Except for the exploits of few individual stars at championships, the last eight years were dismal for team sports in Nigeria. The misfortune of missing out in Qatar World Cup was as depressing as the decline of the local football leagues, the basketball implosion, and below-par performance in athletics despite huge potential across the board. GOWON AKPODONOR writes that Nigerian sports can get better through professionalism across the board of sports administration.
Disappointment of Nigeria’s absence at Qatar 2022 FIFA World Cup will linger in the minds of Nigerians far beyond President Muhammadu Buhari’s tenure. Although the green-white-green flag was hoisted among 32 contenders at the 2018 edition of the World Cup in Russia, the failure to make it to Qatar 2022 hurts sport-loving Nigerians the most.
This is because, on paper, Nigeria’s opponent in the last qualifying round, Ghana, was among the weakest of the 10 contenders for Africa’s five slots for the first World Cup to be held in the desert. Qatar 2022 was also the first World Cup to hold off the regular football season. But the World Cup miss mirrors team sports’ dismal outing in the last couple of years.
Shortly after the South Africa 2010 World Cup, where the Super Eagles had a dismal performance, the then President, Goodluck Jonathan, disbanded the team in anger.
To Jonathan, Nigeria is too rich in talents to be bundled out in the first round of a World Cup. He also frowned at the controversies that erupted in Nigeria’s camp in South Africa. Though he later reversed his decision after FIFA’s emergency committee banned Nigerian football teams from all regional, continental, and international matches, Jonathan felt he made his point clear.
The advent of democracy in Nigeria had been touted to bring the much-needed boom to Nigeria’s sports sector, but stakeholders are yet to see the desired change that they so much crave. The last eight years of President Buhari was not any better for sports generally.
A long wait for laurels
Perhaps for the Super Eagles’ triumph at South Africa 2013 African Cup of Nations, and the World Record feat by Tobi Amusan at Oregon 2022 World Athletics, other major achievements witnessed in the history of the sports sector had come before 1999.
Since then, governments have continued to pay lip service to the development of a sector, which has proven to be a source of unity for the country. Sports have repeatedly shown that the country can indeed be united on a common ground.
President Buhari’s sports era began with Solomon Dalung, a minister, who ruled over the nation’s sports like an emperor. Dalung left Nigeria’s sports in 2019 in a more confused state than he met it. And till today, the scars of his terrible reign are still noticeable in some of the sports federations.
After his second-term victory at the 2019 general election, Buhari listened to the voices of Nigerians, who wanted Dalung out. The Plateau State-born politician was left out, and in his place, a journalist, Sunday Dare, was brought in to head the Youth and Sports Development Ministry.
Dare, who hails from Ogbomoso, Oyo State, came with a lot of promises to develop Nigeria’s sports sector from recreation to business, with particular emphasis on revamping the infrastructure. But did he change much?
To many Nigerian sports followers, Dare’s handling of the nation’s sports has been toxic in the last four years. His inability to manage the crisis that engulfed the basketball family cost the national female basketball team, D’Tigress, their spot in the 2022 FIBA World Cup in Australia.
D’Tigress, Africa’s most successful women’s basketball team of the past two decades, had qualified for the World Cup after defeating France and Mali in Group B of the FIBA Women’s Basketball World Cup 2022 Qualifying Tournament in Belgrade, Serbia. But FIBA replaced them with Mali, when Dare engineered a needless two-year suspension of Nigeria from international basketball. He refused to listen to the sterling plea of Nigerians, who wanted the issue resolved amicably. Instead, he towed the path, which many felt were laced with arrogance and ignorance.
The nation’s age grade competitions, which are the pinnacle of Nigeria’s sports, also crumbled one after another.
Before the Buhari’s administration, the national U-17 football team, Golden Eaglets, had won the FIFA U-17 World Cup back to back in 2013 and 2015. But the team struggled in Africa, and failed to qualify for the World Cup.
Also, the national senior women’s football team, Super Falcons, who had won the CAF African Women’s Championship in 2000, 2002, 2004, 2006, 2010, 2014 and 2016, suddenly became a laughing stock, only struggling to make up the numbers in African football. The once celebrated Super Falcons could not make it to the final of this year’s Women’s Africa Cup of Nations, after losing on penalties to a relatively unknown women football playing nation, Morocco, in the semifinal. Shockingly, the Nigerians also lost their third place match to Zambia.
The girls, who abandoned training following protest over non-payment of their allowances and match bonuses, only picked a World Cup ticket to Australia/New Zealand 2023 FIFA World Cup as fourth-placed team.
Nigeria won the Africa Cup of Nations for the third time in 2013 – after a 19-year wait. Though the Super Eagles failed to defend their title at the 2015 edition held in Equatorial Guinea, the team, under the Buhari’s administration did not fare better.
Apart from losing the ticket to Egypt en route Rwanda 2017, the Super Eagles recorded one of their worst performances under Buhari’s regime in Cameroun, where they crashed out of the last Africa Cup of Nations in the round of 16. The best the Super Eagles achieved under Buhari’s administration is a third-place finish at Egypt 2019 AFCON.
The Sport Minister would be remembered for meddling in the affairs of the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF), particularly, on the appointment and disengagement of coaches.
For years, Nigerians will not forget the confusion that led to the sack of Gernot Rohr, and the subsequent appointment of Austin Eguavoen. It was a sad development that cost Nigeria a 2021 AFCON medal, and a World Cup ticket.
Domestic football also sunk to its lowest level during the period, while Nigerian clubs performed poorly in CAF inter-club competitions.
In basketball, the national men’s team, D’Tigers, who won the Afrobasket for the first time in 2015, and also booked a spot at Rio 2016 Olympics, missed out on qualification for the 2023 FIBA World Cup, after losing to Angola.
Beach soccer was completely dead under the Buhari’s administration. Nigeria’s Supersand Eagles, as the team is called, was not in action when the qualifying race for the 2021 Beach Soccer Africa Cup of Nations took place in Senegal. The NFF refused to register the Supersand Eagles for the event before the closure of CAF registration deadline in January 2021.
The NFF had disbanded the Beach soccer team in 2019 owing to the team’s poor outing at the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup in Paraguay. But many Nigerians feel the sports minister could have wielded his influence and resolved it.
Grassroots sports also went underground under the Buhari’s administration. Some say it was completely dead. What happened to the Principals’ Cup, a football competition for secondary schools? A few years back, the Principals’ Cup was still active in Lagos with the support of GTBank. But it has gone under.
Perhaps, the only surviving grassroots-oriented sports programme in Nigeria today is the National Youth Games, which was held for six years in Ilorin, Kwara State. The last edition took place in 2021, and till today, Kano State, which got the hosting right for the 2022 edition, is yet to fulfill its promise. Last week, Delta State signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the sports ministry to host the NYG for the next four years.
Shame from Tokyo Olympics
Team Nigeria’s participation at the Tokyo Olympics was engulfed in scandals. First was the disqualification of 10 Nigerian athletes from the Games. In all, a total of 18 athletes were declared ineligible at the Games, and 10 of them were Nigerians.
The Athletics Integrity Unit (AIU), an independent body created by World Athletics that manages all integrity issues – doping and non-doping – revealed that the affected athletes failed Rule 15.
The key requirement in Rule 15 is that an athlete from a ‘Category A’ country must undergo at least three no-notice out-of-competition tests (urine and blood) conducted not less than three weeks apart in the 10 months leading up to a major event.
The Athletics Federation of Nigeria was culpable because they failed to guide the athletes. The affected athletes staged a protest on the streets of Tokyo, painting Nigeria’s image bad.
Perhaps, the biggest shame from Tokyo was the dismissal of Nigeria’s star athlete, Blessing Okagbare, on the eve of the 100m semifinals.
Okagbare, a medalist at the Beijing 2008 Olympics, was sent home from Tokyo for testing positive for human growth hormone at an out-of-competition drug test. World Athletics later handed her a lengthy ban of 11years.
Another major embarrassing moment from the Tokyo Olympics Games under the nose of Sunday Dare was the kits crisis, in which, one of Nigeria’s star athletes, Shot Putter, Chukwuebuka Enekwechi, shared a video of himself washing his competition jersey for his next outing. He made the final in the Shot Put event.
Not all sad stories, though
His long list of misfits notwithstanding, Dare would be remembered as a minister, who demonstrated so much passion for Nigerian sports. To some sports followers, Nigerian athletes enjoyed an improved welfare package put in place by Dare, especially the elite athletes.
Through his adopt-an-athlete initiative, Dare was able to raise huge amounts of money for athletes in the build up to the Tokyo Olympic Games. Till today, Dare takes special pride in the strides attained by the likes of Tobi Amusan, Ese Brume and Blessing Oborodudu.
Through his adopt-a-pitch policy, the Moshood Abiola National stadium, Abuja, and the National Stadium, Lagos, went through various levels of renovation. While Alhaji Aliko Dangote did the work in Abuja, Chief Kessington Adebutu adopted the National Stadium in Surulere, Lagos.
However, despite the beautiful appearance of the MKO Abiola Stadium, the arena’s pitch is in a very bad shape. The Super Eagles raised the alarm after losing to Guinea Bissau in their last AFCON qualifier that more work needed to be done on the pitch.
The story of National Stadium, Lagos, is a different sob story. Apart from the mainbowl, which is still undergoing renovation, other facilities, like the indoor sports hall, hockey pitch, boxing, squash and tennis lawns are dilapidated and abandoned.
The Liberty Stadium, Ibadan and the Nnamdi Azikiwe Stadium, Enugu, are also undergoing renovation.
The Tokyo Olympic Games was Nigeria’s best performance in 13 years. Team Nigeria did not win anything at London 2012, and only managed to win a bronze medal at Rio 2016 Games held in Brazil, placing 78th on the overall medals table.
But at the delayed 2020 Tokyo Olympics, Blessing Oborududu gave the country her first medal (silver) in women’s wrestling freestyle 68kg, while Ese Brume grabbed a bronze in the long jump event. Overall, Team Nigeria placed 74th position, and eighth best among the 54 African nations at the Games.
One of the major issues that dragged Nigeria’s name into the mud during the tenure of former Sports Minister, Solomon Dalung, was IAAF missing $150,000.
IAAF, now World Athletics, mistakenly paid $150,000 to the AFN as its 2017 grant; instead of the $15,000 it usually gave the Nigerian body as a yearly grant.
Sadly, the money disappeared without a trace. It got to a point that the House of Representatives had to summon Dalung over the alleged ‘disappearance’ of the $150,000 grant.
The summons by the lawmakers notwithstanding, Dalung, top officials of the then AFN board-led by Ibrahim Gusau, and the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), could not refund the money.
To avoid embarrassment from World Athletics, Dare paid the money to the relief of Nigerian athletics.
Birmingham, Nairobi, Ndola feats
Team Nigeria recorded one of their best performances at the 2022 Commonwealth Games held in Birmingham, England. It was the high point of Dare’s tenure as Sports Minister.
At the end of the Games in Birmingham, Nigeria captured 35 medals made up of 12 gold, nine silver and 14 bronze medals.
Under Dare, Nigerian athletes went to Nairobi, Kenya and finished third on the overall medals table at the 2021 World Athletics U-20 Championships. It was the best ever achievement by Nigeria in the history of the championship.
Nigerian athletes amassed seven medals, made up of four gold and three bronze, to rank behind hosts Kenya, and Finland at the end of the competition.
Team Nigeria’s participation at the 2023 African U-18 and U-20 Athletics Championships in Ndola, Zambia, was another great record during Dare’s tenure.
The Athletics Federation of Nigeria (AFN), led by Tonobok Okowa, took a small contingent of 41 athletes to Ndola, and finished second on the final medals table behind South Africa, Nigeria had 17 gold, 10 silver and nine bronze medals. The South Africans paraded a large squad of 120 people, including 105 athletes at the battle of Ndola.
Last week, Dare took a self-appraisal of his administration in the last four years and said: “I came into office to shake the table, put in place the necessary things that have taken us to a new height in the journey so far.”
Dare said he did his best for the nation’s sports, and that he remains a member of the sports family. “When I leave, nobody will say sports is a child’s play. Rather, sports in Nigeria will from now be seen as big business.”
He continues: “One of the high points of my tenure was the reclassification of sports as business and the entrenchment of the National Sports Industry Policy, which of course, is a major achievement.”
Dare also listed other ‘transformative’ policies like the ‘Adopt-an -Athlete and Adopt -a-Pitch’ policy as some of his achievements.
The shortfalls noticed in the sports section in the last four years, notwithstanding, President Buhari lauded Dare recently for the medal-winning efforts of several Nigerian athletes.
Buhari made the declaration after Dare received a ‘Special Recognition Award for Contributions to Sports Development in Nigeria and the African Region’ from President Mohammed Solih of Maldives.
Speaking after receiving the trophy from the minister, Buhari thanked him for the honour to the country.
Meanwhile, former Green Eagles winger, Adegoke Adelabu, has advised in-coming President, Ahmed Bola Tinubu, to learn from Buhari’s ‘mistakes’ in the area of sports.
Adelabu, a sports scientist, said that the Federal Government is yet to understand the power of sports, hence, the levity with which it treats the sector.
The former IICC Shooting Stars of Ibadan winger said: “Sports can play a huge role in human capital development, crime control, and positive emotional atmosphere around the country and homes.
“The Super Eagles’ failure to qualify for Qatar 2022 FIFA World Cup is a simple manifestation of the depth of destruction or damage that has been done to the nation’s sports. We don’t have a process by which we can evaluate where things went wrong.
“Majority of our sports administrators are not even qualified and they are not accountable to anyone. It is absolute nonsense for us not to qualify for the World Cup in Qatar. There are solutions to these issues, if the Federal Government is interested.”
The former manager of EKO United FC added: “I have said several times that we need to develop our sports intelligence capability among the coaches and players. Our players use more strength than common sense. Majority of them are managed and sold into slavery in the name of playing football abroad by people that cannot even manage their own life as football agents. We have to put a stop to all these illegal football agents across the country.”
Adelabu urged Tinubu to appoint a professional to head the sports ministry and also take a deeper look at the deterioration in the nation’s sports development philosophy.
“There is an urgent need by Mr. President to take a deeper look at the deterioration in our sports development philosophy. The youths are participating in crimes like sports, because we only focus on preparing our athletes for participation in competitions rather than developing our sport as an industry. It is an abuse of professional ethics to allow a non-professional individual to head our sporting organisation. How can such a person provide direction for our growth?
“Also, it has been observed that nobody is accountable for anything. That is ridiculous for a nation like Nigeria. The nation needs to do something about the welfare of our athletes if we expect Nigerians across the world to come and represent the country with the assurance that they will not be abandoned later in the time of troubles.”
He laments the porosity of scientific data on Nigeria’s athletes because of lack of research. “We need to engage in comprehensive research from the primary to the tertiary levels for future development. People, who only use them to make money at the club levels, do not professionally manage our players. There should be thorough investigation into the way we manage sports in the country. There is no reason players should not be paid salaries for months.
“We need to do something about our facilities and create jobs for the youths. There are sufficient opportunities in sports to address various atrocities committed by the youths. The issue of hooliganism in sports should be tackled with all seriousness,” Adelabu stated.
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