Neglect, poor facilities undermine sports development in South East
Beyond being an important unifying tool and a platform for youth empowerment, research has shown that sports, also discourages crime and youth restiveness.
In some countries, sports constitute a top contributor to the gross domestic product (GDP), creating employment for the youths, who, hitherto, would have been lured into crime.
In diplomacy, successful outings at sporting events help in boosting countries’ image apart from helping to change the economic fortunes of athletes. It is, therefore, not out of place that countries, states and communities that understand the importance of sports invest heavily in the sector.
Within the country, some regions like the South West and South-South, as well as some northern states have continued to show more commitment to sports development, because of the economic and social importance of the sector to them.
This notwithstanding, other regions, states in the South East especially, have displayed apathy and seem not to care about sports development, and in the process, deny thousands of youths the opportunity to discover and harness their talents.
In the past, the South East states, comprising Abia, Anambra, Ebonyi, Enugu and Imo used to be the hub of sports in the country, where stars were discovered and made.
The sports development platform set up by the late Jerry Enyeazu immediately after the Nigerian Civil War gave the region such stars as Chidi Imo, Innocent Egbunike, the Ezinwa brothers (Osmond and Desmond), Christian Chukwu, Emmanuel Okala, Abraham Tonica, Eddie Ndukwu, Ngozika Ekwelum, Dick Tiger Ihetu, Power Mike and Ben Lion Heart, among others, who dominated their various sports in the past.
Since these great sportsmen retired or passed on, little or no meaningful effort has been made to discover and groom new stars from the region. The zone, once described as the best place to harness sportsmen and women has now turned its back on the sector.
These days, hardly are athletes raised in the region found among the top 10 stars representing the country in big international competitions like the Commonwealth Games, Olympic Games and the All Africa Games.
Although many are bound to argue that great sportsmen and women like former African queen of the track, Mary Onyali-Omagbemi, first Nigerian individual Olympic gold medalist, Chioma Ajunwa Oparah, and one-time number one contender to the World Boxing Council (WBC) welterweight title, Obisia Nwankpa, are all from the South East, it is on record that these athletes were discovered and nurtured by Lagos State, and as such, the South East states cannot take the credit.
According to stakeholders, including experts, the major problem hindering sports development in the South East is the government’s neglect of the sector, with the sporting facilities in dire states.
The situation is so bad that apart from football, where the traditional Eastern teams like Rangers of Enugu, Enyimba of Aba, and Heartland of Owerri are still receiving the attention of their various states’ governments, not much has been done in other areas.
Even then, while it is true that these clubs could be said to be doing well in the Nigerian Premier League, experience has shown that if well managed they could dominate not only the domestic scene but also continental championships. Some attribute the situation to the poor quality of the management of these clubs.
Many governors in the South East appoint their cronies that are ill-qualified to head these clubs as a form of political patronage. That is why none of these clubs (for many seasons) has made any meaningful impact at the continental level or even dominated the local scene for many years now.
The neglect of sports infrastructure in the zone is aptly illustrated by the state of the once-famous Grasshoppers Handball Court at the Dan Anyiam Stadium, in Owerri.
The facility built by the Sam Mbakwe-led administration in the 1980s was once the best handball court in Africa. Today, it has been left to rot, such that the roof has caved in, just as rodents have taken over some of its appurtenances.
The main stadium, Dan Anyiam Stadium, is also in a sorry state. The stadium, which in the past hosted top continental competitions, is now on its back, and not capable of hosting any meaningful event.
As it is in Imo State, so also is it in Anambra, Enugu, Ebonyi and Abia states. In Anambra State, for instance, Awka, the state capital does not have a stadium or playground with modern sporting facilities where athletes can be nurtured.
Apart from the Rojenny Games Village at Oba, owned by Chief Rommy Ezeonwuka and the FC Ifeanyi Uba Stadium in Nnewi, sporting facilities in the state, noted for producing great industrialists, is nothing to write home about.
The state, under Governor Willie Obiano, is building a modern stadium in Awka, and it was meant to be commissioned a while ago. But with his tenure soon to expire, it is doubtful if the state, the land that gave Nigeria the Emmanuel Okalas, Mathias Obianikas and the Mary Onyalis, would get the stadium under this administration.
The case of Ebonyi State is pathetic because not only does it not have any modern stadium, it also does not have any football team competing in any of the football leagues, including the Nigeria Professional Football League (NPFL), the Nigeria National League (NNL) and the lower competitions.
Abia and Enugu states could be said to be ahead of others with the Nnamdi Azikiwe Stadium in Enugu, and the Enyimba Stadium in Aba. But the Aba Stadium is fit only for football as the other facilities, including the track that produced one of the best sprinters ever to come out of Nigeria, Chidi Imoh, has been destroyed by footballers’ boots and politicians, who often use the stadium for political rallies.
The stadium in Umuahia, the Abia State capital, is only a glorified playing field, which also functions as a parade ground, venue for political rallies and church crusades. It is barely good enough to host matches of Abia Warriors, a club side that uses it as its home base.
Enugu, which was once the capital of the Eastern Region, and is still regarded as the headquarters of Igboland, has only the Nnamdi Azikiwe Stadium, built by the Federal Government, to show for its 30 years of existence.
Until the recent governments of Emeka Ihedioha, and the present administration of Hope Uzodinma in Imo State, the state, which prides itself as the “Eastern Heartland,” was only living in the past glory, with football as the only surviving sport receiving government’s attention.
The recent reconstruction of Dan Anyiam Stadium, Owerri, has only had positive effects on football development, but other sports have no befitting facility to nurture the talents in the state.
The poor state of sports shows that either the state governors are not interested in improving facilities that will aid athletes’ development or they are not just interested in investing in sports. This could be the reason they appoint people without requisite knowledge and experience as sports commissioners and administrators.
More pathetic is the fact that more often than not, eastern states do not field representatives at some major national competitions, including swimming, table tennis and tennis championships.
Speaking to The Guardian shortly before his demise, renowned athletics coach, the late Tobias Igwe, popularly known as “Toblow,” put the problem at the doorsteps of the governors, whom he accused of paying lip service to sports development.
Igwe credited with the discovery of many international stars, including the Ezinwa brothers, Davidson and Osmond, Uchenna Emedolu, and Obinna Iroegbu, among others, said that sports in the South East have fallen because the governors are only interested in football. He said the states have allowed other sports to suffer, adding that only games master-type of events are practised in the entire region.
“The major reason why sports development in the South East is retarded is that the governors are nonchalant about its development. They and their lieutenants are only interested in football to achieve quick political recognition. That is why they invest so much in football to the detriment of other sports.
“Many of us have come up with suggestions on how to change the situation because we believe the South East boasts talented sportsmen and women, but because we are not politicians, or close to those in power, our suggestions are not heeded.
“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 once made the state 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 has 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 has 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 infrastructure 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. 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.”
Nnaji, who attributed the inability of most youths to get involved in sports due to lack of training facilities to the rising rate of crime in the state, bemoaned the failure of the government to develop facilities to absorb the teeming youths and create an avenue for them to exhaust their energies.
The consequence, according to him, “is the growing social menace of unemployed and idle youths, which the government thought it was solved by destroying the polo park. If we had good training pitches, the involvement of youths in crime and social menace will be erased, as youths will be kept busy.
“Sports is one way to positively take youths off the streets and make them productive. Sports generally, is an activity for youths, and the absence of sporting facilities across the board contributes to thuggery and hooliganism in the state.
“There are open spaces that government can convert to training facilities where youths and budding athletes can positively use to give vent to their talents instead of involvement in social vices.”
He regrets that funding sports is still largely regarded as social service, which doesn’t earn revenue, adding that the government gets involved in sports merely as a social responsibility.
The former commissioner said sports in Enugu State started changing for the better in 2009 when Nigeria hosted the FIFA U-17 World Cup in 2009.
Ahead of the global football fiesta, the Nnamdi Azikiwe Stadium was upgraded to international standards. And suddenly,
“Enugu State could boast a quality football pitch and tracks. The upgrading also affected the University of Nigeria Enugu Campus (UNEC) stadium and a few other facilities that the Enugu Rangers are using for training.
“Hitherto, we didn’t have training pitches for football. Our footballers, even Rangers FC used to troop to either the pitches of Bigard Memorial Seminary or the Air Force Base in Emene, to train.
“Certainly, having one good stadium is not good enough. Besides football and athletics, almost every other sporting event like judo, karate, lawn tennis, basketball, cricket among several others are suffering from the lack of facilities. The Nnamdi Azikiwe Stadium houses handball, badminton, volleyball, athletics, basketball. There are no standard courts for lawn tennis, while boxing, karate and judo are provided for marginally, as there is no advanced or extraordinary facilities provided for them.”
A visit to the judo training facilities in the Enugu State Sports Council showed a complete lack of the basic needs for judo training. Judokas train in one big room, and on old and torn judo mats.
A coach-athlete noted that most sports in the state thrive on the ingenuity, or know-how of the individual athletes, and not because they had any kind of standard facilities to train with.
Currently, athletes, including tennis players, train with facilities offered by associations like the Enugu Sports Club.
Get the latest news delivered straight to your inbox every day of the week. Stay informed with the Guardian’s leading coverage of Nigerian and world news, business, technology and sports.