By Jude Atupulazi
Once upon a long time, Anambra State was the home of great sports men and women. From track and field to wrestling and then to football, the state produced national champions. Many believed it was down to a well-articulated sports development programme based on grassroots sports development. With such competitions as School Sports and Academicals, the state had a steady pool of sporting talents to choose from whenever the state needed to. The clubs then also benefited from such facility as they constantly mopped up players from such competitions.
The clubs included the almighty Rangers International and Vasco Da Gama, both of Enugu. Between these two clubs emerged players like Christian Chukwu, Emma Okala, Sylvanus Okpala, Sabinus Nweje, Kenneth Boardman, Joseph Oha, Christian Nwokocha, among others.
In athletics the state had the likes of Innocent Egbunike, Mary Onyali, and Beatrice Utondu, among others; while in wrestling, the state had the world champion, Power Mike; and later Ben Lion Heart. In boxing was Ngozika Ekwelum.
Much later, under the New Anambra State, the state had three top teams in the nation’s elite division of the national league. They were Udoji United, Jasper United and Gabros International, with Udoji and Jasper once coming first and second in the late 90s. Today, however, Anambra neither has a single team in the top league, nor any reputable athlete and from her top position, she has come crashing down.
But recently there appears to be a light at the end of the tunnel as far as grassroots sports development is concerned. On June 1, this year, the state witnessed the finals of the U-13 and U-17 Championships.
For the under 13, Central School, Ekwulobia, played Eri Primary School, Aguleri. Central School won and went home with a princely sum of N500, 000; while for Under 17 category, Community Secondary School, Uga, beat Metropolitan College, Onitsha to bag the sum of one million Naira.
According to the Chairman of Anambra Sports Development Commission, Mr Tony Oli, the successful organization of the championships marked the return of Academicals in the state.
His words, ‘First of June is like a watershed in the history of Anambra State. When we were growing up, we heard of Academicals, but we ended up not hearing that again. But in the past 14, 20 years, those things have not happened again. So, 1st of June, we held the finals of Under 13 and 17 of the academicals. Anambrarians came out to witness soccer made in Anambra State, and it was a memorable day which we believe, marked the return of Academicals in the state.’
He said the reason for the latest effort was to engage the state’s youth and make sure that talented ones among them gained a platform that would be created for them to aid them in their chosen career path.
The championships were a culmination of an extensive programme that involved virtually all the strata of Anambra society. They fell into what was described as Anambra Football Season, with the Police, Army, Road Safety and Civil Defence, all participating.
The Football Season, which will now be an annual event, will run from November to May every year.
‘And even with that we have six cups. One, the Security Challenge Cup, which the police won; the King’s Cup for the 187 communities in Anambra State; Under-13, Under-17 for primary and secondary schools; Uni-Soccer for universities, Traders Cup for traders,’ Oli explained.
He said his Commission was looking beyond that at other games and other areas, disclosing that after discussing with the Governor, they plan to organize Anambra State Sports Festival in November as preparation for Edo 2020 coming up in the first quarter of next year.
‘Edo State is preparing and we don’t want to be left behind, we want to improve on the record of 2018,’ he said, further disclosing the state was preparing for the National Youth Games coming up in Ilorin this September.
‘We are trying to approach some sports stakeholders to see how we can develop sports facilities across the state. We started looking at individuals we can approach to help with some facilities, for example a Basketball Court and Volleyball in a community school, so that we can begin to develop talents along that line,’ Oli said.
There is no doubt that sports under his watch in the state is finally stirring, giving hope that with sustained momentum, the state may return to her past glory. But how do stakeholders in the sports industry see recent developments in sports in the state?
Emeka Okeke, sports presenter and football pundit, described what is happening in the state presently as a good omen for sports development, but with room for much improvement.
‘It’s a good one. The U-13 and U-17 Academical Football Championship sponsored by the Anambra State Government, is a right step in the right direction. But the question is sustainability.
‘Truly, I don’t think that sports has taken its position in the state But with the just concluded Academicals, sports could be rejuvenated, but only when necessary attention is given, financially and otherwise.’
According to him, sports is something that could bring instant wealth to those involved if the athletes were provided with necessary facilities to train. He gave some of such facilities as stadium, gyms, and raising a football team for the state.
‘Also, the welfare of our athletes should be looked into, to stop them from defecting to other states, instead of representing Anambra, their own state. They should be paid very well and employment opportunities should be created for them equally,’ he suggested, even as he commended Governor Willie Obiano for ‘trying to rewrite the wrongs in sports development via the Chairman of the Anambra State Sports development Commission, Mr Oli.
But Ikem Asika, Assistant Secretary, SWAN Anambra State chapter, as well as sports presenter at Ogene FM, does not share in Okeke’s optimism.
To Asika, what is being witnessed now is just football and not sports. He believed that a situation where only football programmes were concentrated upon could not and never be said to be sports development.
‘Let’s call a spade a spade, and not a shovel or digger. Look at the venue where the U-13 and U-17 played the finals. Is it what it’s supposed to be? Where are the facilities or do they want to do it in air or what? If there is any atom of sincerity in reviving sports in Anambra State, they should start from the provision of sporting facilities.
‘Anambra should start getting her priorities right by taking a holistic look at her potentials in other sporting activities apart from football. Why can’t there be a swimming competition for U-13 and U-17, or a hockey, volley ball, tennis, cricket, basketball, golf, wrestling, boxing competitions?’ he queried.
Asika opined that the earlier those concerned sat down and drew a roadmap on the right way to revitalize sports, the state would remain in her present level for the next five or six years.
He challenged those at the helm of affairs to shun bias and involve seasoned sports administrators cum managers, whom, he said, abound in the state, and utilize them optimally.
‘More so, those concerned should emulate other states like Bayelsa that will play host to a wrestling competition which will serve as both the world championship and Olympic qualifiers. From feelers, the Anambra State team will not participate because there is no money. The government should stop paying lip service to sports development,’ Asika contended.
For Patrick Chimezie, sports journalist and enthusiast, though one could say that there was a renewed enthusiasm in sports in Anambra, some of the fears may not have not been allayed.
‘This includes the sustainability of the growth path after the reign of the individuals involved due to the absence of structure or institutional framework because, as it were, the whole thing is built around individuals.
‘Also the dearth of Sports facilities still bedevil the state and there seem not to be viable attempts at adding bricks to the moribund stadia which can best be described as playgrounds that dot the state,’ he observed.
He therefore urged the Anambra Sports Development Commission to rise beyond what he termed uncompetitive monthly 10 klm walk; which, he said, should ordinarily be a project of the Ministry of Health, and football competitions, to the evolution of a holistic template for simultaneous and equitable development of all sports.
‘The commission should seek positive and active engagement of the Sports Association in order to get the best out of athletes and coaches and also ensure the growth of the sports sector,’ Chimezie said.
But Prince Kelvin, sports analyst with the Anambra Broadcasting Service, Awka, believes it will be a bit harsh to criticize the ongoing efforts at reviving sports in the state.
He condemned what he described as the syndrome of criticizing what was thought impossible to achieve. He said the just concluded Academicals Championships were near to