Letter to the editor On the continuing Sports’ City scandal

The front page lead of the second edition of “Surulere Now” titled “Sports’ City: What next?” evoked nostalgic sentiments of my affinity with the edifice – our own National Stadium in Surulere. In fact, Surulere LGA was thereafter nicknamed “Sportscity”, what with the old UAC grounds (the venue of many a memorable “Principal Cup” final matches amongst Lagos secondary schools) now Teslim Balogun Stadium residing adjacent, as well as the “Balin” grounds behind the National Stadium that was the home pitch of the famous “Seven Planners” of the mid-seventies (our version of five-a-side soccer that had six players and one goal keeper).

I must also mention that the piece made me think of my one-time ambition of playing football in that stadium at the highest level because I believed then – and still do now – that I would have been one of the greatest athletes (football and the sprints) of my generation. It is also instructive that I am writing this piece on 12 August 2015, being the twenty-sixth anniversary of the demise of Samuel Okwaraji (whose only honour, despite his sacrifices, is the unkempt Bust sitting affront the edifice) and my maternal grandmother, Grace Nwakaego Orakpor, who used to tell me that her wish was for me to become a “nuku officer na por tie” – a senior government officer that wears a tie. (The news of her death at nearby LUTH was broken to us at the tail-end of that memorable match I uncharacteristically – I was a stadium rat- watched at home on TV.)

2ndedition.My first feel of the then 55,000 capacity National Stadium was in December, 1972 at the very first match played there with Yakubu Mambo, the stocky striker who scored the first-ever goal in a 3-0 pounding of Mali. My senior sister, Olabisi, took me to the game to commemorate the opening. Thereafter, it was the main venue of the 1973 All-Africa Games, with its shimmering Olympic-size swimming pool, as well as the venue of the 1980 Africa Cup of Nations final match with Nigeria trouncing Algeria 3-0, a match in which the great Algerian diminutive left-back, Mustapha Kouchi, who had been a “terror” throughout the tournament, was demystified by the late Muda Lawal, mathematical Segun Odegbami, and Felix Owolabi for Nigeria to lift the cup for the very first time. (In saner climes, the fact that that pitch was where Nigeria won her first major continental soccer laurel would be enough to enshrine it – but alas!)

Another memorable stint was in 1980, when I was appointed Passages (now Protocol) Officer, albeit with a stroke of goodwill with the National Sports Commission shortly after the Moscow Olympics and the attendant sex scandal that bedevilled the Nigeria contingent led by the eminent Isaac Kiore. This was on the verge of the last of the glorious era in Nigeria when, after secondary school, one could merely pen an application for a job and be invited for an interview. This appointment, though short (because of youthful exuberance, I just quit the job despite pleas from my bosses, notably my Sectional Head, the amiable and merry Bode Itiola – with his ever-dangling cigarette and inside-the-drawer whiskey bottle –  wonder where he is now – that an exciting future awaited me), enabled me to visit the various embassies and hotels, as well as meetings with many broadcasters, star coaches and athletes such as late Ernest Okonkwo, the ever-smiling Father Tiko, Mr. Omagbemi, Dr Awoture Eleyae (Sec. Gen. of the Supreme Council for Sports in Africa and father of my classmate and former Igbobi College Junior 100m champion, Oke), late imposing star athlete and Africa 400 metres champion, Dele Udoh (who was shot by a policeman at Ojuelegba while on holiday in Nigeria in 1981 – another case of extra-judicial murder). As a staff of the Sports Commission at that time, we were posted to man the various turnstiles during events in the “main bowl” – as we fondly called the main pitch. These were normally exciting times for me given my extrovert nature.

My first feel of the then 55,000 capacity National Stadium was in December, 1972 at the very first match played there with Yakubu Mambo, the stocky striker who scored the
first-ever goal in a 3-0 pounding of Mali.

The stadium was renovated in 1999 and expanded to seat 85,000 at the last count. The last goal I saw there was a spectacular Austin Okocha free kick.
I daresay the decay at the National Stadium started when the Abuja stadium was built, and the fact that the NFA (as it was then known) and the national soccer team handlers had a mortal fear of the “Lagos crowd”, who would not hesitate to boo the team if it failed to live to what I coin the “Nigerian dream”, given the fact that soccer is our only binding/bounding factor, and also given our potential to achieve anything on earth with imminent attendant failure! To me, it is a national disgrace that the current Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) – as others before it – has decided to play crucial matches at several stadia owned or supported by state governments across the nation (not a bad idea once in a while) in a cap-in-hand attitude, totally neglecting the main bowl, which I still regard as the natural home of our soccer team. For instance, the Ghanaians will never take you to the capital Accra for crucial matches: Guess where? Kumasi of course! I will advise the NFF – and the current coach, Sunday Oliseh – to play their subsequent matches at the “Main Bowl”, for two reasons: to test the true strength and character of the Super Eagles; and to use soccer as an instrument to resuscitate the decaying edifice. Kudos goes to other sports like basketball, boxing and judo which have continued to utilize the indoor sports hall – except that much cannot be said for the provision of adequate security around the stadium, with rampant cases of snatching of valuables after events.

In the matter of managing the place by concessioning or whatever name, the use of the place for sporting activities should be paramount and, as suggested, the process should be open to competitive bidding!
Another unforgettable era at the National Stadium, for me, was my “chill-out” period between 1992 and 1997. I used this period to engage in keep-fit sports, especially five-a-side soccer and jogging every weekend, either on the practice pitch or the various marked-out car park spaces around the main bowl. I remember friends like Shehu Momodu (Lord Shehu), Jubril Alakija, some guys nicknamed “Yekini” and “Yamaha”, among many others.

Most significant was the theft of my motorcycle on Sunday, 18 July 1993. I had purchased a motorcycle from the popular Oyingbo market, which coincided with the advent of “Okada” after the Benin-based businessman Gabriel Igbinedion’s popular airline. I met this diminutive guy of Igbo extraction (I can’t remember his name) who we played football with. We struck a deal for him to deliver ₦120 every Sunday, which lasted all of seven weeks. This was at the height of the agitation for the restoration of MKO Abiola’s June 12 mandate and with it the impending exodus of the Igbo to their homeland in anticipation of a crisss. The guy took away my bike, which was then my only means of survival.

This period was incidentally the final days of fans thronging the revered Onikan Stadium, the home ground of Lagos Division One’s League Clubs such as “Darling Team”, the “Adebajo babes” (aka Flaming Flamingos), Stationery Stores, and Julius Berger (the Bridge Boys). This was due to the growing popularity of the English Premier League, as well as the corruption, greed, ineptitude and rudderless leadership of the NFA. During our football followership, we watched soccer at all divisions, spending every evening at Onikan Stadium following the careers of players like the Surulere-bred quartet of Rasheed Olugbode (Oloye), Nduka Ugbade (captain of the victorious under-15 World Cup squad), Tajudeen Ajide (immediate past Surulere LGA chairman), rugged defender Ebitimi Collins (Barbwire) of Stationery Stores and later Ranger of Enugu(now assist coach of Stationery Stores, alongside Taribo West, Ike Shorunmu, kanu Nwankwo of Iwuayanwu Nationale, Friday Ekpo of Abiola Babes, the immensely talented Julius Berger duo of Monday Agbotean and Baldwin Bazuaye (a player I strongly believed should have automatically stepped into the shoes of Adokie Amaesiamaka and Emmanuel Amunike on the left-hand side of the Super Eagles potent attack, and voted the  best at the 1994 World Cup by soccer fans) amongst the numerous soccer stars that abound in Nigeria. We had our seats at Home Team Supporters wing directly behind the goal post at State House end, which we tagged “Fire 2” for obvious reasons. This stand was replicated at the National Stadium Main Bowl right under the Games Torch. These points in both stadia were duly recognized by discerning teams. It is a sin and a crime that Lagos does not have a team in the elite division of our league – this may help in the resuscitation the main bowl.

Penning this piece makes me recall the June 12 debacle and its debilitating effect on our soccer at both local and international levels, what with the incarceration and eventual demise of the one and only true Pillar of Sports in Nigeria and Africa – the effervescent MKO Abiola. I daresay his contributions have remained unequalled till date. MKO will not watch the National Stadium and our local soccer go to ruins. MKO was the first individual who gave professionalism to soccer with the introduction of, hear this ₦500, yes!₦500 as winning bonus from the paltry sum it was then to his Abiola Babes, Concord FC etc., not to talk of his bail-out of other teams and sports.

Forgive my immodesty if I mention my soccer skills as a talented footballer in my primary and secondary school days, most especially at Igbobi College, where I failed to make the First Eleven on account of my rascality and diminutive size. I earned the nicknames Muda, Stagger, and Akibua as a result of my exploits. At Igbobi College we had the Bom-Bom competition where a Bom-Bom committee made up of Fourth formers organized the completion accepting entries from Class as well as other teams formed within the school to compete for the Bom-Bom cup. A memorable match was one in which Our “Form 1 Combined” team of 1973 took “Form 5B” to the cleaners winning 5-4. It is instructive that a member of the Bom-Bom committee of my set is now the 1st Vice President of the current NFF – talk of passion for the “round leather game”. The erection of the National Stadium in Surulere, where I grew up, was seen as a pedestal to achieve our juvenile dreams. Like the Nigerian nation, that potential was just what the once gigantic National Stadium remains: a dream unfulfilled – the proverbial white elephant!

– JahLion @ large 2015

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1 Comment

  1. May 16, 16:39 #1 Trinity

    You make thnigs so clear. Thanks for taking the time!

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