By Alexander Johnson Adejoh
With what I have seen so far, sports is as good as dead in South East states. Even at the level of the National Sports Festival, none of the states finishes among the top six on the medals table.
‘It is also unfortunate that even at the National Youth Games, the region struggles to compete with others, which is an indication that a surgical operation needs to be carried out to arrest the slide.
‘To get back to their leading position in sports, the states should emulate Lagos, Delta, Rivers and Edo, that have succeeded in raising the bar in sports development.’
Also speaking on the poor state of sports in the South East, international athletics manager, who also doubles as CEO of Bunubunu Culture and Sports Limited, Izuchukwu Udegbegbunam, said aside from the neglect by the states’ governors, the lack of sponsorship is also a major problem because no proper sports development can take place without sponsorship. Sports development involves a lot of money and the government cannot do it alone.
‘Apart from this, people at the corridors of power in the various South East states do not encourage good ideas or proposals for sports development in the region.
When you bring a proposal, instead of them encouraging you, they will hijack it and at the end of the day, they will not do anything with it… no meaningful sports development can take place under such an unfriendly environment,” he lamented.
Henry Echefu, an Owerri-based sports journalist believes that Imo State has the youth population and many experienced coaches that should keep it at the forefront of Nigerian sports. He regretted, however, that politics has killed the sector, which was once the best in African handball.
‘Over the years, Imo State has produced raw talents that won laurels for the state and country in various championships. Sportsmen like Dan Ngerem, Dan Anyiam, and Dick Tiger Ihetu, the boxing legend, were men that showed great sporting prowess before the creation of the state in 1976.
‘The state even after that period had rising stars in the sports industry like Evans Ikwuegbu, Patrick Ekeji, Emma Osuigwe, Chioma Ajunwa and others that brought honours to her in various sporting championships, both nationally and internationally.
‘The trend continued when Mobi Oparaku, Kanu Nwankwo, Celestine Babayaro, Perpetua Nkwocha, Desire Oparanozie and so many others also showed that Imo had the flair for producing raw talents in sports.
‘The creation of the Trojan Football Club in 1976 was another milestone in the discovery of talents in the state, as the club stood firm and won laurels for the state before it became Spartans, which later changed to Iwuanyanwu Nationale and today is Heartland Football Club.”
Echefu continued: “Serious challenges have hindered the growth and development of the sector in Imo State. These have to do with poor government funding, lack of motivation of the sportsmen and women by government, the appointment of persons without requisite qualification or knowledge in sports management to man the sports ministry and undue interference by politicians in the day-to-day administration of sports in the state among others. All these puts together have seriously affected the growth and development of sports in Imo State.
‘The poor state of facilities and low motivation had forced many Imo athletes and officials to leave for other states, where salaries and allowances are regular and where serious activities are seen in the sports sector.”
A veteran sports analyst in Imo State, Ori Martins, believes that “the first major problem militating against the growth and development of sports in Imo State is the involvement of non-professionals in the management.
‘When these politicians are appointed as commissioners of sports, they do not have any idea on how to better the beat. With their limited ideas, they just feast on Heartland FC. Even at that, they will go to Heartland to wait for the monthly subvention that comes from the Government House. They do not have the potentialities to attract investments to the club.
‘Two, the corruption in the political system has dangerously affected the growth of sports. Take a look at the Dan Anyiam Stadium, everything about the stadium is dilapidated. The basketball, tennis and volleyball courts are gone. The Grasshoppers International Handball Pitch that was one of the best in Africa in the 1980s is today in shambles. If you go to the boxing gym, it is in a deplorable condition reason being that funds made available for sports are usually diverted to private pockets and in the process, sports development suffers.
‘Taken together, the athletes are abandoned. They are not motivated or encouraged to give their best. Rather than train, they go to the streets to struggle for means to keep body and soul together. With this, there is no way sports can thrive because you have administrators, who have no ideas, obsolete facilities and discouraged, as well as crestfallen athletes, who cannot compete favourably with other well-prepared players from other states.’
Many years ago, Enugu State held the light in sporting success, albeit football, with Rangers International FC and Vasco Da Gama FC. But today, Rangers FC is the only club still standing in the state; Vasco has receded in the memories of many football lovers, as other clubs strive to make their mark.
These other clubs, like several individual sportsmen and women, might be swimming against the tide; facilities are not there to help them accomplish their desire.
A legal practitioner and one-time Commissioner for Sports in Enugu State, Ray Nnaji, said the lack of facilities has stunted the growth of sports in the state.
He said: ‘Things are not in place. There are no playing or training pitches, no gymnasium, and other facilities associated with the development of sports. We only have the Nnamdi Azikiwe Stadium as a standard football pitch for track and field events. Footballers and sportsmen lookout for found spaces in the state to train.
‘The University of Nigeria, Enugu Campus (UNEC) stadium has a standard pitch but has no good tracks. The Rangers FC training pitch is good, but it doesn’t have provision for tracks,” he said.
Nnaji emphasised: ‘This scenario sums up the state of sporting facilities in Enugu. When people talk about sports, they are actually talking about football.’
According to him, people hardly talk about athletics, handball, basketball, lawn tennis, boxing, judo or karate in public discussion. It is always football.
The lawyer, who was once a member of the Referees Committee of the Nigeria Football Association (NFA), now Nigeria Football Federation (NFF), said that in Enugu State, the government is more focused on the success of the Rangers FC. ‘And the team has done well under Governor Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi. Under him, the club has broken a 30-year-old jinx by winning the Premier League and the FA Cup,’ said Nnaji, who noted, “that’s all about it. The truth is, Enugu State should be doing better in sports generally, but it is not.
Rangers FC can be better than it is today. It has done well locally but has not fared well on the continent.
‘This is a club that should be rubbing shoulders in terms of continental impact with such famous clubs like Zamalek SC or Al Ahly FC of Egypt. But that’s not so.
Drawing on his tenure as commissioner, he said that two major factors come to play in the development of sports generally in the state.
One factor, Nnaji said, is the disposition of the state governor, and “this is linked to the second issue, which is funding.
‘If a governor loves sports or wants to explore sports for political reasons, he will develop facilities and also invest in sports.’
Outlining further the trajectory of sports development in Enugu, he noted that the development of sports and sporting facilities had always been about football.
‘Today, what we are enjoying in terms of a modern sporting facility is the Nnamdi Azikiwe Stadium. The pitch is football and some field events and the tracks are for track events. But it hasn’t always been that way.
‘The way Vasco Da Gama FC has gone is how other sporting infrastructures have died. The problem is that there are no training pitches,’ he said.
Nnaji pointed out that the conversion of “the polo field to a shopping mall today is another example of how facilities have suffered. The polo field provided enough space for various teams to train at the same time. The previous government changed that for reasons that have nothing to do with sports.
‘A shopping mall on a former sporting facility is a classic example of how attention is paid to sports in the state. In a state struggling to find good pitches for outdoor sporting events, the government did not give a second thought to providing alternative training pitches for teams that saw the polo field as their home ground.’