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Sport  |  Athletics  

The ‘death’ of grassroots sports in Nigeria

By Segun Odegbami   |   08 April 2017   |   4:22 am

Students running for glory during a recent Cross River Primary/Secondary Schools Sports Festival. The schools hold the key to Nigeria’s sports development.

Gernot Rohr, the new German coach of Nigeria’s national football team, has been combing European leagues for players of Nigerian parentage, hewn on the rich technical diet of European football, to make up his emerging new Super Eagles en route Russia 2018.

Apparently, he has not been satisfied with the number and quality of players coming through the domestic Nigerian leagues, players in the mold of Finidi George, Jay Jay Okocha, Daniel the Bull Amokachi, Papillo Kanu Nwankwo, Chief Justice Adokie Amiesimaka, Muda Lawal, Nathaniel Adewole, Stanley Okoronkwo, and so on, players with the true DNA of Nigerian football (strong, fast, unadulterated attacking and wing play mentality, never-giving-up spirit and love of the dribble art).

Such locally bred players only gained from Europe what were missing from their Nigerian grounding – better technique, better tactical understanding and the discipline of organised team play. Within a few months they learn quickly and become the complete material.

With the way things are going under Rohr, it is not far fetched to think that one day, in the not too distant future, Nigeria’s Super Eagles will be dominated by a foreign legion of European-born, bred and honed football players, good but lacking the flair, showmanship, individual expressiveness and dribbling skills of the home bred.

Check this present list and see for yourself: Carl Ikeme, William Troost Ekong, Leon Balogun, Kingsley Madu, Uche Henry Agbo, and Tyronne Ebuehi. There are more of them in coach Rohr’s radar.

Other Sports
One can easily replicate what is going on in football in other sports in the country including basketball, tennis, track and field athletics. The breeding ground has shifted to Europe and America.

This development clearly shows that there is something very wrong happening to the country’s grassroots sports development.

What is grassroots sports development?
Simply put, ‘grassroots sports’ means ‘school sports’. Nigerian sports have always been anchored to schools – primary, secondary and tertiary schools.

According to Nigeria’s constitution, every Nigerian child must be in school. There is also unenforced provision that every school must have minimum, basic, functional facilities for ALL the children to play.

Mass participation in active physical exercise helps to breed a healthy citizenry.  Where such activities are sustained into adulthood they actually help reduce the incidences of most non-communicable diseases many of which are ravaging the citizens now (hypertension, obesity and others) and cutting down life expectancy. Children need sports in order for their education in schools to be complete.

So, mass participation in sports in all schools is an essential.  A small percentage of them are discovered as exceptionally gifted in particular sports. These are encouraged to take up competitive sports through incentives within the schools – scholarships, first choice of residential places and halls, special classes and concessions, special meals, and so on.

Beyond grassroots is the elite level, a higher level of competitive sport that provides opportunities for gifted young persons to represent and compete for State and even the nation.

The process of excelling in sports requires and inculcates in the child the attributes of discipline, friendship, fair play, good conduct, high morals, abstinence from bad habits, leadership, patriotism, determination, focus, responsibility, team work and the spirit to accept failure only as a stepping stone to bigger success. These are essential life tools that the uninitiated often pay for in adulthood!

How Nigerian sports derailed.
The erosion of the foundation of grassroots sports started in early 1992.

Nigeria was on proper track with its grassroots sports development architecture since Independence up till then. That year was the turning point when the country derailed in a series of disastrous political miscalculations in schools and sports that will be told one day.

The school owners used to provide the basic sports infrastructure within the schools – the fields, the courts, the lawns, etc.

The Sports Levy – key to funding grassroots Sports
Because physical and health education was an integral part of the curriculum, fees paid by parents included a token sports levy that took care of sports equipment, kits, consumables, travels and competitions. Those levies were ‘little drops’ that became an ‘ocean’ of useful revenue. They drove sport without any government funding.

That was how all those great competitions of old were held, through this simple funding mechanism from the tokens contributed mostly by parents in all schools.

Those were the years of the Hussey Shield, Davis Cup, Manuwa Adebajo Cup, Lady Manuwa Cup for girls schools, Grier Cup, Thermogene Cup, and so on, all regional/national grassroots sports competitions funded without any kobo from government. The formula was so simple it was too good to be true.

Token sports levies in schools generated enough funds to take care of their annual sports needs – kits and consumables for participating students, and funds to organize inter-house sports and to participate in inter-schools competitions.

That was mass participation, grassroots sports development and how they were funded – simple, straightforward and very practical. No re-invention of any wheel required. The key was the Sports Levy; a little drop by parents that made an ocean of development engaging all the youths and throwing up the best amongst them for higher competition.

The giant mis-step taken by State governments that totally crippled this entire arrangement was their take over of schools, particularly mission schools that were citadels of this working sports architecture. The States did not take into consideration the long-term effect of their politically motivated actions. Now they know better!

With too many other things on their plate already, by taking over privately owned schools State governments took on more than they could chew. All levies were cancelled directly or indirectly by that step. Corruption also entered the fray with ‘free’ unaccounted-for government funds that were diverted and misused by corruption-infected school officials. This step took out the oxygen from sports funding, placed a burden on State governments and necessitated the removal of ‘luxuries’ from schools’ budgets.

Sports became the number one victim.
All these translated into the end of Physical and Health education as part of the curriculum in education and in schools, marking the death to authentic grassroots sports development in the country.

What we have now are a few poorly funded national sports competitions in a few sports with a few student participants and absolutely no sports development in schools all over the country.

If you doubt me pay a visit to anyone of the once-great citadels of learning and sports development at grassroots level in Nigeria, and shed your own tears.
Hussey College, Warri; Edo College, Benin; Kings College, Lagos; Igbobi College, Lagos; St. Gregory’s College, Lagos; CMS Grammar School, Lagos; St. Finbarr’s College, Lagos; Hope Waddell Training Institute, Calabar; Duke Town School, Calabar; Academy Institute of Commerce, Jos; Baptist Boys High School, Jos; St. Murumba College, Jos; Gindiri Boys High School, Gindiri; Loyola College, Ibadan; Ibadan Grammar School; Government College, Ibadan; Olivet High School, Oyo; Fiditi Grammar School, Fiditi; St. Charles College, Oshogbo; Christ High School, Ado Ekiti;  Ilorin Emirate School, Ilorin; Offa Grammar School, Offa; Abeokuta Grammar School, Abeokuta; Baptist Boys High School, Abeokuta; Ijebu Ode Muslim College, Ijebu Ode; Christ The King College, (CKC) Onitsha; Christ the Kings School, Aba; Government College, Ughelli;  St. Paul’s College, Kufena/Zaria; St. Thomas College, Kano; Barewa College, Zaria; Tafawa Balewa College, Bauchi; and so on.

These schools effectively combined their academics with sports and gave their students the best and most complete education possible. There was no funding or funding burden on any government.

Education without sport is incomplete. They are both very essential in the 21st Century. The way forward is to go ‘back to the future’, to retrace our steps, and look again at the sports architecture that succeeded so well in the past. That is the window into the future, believe me.




  • Chris Ofoluwa

    Chief Odegbami, I can confidently assert that my Alma Mater, Saint Finbarr’s College, is picking up again. The years of government take-over did a lot of damage, which took over a decade to repair. Cardinal Okogie injected a lot of funds into the Catholic schools returned to the church, and they are close to where they were in the glory years. In football, at least, both Finbarr’s and Gregory’s are doing quite well now. The sponsorship of the Lagos State Principal’s Cup by GTB is doing wonders. That is a correct CSR model which should be copied by other organisations for athletics.

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