Nigerians just love football. The old, the young and even the not-so-healthy. They all have a special place for soccer in their hearts.. Imagine how much they spend on English Premier League alone. I doubt if there is any nation in Africa that can match Nigerians’ annual investment just to watch European football. Operators of pay-TV who stream these matches to Nigerian audiences would attest to the passion and investments of Nigerians in European football via subscriptions.
This passion explains the delirium last week in Uyo, Akwa Ibom State. Inside the Godswill Akpabio stadium, named after the immediate past Governor of the State who built the stadium (Nest of Champions as they call it), a concourse of Nigerians gathered to cheer the national team, the Super Eagles, to victory over a gritty Zambian side. Nigerians buried their differences and in one voice cheered the Eagles.
In a season of hate speech, distrust, division and saber-rattling, it was heartwarming to see Nigerians in an iron-clad show of national unity chant the Eagles to victory. Indeed, genuine national unity is achievable. We can put away our differences to conquer heights for the nation if we forge a common front. The event of last weekend in Uyo confirms this, and it indexes one inscrutable fact: Nigerians do not care who the actors are for as long as they act well and put up a performance that appeals to all. A corollary is that it does not matter who the leader is in Abuja, state houses or local governments for as long as they offer good governance. Nigerians are sophisticated and perceptive people. They will follow any leader who treats them with respect, fairness and equity. They will follow any leader who offers development across all divides; who does not pander to ethnic sentiments or religious persuasion and who separates politics from governance.
All of this is exemplified in the manner Nigerians jeer or cheer the Super Eagles. When they don’tplay well, they are booed; when they play well, they are cheered. They were cheered in Uyo because all along, the Super Eagles showed uncommon commitment to the national cause: to be at the World Cup in 2018. This time, the bad habits that used to signpost the Eagles’ preparations for matches were absent: reporting late to camp; ditching camp rules, forming power blocs and ego silos among players were absent. And the football administrator, the Nigerian Football Federation, NFF, notorious for administrative rascality and management tardiness was up and doing. It showed leadership with responsibility.
The late Canadian philosopher, Marshal McLuhan, once said that the ‘medium is the message’. It is a classic, evergreen axiom which means that every medium has a way of influencing every message; the medium determines how a message is perceived. It is the same with every human activity including sports. Actors on the sports stage tend to do well in the arena where they are welcomed; where they are appreciated and where they are supported. We saw this play out in Uyo at the Nest of Champions which has become not only the home ground of the national team but also their fortress and talisman.
From statistics, the Eagles seem to perform better in Uyo more than at any stadium including our so-called national stadia in Lagos and Abuja. These two stadia built with tax payers’ money have suffered administrative abuse and no longer serve the purpose for which they were built. On the contrary, a state stadium has become the preferred venue for the national team. It is down to leadership. The stadium, a replica of the Allianz Arena in Munich, Germany, home ground of the two soccer giants of Munich, Bayern and TSV 1860 Munich was built in 2015 by the immediate past Governor of the state, Godswill Akpabio. Now, it is being put to good use by his successor, Udom Emmanuel. This is happening in a country where some state governments have been building one stadium since 1999 and are yet to complete it, let alone put it to use. Every year, the stadium ‘project’ is captured in the budget, money is released but the funds are never deployed for the project; instead they are diverted to private pockets in mindless plundering of public till. Governor after Governor seize the opportunity of the stadium ‘project’ to cream off the state of scarce funds. What a shame, really!
Not so in Akwa Ibom. Uyo has become the medium of our national football message. The same football that has produced iconic brands like the late Steven Keshi, Kanu Nwankwo (Nigeria’s most decorated player), magical Jay Jay Okocha (he’s so good they named him twice) and a host of other legends was beginning to lose its allure and lustre until the Nest of Champions provided a fitting bulwark against the rot.
Governor Emmanuel’s avuncular disposition towards the players in the last two years and the presence of mind of the government to keep maintaining the stadium to the standard that suits the playing style of the footballers, most of whom now ply their trade in Europe, is the nectar that keeps attracting the Eagles to Uyo. The idyllic ambience inside the stadium and the warmth of the spectators resonate with the actors on stage; and the Eagles have been acting well.
Beyond the joy of hoisting the Nigerian flag in Russia next year, the government and people of Akwa Ibom have been the biggest beneficiaries of the logic of making the stadium the home ground of the Eagles. When some state government officials jet out of the country in search on foreign investors, we should ask them what they have done with the vast opportunities in their home states. It is possible to create wealth in every part of this country. It is the level of economic stimulation and conduciveness of the environment for growth opportunities engendered by a government that attracts investors, local or foreign.
Governor Emmanuel, probably because of his private sector background as an investment banker, is smartly creating wealth for his people using the instrumentality of sports tourism. Bill gates once said; “As we look ahead into the next century, leaders will be those who empower others”.. In reality, every great leader seeks out the good of others through inspiration and empowerment. In the last two years alone, the volume of business that Akwa Ibom has attracted just by hosting national matches and playing host to other events has been phenomenal. The quantum of revenue generated by people in Akwa Ibom – hoteliers, small business owners, transporters, among others – these past days on account of the Eagles’ match is better left to the imagination. This is how to attract investment in the most realistic manner not the jamboree of chasing shadowy foreign investors from the streets of Kuala Lumpur to the faubourgs of France.
Backward integration is not rocket science.. It is using what is available locally to create wealth. It means being creative and innovative. All it takes is just a little thinking, a little discipline and a little sacrifice. Every sport has two components: entertainment and business. We saw both at play in Akwa Ibom. While Nigerians were entertained and rewarded with a World Cup ticket, the state was rewarded with good business across multiple spectrums.
This ought to be replicated in other states. Every state must learn to use what it has to empower the people. Saudi Arabia, Italy, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom, Kenya et al are making good money from tourism. As millions of people visit these nations for whatever reason, they spend good money. Akwa Ibom has started strongly with sports tourism, it should stay the course.