes? How can we expect the brands and corporates to invest in sports beyond CSR without building the environment that would guarantee them returns on investment?
How can we reverse these worrisome patterns without rejigging our sports policy to address the obvious deficits in tune with the times? Shouldn’t the federal government, for instance, be asking the state governors why, indeed, they are running professional football clubs so differently from how it obtains in other economies, to support the agenda and build a national consensus toward purpose driven sports sector?
To cut corners, understandably, for the coaches who suffer the constrains, we have witnessed the trend of scouting for talents from the Diaspora into our national teams. Not that they are not qualified as fellow citizens but it is an admission that our foundation at home is weak not ineffective for the production of globally competitive athletes. Let’s call a spade a spade.
Suffice to say that the rain is not falling on just one roof. We must be prepared to launch into the deep to rebuild our sports architecture beyond erratic shots at selected institutions, the tones of which, sometimes, we recognise familiarly as triggered by less than national interest by those who have the ears of power. This is why I am praying that Sunny dares rightly, and in utmost good faith, in his promise of a jihad.