• With no good pitch to play home matches, Super Eagles begin race for World Cup ticket next month
By George Aluo
In football, virtually every country or club has a venue they call their home or, as they say in the round leather game, their “slaughter ground,” where opponents hardly leave unscathed. The England national team, otherwise known as the Three Lions, has the famous Wembley Stadium in London as their home. The Brazilian national team has the equally more famous Maracana Stadium in Rio as their fortress. This informed why despite building a new much bigger Olympic Stadium for the recently concluded Rio 2016 Olympics, Brazil still opted to hold the opening and closing ceremony of the Games at Maracana and equally insisted that the soccer final be decided at that arena, which they consider their soccer shrine.
At the end of the day, Brazil, which has won everything in football, except the Olympic soccer gold medal, succeeded in breaking the jinx of never winning that precious medal at Maracana with their talismanic captain, Neymar, declaring it a “fulfilled dream”, not just for him but also for the country.
Back home in Africa, Egypt, for instance, has the imposing Cairo International Stadium as home of the Pharaohs, just as the FNB Stadium in Jo’burg is the traditional home of South Africa’s Bafana Bafana. Our West African neighbours, Republic Benin, has Stade de La mitie (Friendship Stadium) as home of their national team, while the Ohene Djan Stadium, Accra, plays host to virtually all the matches of the Ghanaian Black Stars.
Ghana on their part, has a second home in Kumasi, where they take opponents when the need for a “roforofo” match arises. The Ghanaians have, on some occasions, taken Nigeria to Kumasi when they “want to win at all costs.”
For the Super Eagles, as they prepare for the final round of qualifiers for the Russia 2018 World Cup with an away game against Zambia early next month, the big question is: Where is the home of the Gernot Rohr-tutored team? After the October 3 game against Zambia, the Eagles would, in their next tie, face Algeria at home at a yet-to-be-determined venue, no thanks to the bad playing pitches that dot the country.
Although the nation’s soccer governing body, NFF, had tentatively fixed the Algeria home tie for the Ahmadu Bello Stadium, Kaduna, the soccer governing body was yet to communicate same to the Confederation of African Football (CAF). A competent NFF source confirmed to Daily Sun that the basic reason the NFF had not been able to make up its mind on where the Eagles would host Algeria has to do with the playing turf. While the team was sure of massive crowd support in Kaduna, the same thing cannot be said of the pitch, which, like all other natural turfs in the country, is nothing but horrible.
Just last weekend, the NFF took the Eagles – Tanzania game to the Uyo Nest of Champions, an arena that is, unarguably, the nation’s best. But while the edifice is world class, the playing pitch had since lost its “world class” status just barely one and half years after it was commissioned by three African presidents: former President Goodluck Jonathan, with his Ghanaian and Ivorien counterparts, John Mahama and Alhassan Quattara, respectively.
New Eagles manager, Rohr, had, after the game against Tanzania last weekend, decried the poor state of the Uyo stadium turf, declaring that it did not allow his boys to play to their full potential.
Just like Kaduna, support for Eagles in Uyo is not in short supply, as the fans came out to cheer the Eagles in their thousands, even when the game against Tanzania was only a dead rubber that counted for nothing.
In the last two years, the Super Eagles had had to shuttle five Nigerian cities – Calabar, Port Harcourt, Kaduna, Uyo and Lagos – for their home games, with the big worry remaining the playing turf.
Abuja National Stadium, which, like Uyo, is modern, has what could pass for a horse racing pitch despite all the millions pumped into its rehabilitation.
Cities like Enugu, Ibadan, Kano and Bauchi that also boast of good stadia cannot also host Super Eagles matches because what they have are artificial playing turfs, which Nigerian big players from Europe would not want to play on.
Former Akwa Ibom State governor, Godswill Akpabio, had, during the commissioning of the Uyo stadium, which has since been named after him, said the state government would sign a 10-year deal with the firm that constructed the stadium for a year-round maintenance of the playing turf.
From all indications and given the poor state of the turf, it is clear that agreement might not have been signed.
The NFF had early this week, while thanking the Akwa Ibom State government for hosting the Eagles-Tanzania tie, stated that the Uyo pitch was “no big deal.” According to the NFF, “the NFF values its relationship with the Akwa Ibom State government and would always advise directly on what areas needed to be improved upon. We have spoken directly to those who matter with regard to the concern raised about the pitch, and we are happy that work has already started in that area.”
Early this year, when the Eagles hosted Chad at the Ahmadu Bello Stadium in Kaduna, the major worry was that of the pitch. After a series of inspection by the NFF, the stadium authorities carried out a re-grassing exercise that raised the standard of the pitch to a manageable level. The Super Eagles players complained bitterly after the match.
When Calabar was home of the Eagles, the players also complained about the pitch. The truth is that what Nigeria has in virtually all its stadia with natural pitches are nothing but elephant grass. The only pitch that looks more like it now is the newly built Port Harcourt City Stadium, where Enyimba hosted its CAF Champions League games. But unfortunately, the drainage system at the stadium is so poor that the pitch gets waterlogged when it rains. The stadium failed the drainage test the day Enyimba played host to top Egyptian side, Zamalek, in a match, which the Nigerian team lost by 0-1.
With the Nigeria-Algeria tie billed for October, when it would still be raining in the Garden City, the NFF is scared it may amount to a disaster taking the Algerians to Port Harcourt.
One thing that is not going for Abuja when it comes to playing matches there is the poor turn out of fans. Added to that is also the fact that the pitch of the multi-billion naira edifice is bad. Just last year, the sports ministry allegedly spent N90 million to re-grass the Abuja Stadium pitch; yet the pitch has remained in shambolic state. The pitch was an eyesore when the nation’s U-13 lads played an exhibition match there during the recent visit of FIFA president. In fact, a Nigerian football buff had noted then that it was a shame for the country to have allowed Infantino to see the Abuja pitch.
Unfortunately, all the artificial turfs that were laid at the Sani Abacha Stadium, Kano, Nnamdi Azikiwe Stadium, Enugu, Abubakar Tafawa Balewa Stadium, Bauchi, and Teslim Balogun Stadium in Lagos are sub-standard synthetic pitches. The pitches are always too hot during the day and players risk copping career-threatening injuries when playing at such surfaces. This informs why the NFF cannot take matches to any of those venues.
A top NFF official, who pleaded anonymity, told Daily Sun that those who awarded the contracts for the synthetic pitches went for the sub-standard rubber synthetic materials from China.
“Our players from Europe won’t agree to play in any of the synthetic pitches in the country because of their sub-standard nature. Why have we not been taking matches to Kano, Enugu or Bauchi? It is for that simple reason. Unfortunately, we can’t even maintain natural grass pitches. It is a very sad commentary for our football,” he said.
The National Stadium, Surulere, Lagos, where the then Green Eagles won the 1980 Africa Cup of Nations, is an abandoned property where no international match has taken place for over a decade. The Federal Government abandoned the place built in 1973 when the Abuja National Stadium was built for COJA 2013. Interestingly, both the Abuja Stadium and the one in Lagos are now venues where the Eagles can’t play because of poor pitch.
One thing that is a big puzzle is why the country can’t maintain a natural grass pitch like they do in other climes.
Chief Executive Officer of Monimichelle, Ebi Egbe, whose outfit is into stadium construction told Daily Sun that the problem was that of maintenance.
Said Egbe: “The problem with playing surfaces in the country, be it natural or artificial, is that of maintenance. We don’t maintain anything in this country. It’s painful to see government spend billions of naira to build a stadium only for her not to maintain the pitch. And it is the pitch that makes a stadium and not the capacity or how beautiful it is. A stadium is measured more by the quality of her pitch.”
Egbe disclosed that zero maintenance has been carried out in most of the pitches he has constructed in the country.
“I can’t guarantee a pitch that faces zero maintenance,” Egbe added.
It would be noted that in other climes, playing pitches are treated like “Catholic tabernacles” where only the priest gain access to. When this writer back went on a guided tour of the Vicarage Road Stadium in London, home of Odion Ighalo’s Watford two years, the stadium manager pointed out that the turf was a no-go area, as visitors were not allowed to step on it.
It was the same story when I visited Manchester City’s Stadium. The turf was a no-go area. The stadium officials told me that it was forbidden to step on the pitch. So, why won’t such pitches remain lush green?
But here in Nigeria, right from the day the Uyo stadium was commissioned (I covered the commissioning ceremony), women putting on what my people in Owerri call “koi koi shoes” invaded the pitch. And I asked myself, why won’t the pitch go bald after one month?
Painfully, our authorities give out the stadia for all manner of social, political and spiritual events where the pitches are trampled upon like no man’s business. So, one is wont to ask again…Why won’t the pitches go bald?
In one of the political rallies held recently at the Dan Anyiam Stadium, Owerri, a make shift stand was erected right at the centre of the pitch. I wept for the grass.
On the whole, the sad reality is that as it stands now, the Super Eagles, Nigeria’s national team, could pass for a homeless team, as they go into the Russia 2018 World Cup qualifiers. The Federal Government must act now to reverse the situation.