Last Sunday, October 2, Rangers International Football Club of Enugu emerged champions of the Nigerian Professional Football League, NPFL. They achieved this feat by amassing a total of 63 points to beat their nearest rivals, Rivers United of Bayelsa, who had 60 points. The victory of Rangers came after a 32-year wait.
But beyond that victory and the wild celebrations it sparked among Rangers fans, is the significant re-emergence of large turn out of fans to the stadium, especially at Nnamdi Azikiwe Stadium, Enugu. In that final match, the about 45, 000 seater stadium was filled to the rafters by enthusiastic soccer fans, giving glamour and life to the game.
It was not just because it was the final match though. Long before then, Enugu fans had been known to turn up in their thousands to cheer Rangers. Such had also been the case in some stadiums across the country. Such places include Aba, Kano, Nnewi and Uyo.
There is no denying the fact that part of the beauty of the round leather game, as football is also called, is spectatorship. Matches played in empty stadiums offer little or no appeal unlike those played before capacity crowds. Capacity crowds also offer good viewing on the television.
This was what football lovers came to see in some stadiums across the country after years of poor attendance by fans. Indeed, in the season before the recently ended one, Nnamdi Azikiwe Stadium was known for the sparse crowds that attended Rangers matches. The only places where stadiums were filled then were Kano and Aba. It was only when the national senior men's team played that the stands were filled. It was as if Nigeria's football had really plummeted to the depths of disinterest.
It was a far cry from what obtained in the far past when stadiums across the country were filled to capacity. But gradually the crowds disappeared until empty stadiums became the order of the day.
Many factors were attributed to the drop in attendance. Chief among them was the influx of international football. These days, many fans will rather watch Chelsea or Manchester United play than watch any local side in Nigeria, even if the gates are thrown open. Indeed the English Premier League and those of other European countries have taken the shine off our own league.
It was also believed that poor infrastructure and poor player quality affected the Nigerian League. Many teams in the country cannot even now boast of quality playing pitches, not to talk about having their own stadiums. This is unlike the scenario abroad where even the smallest clubs have their own stadiums.
The poor state of our pitches meant that the football became commensurately poor, with the teams churning out bad displays. The poor remuneration of players also meant that our best legs continued to leave the country for greener pasture, thus further depleting quality and spectatorship.
However, slowly things began to look up as some state governments (many teams in Nigeria are state owned) began to throw in more funds into their teams. An example was the Abia State Government under Orji Uzo Kalu. He massively supported Enyimba to the extent that they became the first Nigerian club to not only win the elusive African Champions League, but to win it back to back. This revived interest in the game in that state, a development that has persisted to this day.
Encouraged by this, individuals like Ifeanyi Ubah also came into the industry and are today doing well, with Ubah's club coming fourth. Ubah is also building a stadium for his club, a feat that will probably make his club the first in the country to play in their own stadium. Is it any wonder then that his well-motivated team has been able to command large spectatorship in their home games in Nnewi? It is now a common feature to see families trooping to watch matches in Nnewi and Enugu as part of their relaxation. Added to this is the cable TV coverage which has further ignited interest in the game.
We therefore urge governments, individuals and corporate bodies to invest in the game of football, as sports, especially football, has proved a major unifying factor in the country.
More standard stadiums should be built to further boost the game. Sports is first, supposed to offer entertainment and providing the enabling infrastructure will go a long way in engendering that.
It is saddening that standard sports facilities are lacking in Anambra. Apart from Chuba Ikpeazu Stadium in Onitsha, no other standard facility abounds. This is no doubt affecting the growth of sports in the state. With such standard facilities, interest will soar and talents will be developed, moulded and exported, all to the glory of those concerned and the state.