The Qatar 2022 Soccer World Cup was unique and outstanding in many ways. It was the first to be held in the Middle East and the Arab world, not in Saudi Arabia or the Emirates, but in Qatar, an oil-rich country of about three million people, and what a show they put on. They built state-of-the-art stadiums and for a small country that is 11,571 square km, the furthest stadium was 40 km from the city center. Transportation, organization and security were top notch and although accommodation was expensive for some, they made adequate arrangements for all classes of visitors.
The Qataris were amply rewarded with a top-level competition that was impressive, exciting, mixed with mind-blowing surprises and several records. Argentina, one of the pre-tournament favorites, went from turf to grace (after suffering a humiliating 1-2 loss to Saudi Arabia, they bounced back to win the trophy that crowned Lionel Messi’s outstanding soccer career). Morocco defeated 2010 world champions Spain in the group stage to become the first African country to reach the semifinals. And what an end the world of sports took!
There were two generations of soccer superstars on the pitch, Argentina’s Lionel Messi and France’s Kylian Mbappe, separated by just over a decade of age, and they did not disappoint. Both of them, no matter how you look at it, delivered one of the best finals in World Cup history; with victory for the nation that meant the most. Needless to say, Nigeria, with a home game against Ghana to qualify, did not make it to the 2022 World Cup.
Yet while the entire world was focused on the men’s FIFA World Cup, the ‘oil-poor’ nation Nigeria was holed up in a corner holding its National Sports Festival in Asaba, Delta state.
The NSF debuted in Lagos in 1973 with very lofty goals. The two main ones were to engender unity in the country and accelerate the development of sports in the nation by identifying and developing talents. It did not disappoint. It became the mini-Olympics in Nigeria with the regions and then the states taking it really seriously and developing sporting talent in their domain. Some even went so far as to invite other nations to play friendly matches to win football gold, then considered the ‘star’ medal. You represented a state because you lived there or studied there. I know this because I represented Oyo State in tennis as a student at the University of Ibadan in the NSF “Oluyole 79”. We were camped for weeks, paid generous allowances, and were properly equipped.
The NSF began to fall into a downward spiral when some underperforming states banded together to demand that the NSF become an age-group grassroots event to discover younger talent. Of course, the underlying goal was to thin out the field and make underperforming states a bit more competitive. His wish was granted and there began the age cheating syndrome in Nigerian sports with state officials, even sports commissioners, almost coming to blows to push obviously aged athletes. Standards fell, the media lost interest, and patrons turned their backs on the NSF.
It got so bad that I was forced to make a presentation to the Minister of Sports, Samaila Sambawa, in 2006 through the late Babayo Shehu, who had retired as Director General but was highly respected in sports circles.
The late Shehu and I met at Le Meridien in Abuja and I detailed the benefits of an open NSF and even went so far as to suggest that international athletes in the diaspora should be welcome to represent their home states or the state that produced them. make the NSF our own mini Olympics. The former director general, very convinced, took my work to the minister and the end result was that the Sports Directors Conference accepted a semi-open NSF with, if I remember correctly, a 50-50 participation of adults and juniors.
Ogun State’s 2006 NSF became a very successful event; attracting sponsorship and excellent media coverage. Records were broken at many sporting events, and ironically, the directors of the Ministry of Sports turned around to claim credit for the festival’s outcome. The 2016 Sports Reform Committee, of which I had the privilege of being the team leader, also recommended an open NSF with athletes and athletes from the diaspora welcome to participate, a recommendation that the then-minister, Solomon Dalung, diligently implemented.
Yet at this point, when the potentially lucrative NSF was expected to be a well-organized, private sector-driven, marketed celebration of our best sports talent, the competition has become flawed, grossly corrupted if you will, in certain ways. . I am not interested here in the poor organization of the NSF Delta 2023 in regards to the housing of officials and athletes, transportation and facilities, specifically athletics. I am more itchy by the shenanigans in representation, qualification and the purity of the competition. The states have turned it into a dubious sports company where medals are literally bought. Medals are awarded to the highest bidder for the services of athletes and athletes.
Although there is a roughly six-month residency rule, states with the cash are finding legal excuses to circumvent that. Players, they argue, could be sent to any state or even abroad to prepare for a competition as long as they are on their “roster.” A payroll many times manipulated. So you find athletes representing a state they’ve never visited in their lives. In every NSF year, it becomes a race to face and keep the champions in every event or one of the top four, no matter where they reside or hail from. These are funds that would have better benefited youth in the states if they had been invested in grassroots sports facilities and competitions. Therefore, good money is wasted on mercenaries for two weeks of fame!
But beyond that, as I wrote in my book, ‘Sports in Nigeria: Going Around in Circles’, there are credible accusations of athletes with a 95 per cent chance of winning medals ‘making up’ losing to their opponents by ‘buying of medals’. states so they can share the cash. Some states ‘promise’ up to one million naira for a gold medal.
The NSF has become a joke; serving only top athletes, sports commissioners and sports directors of states, the host state and the Federal Ministry of Sports. If a country with some 40 sports federations has to rely on a biennial sports festival to discover its potential sports stars, that nation is using the wrong sports compass. There was even talk of making the NSF international. Of course, the real motive for such an absurd plan is very easy to decipher.
I wonder if the NSF would have held on by the time Nigeria had qualified for the World Cup?
- Kienka is the Director of the International Tennis Academy