Sports is one area of national development where our country has a natural advantage, but we have often failed to optimise this advantage. Francis Obikwelu, Gloria Anozie, Daniel Igali, Emmanuel Olisadebe and many more former and current athletes are reminders of our rich pool of talents and proven evidence of our capacity to be world beaters. But, like in all other areas of national life, we shortchange ourselves.
This dismal verdict notwithstanding, we continue to hold our own in sports. Last year, for one, was not particularly bad for sports. It was the year our female and male basketball teams (D’Tigress and D’Tigers) qualified for the world championships. D’Tigress did it in spectacular fashion by beating all continental opposition at the Afrobasket Championship in Mali, while D’Tigers went into the 2017 male Afrobasket Championship which held in Tunisia as African champions but ended as a runner up to the host country.
There were successes in other sports, too. In Hockey, Wrestling and Table tennis, our countrymen and women did well. Nigeria won the 2017 African Hockey Championship in Egypt. Our hope is that we go back to the meticulous planning and execution that served us well as a nation in the days of Henry Adefope at the National Sports Commission. That period was easily the golden era of Nigerian sports, when the country won laurel after laurel on the international stage and greatly optimised our opportunities in a number of sports. Athletics, Boxing, Football, Table tennis and Wrestling all gained accent, and were supplied from a rich pool of talented persons from school sports.
2017 too, was the year our country qualified once more for the global football event, the World Cup, which holds in Russia between June and July this year. The Super Eagles qualified from arguably the most difficult African group with a match to spare. The spanner was almost thrown in the works with the retrospective deduction of three points from the country’s tally by FIFA for fielding an ineligible player for the last qualifier against Algeria.
That breach should serve as a timely warning that a lot is still wrong with our administration of sports. The challenge in Russia is not to only participate but to significantly improve our performance. To achieve this, priority must be placed on early preparations and adequate funding of our campaign. It is encouraging that opponents for our friendly matches have been identified and tied down. It is very important too that the matter of match bonuses to be paid at the World Cup proper has been settled. This would make for concentration in the build up to Russia 2018. What is left is to manage the country’s expectations very well and back it with prompt and adequate release of funds for the campaign.
The Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games in Australia comes up in April this year. A lot of talk has been directed towards early and adequate preparation, but we are yet to walk the talk. This is one competition in which the country did so well in the past. Not any more, as our outing at the last Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games saw us finish a dismal 8th overall, with a haul of 36 medals compared to England, which finished first with 174 medals.
Sports Minister, Solomon Dalung, when asked about the country’s greatest achievement in sports last year, listed the Hockey Championship which our team won, perhaps indicating the need to develop other sports apart from football. But, we need to do more than mouth platitudes to achieve this. Our CHAN Eagles made up of wholly home-based players will be participating in this year’s edition of the competition in Morocco. Our best performance in the competition has been a third place finish.
This is indicative of the failure to harness local talents which are abundantly available. As a consequence too, age-grade football suffered in the country. For a competition in which we have made a strong showing on the world stage, we were knocked out of the African qualifiers for the U-17 and U-20 World Cups. That was certainly not good enough. Accent must, in fact, be placed on youth development so that the supply mill does not run dry. That way, our competitive edge would be guaranteed and the desired successes will come.
Nigeria must understand what sports has become. It is the weapon of modern warfare and the smartest route to showcasing a nation’s talents and power. Besides, it has become a veritable tool for economic enhancement, job creation and mass mobilisation. Any country that fails to harness its sports potential does so at its own peril.