Senate Chief Whip and former governor of Abia State, Senator Orji Uzoh Kalu in this interview with NSM opens up on his regret for Enyimba International, the business of sports, his interest in Arsenal and factors against Nigerian referees making it to top CAF and FIFA assignments.
Since you left office as Governor of Abia State, have you been following Enyimba?
I have followed Enyimba International FC since I left as governor. It’s unfortunate that the team has not been looked after as it should but such is the world because once you are a football follower, you will understand that sometimes you win or lose.
Enyimba has not been doing well since I left because of the personal attention I was giving it their needs, the needs of journalists covering the team, to the coaches and the rest of the society. One needs a lot of means and coordination to run football.
How do you feel to hear that Enyimba is struggling to get funds?
Enyimba is an international club and it is sad for me that a team I used to love so much is not really doing well.
Before I left office as governor, I wanted to commercialize Enyimba make it to go public. However, when I left, I briefed the governor I handed over to thinking that he would follow suite but he failed to do that.
Enyimba was really the love of our people. Enyimba was everything to Aba people, the team was worshipped and it like after God, Enyimba was next in Abia State. Enyimba was the pride of our city, the pride of Aba and was the pride of everybody. I am not very happy that Enyimba is in the poor state they are right now but as like I have said before, a tike comes when you reign and one day you don’t reign anymore.
Enyimba is in their worst part since I left. For the past 15 years, they have not done well and I don’t see them doing well because you can’t owe players, owe coaches and you can’t motivate them or even motivate the sports writers covering the team. If you don’t take care of these basic things, you expect results. I used to travel from Umuahia to Aba to train with Enyimba and I used to follow the team almost anywhere they went and these were part of the motivation.
Today, I believe Enyimba is struggling but maybe tomorrow it could change as I believe time will tell. I created two teams- Enyimba in Aba and Orji Uzoh Kalu Babes in Umuahia but they changed the name. They will come back one.
How important is it for state/ federal governments to invest in sports?
It is very important to invest in football but not just investing for the sake of it but to invest in it because it is business. One player you sell can help you recoup all the many you have spent in three four years past.
It’s important to invest in football and other sports too because sports is life and life is sports. I encourage state governor, the federal government and looking at Enyimba today, you will agree with me that the ream is a brand now. It was part of my campaign that I would bring the CAF Champions League trophy to Aba and I did it back to back.
Trying to do it the third time and CAF stopped me by asking Al Ahly in the semi final not to let Enyimba progress. It was terrible what happened but it’s alright CAF will always be CAF. Back to track on governments and sports, I see that the federal and state government can do well in sports. Nigeria can win the World Cup and I say give me the Super Eagles and see what happens. Winning the World Cup is not a mirage but a point of hard work and provision of the resources. So, I believe that we can do well and better as state and federal governments in sports. Though, governments have no business running sports but can try.
What can be done to repackage Enyimba International for better glory?
To repackage Enyimba is the collective business of the Abia State governor and the government because they are the sole owners of the club. The governor needs to make up his mind and if he does, Enyimba will come back on track. He needs to have the passion, spend time, money for the players and coaches as well as well welfare of those who work for the team generally being as friendly as possible to all. He should also be interested in the players and not just leave recruitment to the coaches.
I used to identify players and buy them as a passion for the growth of Enyimba with the right people there. I recall when I was governor and you look at the team on the field, you see the 11 players represent the face of Nigeria, not Abia State. I never cared where the player came from because we had players that cut across the country. Looking at my face and behaviour, you will see that it represents the entity called Nigeria.
What has changed in football between when you were in office as governor and now?
What has changed is the lack of interest and lack of massive investment and also insecurity. When there’s no security, the fans don’t feel safe and would not come to the stadium to cheer the players. Secondly, players should not be owed. Their monies should be paid as at when due because when you don’t pay them, you don’t want them to perform.
Ordinarily, a lot has changed in terms of security, atmosphere and investment but I believe sincerely that if we get the security right and the players back on track, thing will change for the better. It really saddened me to hear that the players were left stranded. You cannot leave players stranded in South Africa like was the case the other time, you cannot also owe players but make sure they get their pay on the 23rd or 24th of every month and any player that messes up, you withhold his pay. Those were some of the things we were doing and I am sure that those of you who followed knew where we were going. The name of the game is being friendly with the team and motivate all stakeholders from players, coaching staff, management, media and fans generally.
Why did Enyimba as an international brand fail to attract sponsorship during you term as governor of Abia State?
Mind you, we were the first club to sign an agreement with Glo for N120m a year and when I left, they misused that agreement. We were being asked by MTN, Dangote Group, BUA, Budweiser and many others. The South Africa company gave a good offer but I told them that I was not going to put beer on Enyimba’s jersey and so we wore Glo. Unfortunately, when I left, it was mismanaged.
We were going to be a team that was heavily sponsored but after I left, it all crashed due to mismanagement.
Has ownership of clubs by the state governments helped in repositioning and success of the NPFL?
The ownership of Enyimba by government has not helped the team because before I left, we were almost set to go public with Enyimba but due to the laws of the Stick Exchange, we had no financials up to three years that time.
We were almost there and the idea was to sell the shares of Enyimba to the public and by that time the club was gold. There was a setback for the private public placement because of we had no three years audited account and the Stock Exchange under Dr. Ndi Okereke Onyiuke would not allow such because it was a rule by law and a rule by the Stock Exchange. So, that was the best time for Enyimba to have gone public and sold to private enterprise.
You blazed the trail guiding Enyimba to back-to-back CAF Champions League trophies, is this down to the quality of players, coaching or finance?
Yes, I would say it’s a mix of all- quality players and quality coaches. People just give players and coaches to a team and they end up messing it up. First you need to have the interest and I had it. I was interested in Enyimba playing good soccer, secondly to ensure we played players that were fit not minding where the players came from.
There was no player that was more important than the other from the 36-40 players we signed. Once a player is not living up to expectation, he is benched.
Any plans to float a football club?
I floated one and as you know that the team many of you refer to as Abia Warriors was my personal club but when I left, the Abia State government took the club. That bad experience has also made me to start preparing for when I get back to Abia to take back the club because it is my personal team. It is called Orji Uzoh Kalu Babes.
As time goes on, I will take the club back and put it where it’s meant to be. It’s difficult now in these hard times and security problems to put a new club together because nobody is going to the stadium coupled with the COVID-19 issues are problems.
As governor, you will recall that the Enyimba International Stadium used to be filled to capacity and we even had to turn people back. The kind of money we made from gate takings was enough to run Enyimba.
There was a time you showed interest in running for the NFF job, CAF seat. What happened to those dreams?
Initially, I never wanted to contest for the NFF but when Amaju- a close friend of mine and Gbenga from the Sports Ministry visited me in London and they proposed that I become NFF President and Amaju the vice president; I told them Nigeria was a difficult terrain to work and I turned it down.
One of the reasons was that I knew how difficult it was running sports with the Ministry or the National Sports Commission having been a member of the Commission under the chairmanship of the late Chief Sebastine Williams. I was directly in charge of football with Anthony Ikazuboh – NFA and it was a difficult situation running an organization that you are not in control of.
Nigeria is a difficult place to run football. So, being President of Nigeria football is a difficult thing. I praise my friend Amaju Pinnick because it is difficult to run that place where things are upside down.
On CAF, I didn’t say I want to go to CAF. People were speculating and at no time did I open my mouth to say I wanted to run for office of the President of CAF. From South Africa to everywhere saying they wanted me to be President of CAF and that is where that has remained.
I will rather help Nigeria to win the Cup than go seat in CAF. At 61, I still have age on my side but for now CAF is a secondary issue.
How can billionaires like Dangote and Otedola be convinced to do business in the NPFL?
It’s only by persuasion and interest that anyone can invest his money in football. True, it’s their hard earned money and you cannot tell people what to do with their money. So, it remains by persuasion and friendliness. If they see the right caliber people, the right atmosphere, they would be able to invest.
As a dir hard Arsenal supporter, are happy the way the club is being run?
In all honesty, I am not an Arsenal fan and I only wanted to make money from them as a business man. I put a bid before and asked them to sell the club but they were not willing. I pray they will listen to the voice of reasoning someday. We were serious with our bid backed up by one of the biggest banks in America but they only said they would get back to us and never did.
What’s your advice for Nigerian referees to get CAF and FIFA appointments?
Well, Nigerian referees are good but most of the teams make a must that they win by threatening them in their stadia. As governor of Abia State, it was only at the Enyimba Stadium that you could come and play well and win.
It’s a pity that everything we do in Nigeria, we’re enemies to ourselves. We should start celebrating ourselves where we need to. I pity Nigerian referees that are very good but intimidation, corruption and the rest can’t allow them do their jobs the way they should.
Some people believe Enyimba International is an Igbo team, do you share this ideology?
This team does not know who is Igbo, hausa or Yoruba when I was governor. It was purely a Nigerian team unless it has changed now that I don’t know of. No fan of Enyimba made it an igbo team. People were coming from the north, West, South. In fact, from everywhere whenever Enyimba was playing.
If those there now have sectionalize it, it is to their own detriment but when you see my face, you see the face of a true Nigerian.