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We’ll make HiFL Africa’s number one tertiary institution’s sports hub, says Onubogu

By Christian Okpara
27 February 2022   |   4:05 am
Sport, it is said, has the power to change the world. Sport unites people from all walks of life behind a common goal. It creates opportunities for individual growth, improves physical, mental and emotional health, as well as developing confidence and a sense of empowerment.

Unilag Marines and AAUA Luminaries fighting for points during the 2021 HiFL season

Sport, it is said, has the power to change the world. Sport unites people from all walks of life behind a common goal. It creates opportunities for individual growth, improves physical, mental and emotional health, as well as developing confidence and a sense of empowerment.

In most developed countries, developing sport from the grassroots through schools, provides the building block for future champions.

In the United States, for instance, the National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA) oversees sport in colleges and universities and provides the platform from which athletics giants grow to become world-beaters.

In Nigeria, the Nigeria Universities Games Association (NUGA), Nigeria Polytechnics Games Association (NIPOGA) and Nigeria Colleges of Education Games Association (NICEGA) are in charge of tertiary institutions sports, organising competitions for their member schools.

In recent past, these bodies provided international athletes for the country through their various programmes, but sometimes, they join and partake in competitions organised by external bodies, who invite them to vie for honours and prizes, as well as bragging rights.

In the 1980s, Nigeria had the Pepsi Higher Institutions Cup, which provided a football platform for all tertiary institutions in the country. It was a competition that gave talented students opportunity to exhibit their talents in a big platform, with some of these students graduating to play for the national teams and football clubs. Such names as Adokie Aimiesimaka, Aloy Agu, Adeolu Adekola, Vincent Enyeama, Davidson Owumi and Celestine Nzekwe, among others, readily come to mind.

Unfortunately, the Pepsi-sponsored competition could not survive some challenges that cropped up in the 1990s, forcing the organisers to rest it. Since then, the various schools sports bodies have been left to organise their individual competitions, which in most cases, are held infrequently due to various constraints.

However, about four years ago, an organisation, Pace Sports and Entertainment Limited, came up with an idea of a competition for higher institutions, anchored on the belief that sports development should have its basis on schools, which at every given time, harbours up to one million young men and women.

Tagged ‘Higher Institutions Football League (HiFL),’ the competition for four years has seen universities across the country vying for a giant trophy and other prizes lined up for successful schools and students. It also provided opportunity for the schools to develop their sports infrastructure.

With preparations for the 2022 edition of the competition, which begins in the early week of next month, already on, the organisers say their ambition is to make the HiFL the biggest tertiary institutions’ competition in Africa in the near future.

Fielding questions from The Guardian on Tuesday, HiFL Chairman, Dr. Kachi Onubogu, said the organisers want to make the competition the biggest sporting event for African universities.

Describing HIFL as an exciting and inspirational journey, Dr. Onubogu said HiFL aims to change the existing schools sports landscape, adding, “There is so much commitment to ensure that this becomes the biggest platform for university sports in Africa. A platform that brings together universities across Africa to drive unity, sportsmanship, competition and also to drive the ethos of building a united African front in the face of the significant global challenges we face.”

He enthused: “It is bigger than just getting people to play football or play sport. It is building an African united platform that hopefully will be bigger than the NCAA in the U.S or other collegiate sports across the world.”

Onubogu said HiFL was developed to solve the challenges facing sports in higher institutions, “create a platform that brings back that competition among schools and also fosters the values of sports, including discipline, competition, honesty and the eternal believe that if I work hard, I can be the best in my chosen field. And also open a platform to expose people to what happens globally.

“We decided to create a league that is fair, just and encourage students across Nigerian higher institutions to compete fairly.”

He said the promoters of HiFL were also worried about integrity following what was happening in age grade competitions in Nigeria. “So, we partnered with NUGA and comity of Vice chancellors, with support from NFF and some of our sponsors to build this platform.

“It seemed very daunting at first because we had to think of how to get students and all participants to buy into the ideal. But they were 100 per cent in support of it.

“Together with all the bodies, the HiFL was formed with football taking the league because it is the biggest sport in the country. But we had the idea that with time, all other sports will be incorporated into the system.

“I keep saying that the ethos and values of football is bigger than just winning a game. It encompasses discipline, commitment and opportunity for students from different universities to forge life lasting friendship.”

Onubogu believes HiFL has created something Nigerians and university leadership can be proud of, adding that within four years, the competition has started achieving its set objectives.

He explained: “HIFL is a journey that brings schools together and also helps talents develop. It is about the schools, the students, the community and Nigeria together. The journey has been tough, but also rewarding.

“Together, we are a household name of the biggest platform for collegiate sports in Nigeria. In the last couple of years, HiFL has created over 60 scholarships for students. Some schools have offered scholarship platforms for their students.

“We have also created a platform for networking for students within themselves and students with sponsors and organisations. We have created a significant platform for university volunteers because in every school we go to, we get volunteers, who are coached and taught values of work and cooperation among them.

“We have created a brand that has built trust within university sports because there are rules guiding everything we do. Everybody can trust this brand. Our goal is that one day, the bulk of players for the Super Eagles are products of HiFL. The day we have five or six HiFL players in the World Cup team is the day we will say yes, we have achieved the ultimate aim.”

Reaffirming HiFL’s goal of creating a platform for African interaction and integration, Onubogu said the ultimate aim is to create a league that unites all African students to compete on one platform.

“We want to see students from Ghana, Egypt, South Africa, Kenya and Morocco, among other countries, playing in an African Universities CAF League that will unite students across Africa. These are the kind of vision and goals that we have for HIFL.

“We also want to see that one day, all Nigerian universities and polytechnics, over 150 of them, will participate in collegiate sports in this country. We have achieved so much, but there are still a lot to achieve.”

Onubogu disclosed that although HiFL currently features only universities, before long, the competition would also incorporate polytechnics and colleges of education.

He said: “Yes, remember our league is Higher Institutions Football League and not for universities alone. Polytechnics and colleges of education are higher institutions and they will be incorporated soon. It is a journey we have started. Even the universities we have in this country are not all involved in the league.

“We have done the much we can with the resources we have. To organise a league costs a lot of money and we have done what we can with the resources we can generate and the sponsors we have. We need a lot more support to get to the point we can say, ‘look everybody can come on board.’

“If we put together all the universities, colleges of education and polytechnics, we will be talking about 200 to 400 institutions. It is a lot and even the Premier League in England does not have up to such teams. It will take a lot of organisation, planning and a lot of cost. We are trying to grow at a manageable, sustainable and affordable pace. As we get sponsors and people to understand what is happening in this place and get people to partner with us, then we will grow participation in the HIFL across Nigeria.”

Although Onubogu acknowledged that managing a competition as huge as HiFL is not an easy task, he disclosed that the organisers have been boosted by massive support from their partners, including NUGA, sponsors and affiliated bodies.

He said: “HIFL, as an arm of Pace Sports would not have been easy without the implicit backing of NUGA leadership, from vice chancellors to coaches, securitymen within universities and students union bodies. We would not have gotten this far without the support they have given us.

“We also have the commitment from the managers of HIFL. Some of them played football in the universities and the commitment they have shown is very vital to what we are doing.

“We have alumni of schools who have come back to support their schools and the game they love. It has not been easy, but we have received support and cooperation from many stakeholders.

“When we started, we made it clear that we will not accept mercenaries in our competition. The other challenge was getting every school to invest in the right structure to train and develop their students.

“It means that the schools will get the right structure, right coaches, give the students time to train and provide good pitches for the players to train and build their team.”

He disclosed that HiFL supports nearly the entire process, including getting and branding schools’ jerseys, providing training kits, organising press events and getting the pitches ready. He added: “Everything we do are significantly expensive. The biggest sponsor we have is Stanbic IBTC, which has done a lot for us. But as we progressed, our cost increased significantly and we got other supporters. We have made a commitment to HiFL, which is, this dream will not die.”

Taking a cue from what the NCAA is doing in the United States, Onubogu said the idea is to get every Nigeria to follow HiFL, adding that the dream to make HiFL the biggest tertiary institutions’ platform in Africa requires that communities and members of alumni associations understand what the competition is all about and support it to grow.

He encouraged more corporate organisations and individuals to support HiFL, saying there are many benefits to derive from associating with the project.

“We in HiFL do not ask people to support us just like giving out a free gift. HiFL is a platform that opens you to the public and gives you access to students in Nigerian universities.

“In every university in Nigeria, there are at least 10,000 to 15,000 students. We have over 100 universities with about 15, 000 students each; the sponsor is exposed to over two million students, who will become workers, fathers and mothers of tomorrow. They can engage with these numbers today and as they grow older, you cannot quality the long term benefits from that investment.

“Every partner we have looks at HiFL as a short term and long term investment. The short term is that today, you have access to students, army of volunteers, television viewership that gives you millions of eyeballs watching you brands, and students who can help you do activations and also be ambassadors of your brands.

“More than that, you are creating a long term association with students in the schools. I don’t think that anybody that plays in HiFL or wins in HiFL, will ever forget the experience. They will always remember their experience, including the associations they made in HIFL.

“Smart businesses have continued to invest for today and the future and HIFL is the biggest platform to engage university students in Nigeria today.”

Onubogu disclosed that HiFL is planning a women’s league and a basketball competition, which would give sponsors adequate benefits from their investments.

He added: “Apart from the sheer number of people we can connect with, there are many who have left school and want to support their schools.

“We have a programme, which we call game time, which runs for about 30 minutes to 45 minutes, showing games before a match is played.

“We have the women league that sponsors can buy and connect with women… they can also sponsor a swimming league. We have the network, understanding and the capacity to create any sport’s league a sponsor desires.

“The women football league will start this year, while plans for swimming, basketball and other sports that will bring students together are on. We have support from SuperSport and there is no sport that we cannot dial up and get them to support us.”