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Finding a home ground for the Eagles

While receiving the Fair Play Award on behalf of Akwa United at the just concluded Aiteo NFF Awards, Chairman of the Football club side, Paul Bassey described Uyo, capital city of Akwa-Ibom state, as the home ground of the Super Eagles of Nigeria. He backboned his assertion by reminding the audience that it was at the Nest of Champions, Uyo that the national team qualified for the last FIFA World Cup. Well, after hosting the matches against Seychelles and Egypt in a space of five days most recently, Asaba, the Delta state capital may have something to say about Bassey’s claims.

Coming from a history of playing virtually all their home matches in the National Stadium in the 1980s and 90s, some football enthusiasts canvass for Lagos, which was then the federal capital, to be the permanent home of the Eagles. Those in this school argue that having an eternal home like England’s Wembley Stadium or Brazil’s Maracanã would not only help the fortunes of the team but also boost the brand of the team. They posit that not having a ground the national team can call home especially under the scrutinizing eyes of the Lagos press and dense concentration of supporters, the seesaw play of the Eagles may continue to be the norm.

But time has changed. The return to democracy in 1999 coincided with Nigeria hosting the FIFA World Youth Championship. While Nigeria 99 encouraged us to upgrade at least eight arenas across the nation that were used as venues for the tournament, democratically elected governors built sporting infrastructure as a show of achievements to the electorate. With the Abuja National Stadium also in the mix, the handlers of our football now became spoilt for choices of where the Super Eagles should play.

With the end of dictatorships that have the habit of using sports as a form of public relations to the more accountable civil rule, budgetary allocations to sports shrunk and the federal capital moving to Abuja, sustaining the Super Eagles in Lagos became more demanding. This led to opaque considerations on taking the team outside Lagos as much as possible at the cheapest cost possible. Some governors take advantage of this to accommodate the team but this is usually an all-expense venture.

The hosting state, under the approval of the governor, accommodates the team at its expense, pay player bonuses and even throw the gates open for free on match day. This is typically a good deal for the football federation. That was why all the qualifiers that ushered the Eagles to Russia were played in Uyo because the Akwa-Ibom state government was ready to pay the bills and so Bassey could make a boast at the awards.

But can Bassey make such a boast next year? Hosting of these one-off games are usually tied to the temperament of a sitting governor. Subsequently, if a governor is naturally inclined to football and the hosting of it, he makes his state the home ground of the Eagles and if his mood changes or another state strikes a better deal with the football federation, the home ground changes again.

I don’t subscribe to making Lagos or any state the permanent home for our football. First, the National Stadiums in Surulere and Abuja are both shadows of their original selves at the moment and fixing them for less than half a dozen matches a year doesn’t make economic shrewdness. Secondly, comparing Nigeria with England doesn’t suffice. Wembley belongs to the Football Association and so can be used by the Three Lions or for any FA Cup Final, but in Nigeria, our pitches are government owned and run. So looking for a permanent home ground in an era where periodic change of government is the canon is unrealistic.

Thirdly, a perpetual home ground for our football restricts other parts of the nation from having a feel of our collective patrimony. In fact, federalizing our football has proven that fans outside Lagos are more enthusiastic. Even England takes the Three Lions outside Wembley sometimes. For example, England’s Euro 2020 qualifying match against Kosovo coming up in September would be staged in St. Mary’s Stadium, Southampton implying Wembley is not as permanent a home ground as some want us to believe.

Then attaching the roller coaster performance of the national team to their faffing around is not empirical. The Eagles 25 years ago were victorious not because they played in Lagos, they were victorious because they were super! They were invincible wherever they played unlike the squad nowadays when we not only sometimes make a mockery of their aquiline moniker but also have dubious reasons to demonize some fields.

As we progress in this free market world, the political involvement of government in running sports should continue to diminish. It is not developmental prudence for a state where a lass goes viral on social media because she is pursued from her dilapidated school for inability to pay fees (something that should be free) would host three international matches about the same time frame for free (something that should generate income for the state). Or another “football-loving” governor using state resources to host the Eagles but owes players of its state-owned football club months of wages.

My proposal moving forward is that government should hands-off administration and funding of professional sports completely. Football especially has risen enough to be fiscally independent of any tier of government. With this, football would not be taken as a social good tainted with politics but as a commercial good that improves the economy of the hosting city.

What a profit-driven NFF should do is to come with its programme of fixtures that its teams would be involved in a foreseeable future and transparently ask for interested bids. Location, national spread, stands size, condition of the playing turf, accessibility for fans, security, hotel accommodations, TV friendliness of the stadium, importance of the match, opponent disadvantage and the like would be considered along with commercial partners in choosing the winning bid. The bidders, most likely the states, will come up with arguments why certain fixtures should come their way.

Arguments like wider marketing reach for commercial partners, football development and how it would improve the economy of the state. It should be a chance for the states not only to showcase their sentiments for Super Eagles but also an occasion to attract tourists to their states. Governors can use the opportunity to show achievements in other sectors in the state.

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