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How important is the football field to African football? 

By Segun Odegbami
25 September 2021   |   3:03 am
You can discover a young and gifted football player anywhere – whilst playing on the streets, in the park, on the school ground, at the beach, on any open field

[FILES] Liberty Stadium football pitch

You can discover a young and gifted football player anywhere – whilst playing on the streets, in the park, on the school ground, at the beach, on any open field, rough or smooth. Once there is enough space for the beautiful game to be played and enjoyed by children, on any kind of football surface, no matter how good or poor, raw talent can always shine through the process and barriers of discovery.

However, in order to take this raw talent to the next levels of development, some additional basic ingredients are needed. The most important is a higher quality of football ground.

In football, you cannot be the best that you can be, and play at the highest level of football unless you are trained in facilities that make the impartation of the required skills, techniques and strategies possible and meaningful.

You can only get better in the game through constant and repetitive training sessions on the better ‘theatres’ of football. At the ultimate level, this means training and playing matches on flat, lush, well-tended, natural green grass. No more, no less. It is as simple as that. Think about it.

In addition, you cannot also market football maximally unless it is covered properly by television. Meanwhile, the best coverage by television can only be achieved when the game is played on very good football fields. The higher the quality of the field, the better the quality of coverage.

That’s why Europe has invested and continues to invest, more than all others, heavily in research and providing the best playing surfaces – so that television can provide the highest dividends.

I repeat, for clarity, that the key ingredient that makes all the above possible is a great playing turf. There is no alternative and no shortcuts. Believe it or not, it is as simple as that, almost too good to be true.

Yet, it cannot be just any grassy turf, astroturf, artificial grass, hybrid or any such imitation. The king is natural grass, on flat ground, with good drainage and irrigation systems, managed by a team of dedicated, trained groundsmen and other hands working the field ‘25’ hours every day of every week, unfailingly, each equipped with the right tools and treating the field as delicately as a newborn baby.

Three decades ago, I witnessed how one of the best stadium turfs in the world, that of Liberty Stadium, Ibadan, was destroyed by ignorant Nigerian administrators that never played football, and never appreciated what late Chief Obafemi Awolowo, the former Premier of Western Nigeria, had put on the ground in 1959, designed to remain -start-of-the-art and functional for a 100 years.

Pretending to expand and modernise it, they destroyed it with untested technology. They also extended the carnage and ‘wickedness’ to the relatively good pitches at the time in the Kaduna, Enugu, and Bauchi stadia.

Shockingly, I have been a lone voice in the wilderness, in drawing attention to the bad and worsening state of football grounds all over Africa, and particularly, in Nigeria.

I served for six years in the Players’ Committee of CAF, and my single most important contribution at our twice-a-year meetings was that retired players with experience of professional football in Europe be included in the committee responsible for approving standard of stadia for CAF football matches in the continent and be made to serve as advisers to governments and clubs on securing the right experts to handle the installation of turfs, to ensure they all meet a minimum world-class standard.

Although I was supported by some of my colleagues, none of the administrators saw what we envisioned and were telling them. They promised everything but did absolutely nothing.

For decades, I have ‘sang’ the same song here in Nigeria through my media interjections and interventions, with little support or understanding from anywhere. Committees set up by the football federations often approved the use of grounds that could never survive approval as fourth division venues in any part of European football. That’s how different the standards of grounds are between Europe and most African countries.

The North Africans are only slightly better, and that is reflected in the standard of their leagues and the business.

Once again, it is important to know that one of the most important ingredients to develop young talents, to improve the quality to perform for the players, to watch for the spectators, and to market for the administrators, is the condition of the playing pitch.

Africans are very familiar with the matches all over Europe, seen on television, week in, week out. The matches are delightful to watch principally because of the excellent surfaces they are played on that allow for excellent, very friendly and entertaining television coverage.

So, the following questions are of interest: (1) Why is enough attention not paid to major football grounds in Africa?
(2) Why is it difficult to appreciate how a good turf impacts the quality of the game?

(3) What is difficult in understanding how a poor playing surface will make any tactical training impossible for a coach?

Why would a government spend billions of Naira building or renovating a stadium, and not pay full attention to the cheapest, simplest, but most important item – the turf?

(4) With Nigeria’s sophistication and experienced administrators, how is it that there is probably only one football ground in the whole of the country that can pass a true forensic test for qualification for the highest level of a football match?

These are all simple questions that have no answers.

The lack of good football grounds has become the biggest hindrance to football attaining the highest standards beyond where African football has plateaued.

Now there appears to be some good news.

In a small news item that came out of the media department of CAF last Wednesday; Cote d’Ivoire’s next home match against Malawi in the 2022 World Cup qualifiers will not be played in the West African country in October 2021. They shall have to shop for another good-enough-ground in neighbouring Senegal or Ghana.

The Confederation of African Football, CAF, rejected the two main stadia in Cote d’Ivoire as unsuitable for a World Cup match.

Earlier, in May 2021, the same CAF condemned over 15 national stadia grounds across the continent, in the Congo, Central Africa Republic, Senegal, Mali, Niger, Cameroun, and so on. The surprise was that Nigeria was not listed.

I was very happy to find out that this is the handiwork of a facilities committee in CAF made up of retired ex-international footballers. The group includes Nigeria’s Daniel ‘The Bull’Amokachi’.

As CAF seems to have woken up to the facts and to the responsibility, the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) should also wake up from its slumber and follow in the footsteps of CAF. Nigeria has had enough of this simple, inexpensive and avoidable hindrance to her football development to the highest level.

Here is an interesting comment by a Nigerian on the issue.

Engr. Kayode Adeniji. Abeokuta

It was in the year 2010. I took my 10-year-old son to experience ‘Old Trafford’ LIVE.. We went on a paid tour of the Manchester United arena as the Premiership was on break.

We went around the whole arena of beautiful dressing rooms, communication areas, toilets, gallery, hall of fame, sports shop etc.

We entered the main football pitch through the dug-out, met with simulated crowd noises blaring from strategically located speakers. What a delight it was, with well-trimmed, beautiful turf and attractive stands to behold.

While I sat on Sir Alex Ferguson’s seat and jokingly asked for gum to chew to mimic him and take a photograph, my adventurous son and a few other young boys entered the main grassed pitch to feel it.

All hell was let loose!  Our tour guide shouted as if they were stepping on land mines. No one was allowed to step on the pitch! It was guided like an egg. Workers were attending to it as if their lives depended on it.

Such was the extra care given those lush grounds that we see on television, week in, week out.