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By Tayo Ogunbiyi
The National Stadium, Surulere, Lagos, was built by the General Yakubu Gowon military administration in 1972 as a 55,000 capacity sporting facility. It was later redesigned in 1999 to a 45,000 capacity in order to meet FIFA requirements for the hosting right of the 1999, Junior World Cup. Till date, the highest number of fans that have sat in the stadium’s main bowl on a particular occasion is 85,000. That was when Nigeria trounced Algeria 3-0 to emerge winners of the 1980 African Cup of Nations.
In the height of its glory, the National Stadium, Surulere, was the nation’s numero uno center of sporting excellence and it has hosted numerous high profile sporting events. It hosted the 1973 All Africa Games with Nigeria emerging the overall winners. The nation’s senior national soccer team, the then Green Eagles (now Super Eagles), became a household name in African and, indeed, world soccer at the stadium when it became the slaughter ground of many soccer teams.
One of my most memorable sporting moments at the stadium was in 2000 when the Super Eagles lost to the Indomitable Lions of Cameroun at the final of the African Nation Cup. It was an epic final, one that would go down in the narrative of the competition as truly dramatic. With over 85,000 soccer fans in a stadium that was designed to take 55,000, the arena was full beyond capacity. Within the first 20 minutes of the game, the Cameroonians were already ahead by two goals.
The characteristically vociferous Lagos fans suddenly became quiet. At the end of regulation time, the Super Eagles earned a remarkable equalizer, thanks to the legendary Okocha’s soccer wizardry. Eventually, the Super Eagles lost the match through the lottery of penalty kicks, and tears flow freely as players, coaching crew and the crowd wept sorely. Former Eagles Captain and Coach, Sunday Oliseh wept uncontrollably as he climbed the podium to receive the runners’ up trophy. It was a day the god of the soccer and other forces conspired to deny the nation yet another soccer glory!
Sadly, today, the stadium has become a mere shadow of itself. The once dazzling ‘Sports City’ is now a mess. The usually bubbling indoors sports hall is now deserted, the tracks are in sheer rot while the swimming pool exists only in name. The seats on almost a significant part of the main bowl have disappeared. Presently, the magnificent structure that once heralded the arrival of iconic sporting talents such as Innocent Egbunike, Chidi Imoh, Falilat Ogunkoya, Christian Chukwu, Segun Odegbami among others is now home to street urchins, destitute, sex hawkers, drug peddlers and addicts and gamblers.
Worst hit are the nation’s national football teams which now have to move from place to place to play matches. Sadly, most of the stadia where they play lack the aura and capacity of the National Stadium, Surulere. Though the Obasanjo administration built a new Stadium in Abuja in 2003, it can’t stand shoulder to shoulder with the Surulere National Stadium in terms of fans’ turnout, thrill and business prospects. Sadly, the Abuja National Stadium is almost going the way of its precursor in Lagos. Expectedly, the decay of sporting facilities across the country is already having grave implications on performance of the nation’s athletes in major global sporting events. At the 2012 London Olympics, Nigeria did not win a single medal while it managed to win a bronze medal at the 2016, Rio Olympics. But then, of what substance is a bronze medal to a country with countless sporting talents?
The connotation of the neglect of the Stadium and others such across the country is far too grievous. We inadvertently shut the door against the talents of thousands of Nigerians who would have used the facilities to upgrade their sporting talents and ultimate use sports as escape route from poverty. Globally, sports have become a huge industry through which lots of youths have gotten fame and fortune. Therefore, developing and investing in sports is one sure way of empowering the youths and other professionals (such as doctors, psychologists, physiotherapists, athlete managers etc) in the various sporting fields to become productively engaged. In this time of economic meltdown, encouraging youths to take to sports would surely be of immense benefits to the country.
The decay of sporting infrastructure in the country is partly responsible for the waning status of sports in the country. This is why some of our talented sportsmen now opt to represent other countries where access to world-class facilities is limitless. How do you raise a generation of new athletes without creating the enabling environment? That is the tragedy that has befallen the country’s sporting prospect. Ironically, directly opposite the National Stadium is the Teslim Balogun Stadium which was commissioned by the Lagos State Government in 2007. The condition of the two stadia is a classical example of a tale of two cities. While the National Stadium shamefully rots away, the Teslim Balogun Stadium flourishes with its properly maintained facilities and regular sporting activities. From its alluring synthetic pitch to the volleyball court, indoor Sports Hall to the Handball courts, Teslim Balogun Stadium depicts orderliness, elegance and aesthetics.
It is in an attempt to address the nation’s dwindling fortune in sports as well as decay of facilities at the National Stadium that the Federal Government through Sports Minister, Mr. Solomon Dalung and Lagos State Government recently reached an agreement for Lagos State to take over the facility. While recently inspecting facilities at the stadium in company of Mr. Dalung and others, Lagos State Governor, Mr Akinwunmi Ambode declared the eagerness of the State Government to take over the Stadium from the Federal Government and transform it to a world class sporting centre. Going down memory lane, the Governor recalled how exciting and attractive it used to be for Nigerians to visit the Stadium to witness sporting events.
Since the Lagos State Government has over the years demonstrated its ability to appropriately manage sporting facilities, (Onikan, Agege and Teslim Balogun Stadia remain some of the best managed stadia in the country), it will be in the best interest of sports development in the country if it eventually takes over the National Stadium. The State Government has a functional agency in charge of facility management and it will definitely take proper care of the stadium as it does with others in its care. Therefore, political considerations and other needless hurdles should not be made to stand in the way of this laudable plan.
Ogunbiyi writes from Lagos.