Segun Odegbami is one of Nigeria’s football icons who travelled to Russia a few months back to watch the World Cup matches. He arrived before the commencement of the tournament and stayed back a few days after the closing match. All in all, he spent about 3 weeks in Russia where he watched most of the major games live and interacted with some of the players both new and old.
A few days back, Big Seg had a Sunday morning interview with City People Publisher, SEYE KEHINDE, during which he recapped what he saw in Russia.
You were in Russia during the last World Cup and you saw all that happened. What were your take aways from the football tourney? What were the lessons to be learnt by Nigeria?
It was an opportunity for me to say once again that the World Cup should be seen beyond the football that is played. The football that is played is very important. That is the entertainment. That is the one that can charge the passion of the people. That is the one that is the most powerful event, and the most powerful tool in the world to drive any agenda. There is no other event in the history of mankind, that attracts the same kind of passion, emotion and followership as football and the World Cup. When Nelson Mandela said that Sports has the power to change the world, he wasn’t been flippant. It was because he saw what only very few people still see today which is what I saw at the World Cup in Russia. It reinforced the game that the World Cup, beyond the football that entertains, that drives the emotions and passions of people, that sees the 1 million people from different parts of the world, travel to an environment and spend billions of money, become one, as friends and are united. There is no fight, there is no quarrel. The world is united, everybody ends happily at the end of the day, celebrating the champion, whilst everybody else is a winner.
Whilst all of that is going on, some other things have happened, beyond the football. The most important is that the world has now been reminded again that this game, this sport, has the power to change the world.
We should now start to redirect the power of that game to change aspects of the world that requires change. From time to time we see glimpses of that. During the World Cup, no 2 countries that have been at war will go to that World Cup and continue to demonstrate that war. They will go there and play as 2 friendly, healthy nations. No country withdrew because there was crisis between them. The players played and embraced at the end of the day. They were watched by over 5 billion people (accumulative audience) around the world for 1 month. People sat and watched. Can you imagine the agenda we could have sold throughout that period to reach 5 and a half billion people-a message, a project, something that we could have sold. That is one of the demonstration of how powerful football can be. Thats why when I said Nigeria and 4 or 5 other West African countries should host the World Cup, I wasn’t refering to the football, I was referring to the spin-offs of that World Cup, how it will generate a road transport network between those 5 countries, the dream of Kwane Nkrumah, Azikiwe and Awolowo in those days, when they spoke of a West African Super Highway. That will happen in 7 years. One currency for all 5 countries, that will happen. Also one Visa, like they still do in Europe, get one Visa for one country and you can travel to the rest.
One economic environment. We are talking of 215 million people who in that environment become one travel market. Look, its all encompassing. It covers everything about life, the least of which is the Infrastructural development that will go on. You will have world class medical facilities in all the places where this game will hold. It will develop your hospitality industry. You have to have the hotels and transportation to take care of your guests. That is what we saw in Russia. As we landed in Igograd, the President of the Nigerian Football Federation and one other guy in the same car with me, said, look at new roads, new airport, everything was new. This place was constructed because of the World Cup. Now, it remains there. Now, Russia has taught the Western World how to market itself. That is the greatest take away for Russia. Everybody used to have this impression of a negative or unfriendly, racist, stern-looking, security frightening country. But when we got to Russia we saw it in a different light. We saw state of the art facilities both in stadia and other infrastructural facilities, everything was fantastic, their road network was good, the architecture in terms of building looked good. They had Western shops like they have in all parts of Europe, their people had a permanent smile plastered on their faces. They were very friendly, so we had a great time. And we left promising that we would come back. Most people that went to Russia had such a good time that they promised to come back because there is more of Russia to discover. It is a huge country. It is one of the biggest countries in the world. There is a lot to discover and to enjoy in Russia. So, that is the take away for Russia. And it is a message for the rest of the world, especially Nigeria.
As you watched all the matches in Russia what went through your mind. Was it that all these things could have happened in Nigeria?
Absolutely. The pain for me was for us not to see from what we were experiencing, that we could actually have this done in our own environment. That what was impacting, visibly, that we could see in Russia, we could have been transferred to our own environment.
And even the football content, see how the Russians were playing. A team that had the lowest ranking in the whole of the World Cup, went into the World Cup with no chance of winning even one match but see how they galvanised the whole nation. The whole nation mobilised and supported them. We saw a United Russia playing. They lifted the spirit of those boys and infected the whole population of Russia. And together they drove those boys not just crossing the first group stages, but they actually crossed the 2nd round of matches. It just shows what football can do to people. And there I was lamenting that, look it could be us. Look at what happened to us the Black people in Russia. We the segregated people. We the dissipated people. We that were not respected because we are blacks. Again, we go back to that Black problem. We were the least represented even in the World Cup. All the African countries, including the 3 black countries that went there, we were chocked out in the 1st round. And yet at the end of the day when France was going to win, 14 of those players who played for France were black Africans. So you can see the irony, that we as blacks we have the capacity to do what they are doing, to develop, to benefit from everything that is going on, but we are not doing so because we are not seeing it. And yet the evidence is there before us. That was the pain for me and I am just hoping that we would have the opportunity to keep selling this message to our people in Nigeria, to look again at the issue of Beyond Sports, Beyond Football. How to develop the game. How to develop football and use it as a tool to improve our education and give our young people the opportunity of a global industry that is growing, that will help us to develop our infrastructure, that will help us to develop even our Leadership and Citizenship qualities, because there is no better tool to infuse in people than spirit of patriotism, dedication, commitment and loyalty to a course other than through sports. And all of those other interesting benefits. I hope Nigeria will see it, that sports is not recreation, that we will not be excluded, as we are in the present government, when they listed the 41 priority areas of this government, when this government came to power and Youth & Sports was not part of it because they do not see it. They do not see the power behind it to even improve our health in a country where life expectancy has dropped to 50. And the most important tonic and ingredient to change that around is physical and health education. It is Sports. It is to reintroduce physical education in our schools. Let it become a culture, a co-curricular activity with all of us, so that we exercise. Just exercise and your life expectancy will shoot up many years. Your rate of recovery when you fall sick will be faster. You won’t even fall sick. But we don’t see the bigger picture and its hurtful, its regrettable.
That is probably why I also want to get into a position where you can have access to the people that you can sell this agenda to and actually do it yourself, within your own environment.
During the last World Cup you had access to some of our players and even some of the old players. What is your assessment of our performance? What were the issues you discovered? And how can we improve?
You are talking football now. That’s technical. Of course we have to go back and make sure that the foundation of the game in Nigeria is re-enforced. Right now, we don’t have a proper grounding in football. The way it was before, we had a process of development, in the past. If you wanted to play football, before you went to school at age 6 or whatever, you had to play on the street. As soon as you get into primary school, the schools had facilities to expose you to the game more and more, so you are playing in the schools. The schools had their own competitions, like The Academicals and so on that you could play and be exposed. And the moment you left the academicals you had clubs all over the place you could play in. So, we had a process of production and the grassroot was really solid. It could still have been better, but then we had something there that was producing good individual players.
What we did not have were the facilities and the equipments, to technically make us know the game better. As individual players we had some of the best players you can think of. But collectively, as a team, organised to play in a style, according to certain patterns, we lacked that. But through the years, through poor administrators, through a high turn over of administrators from those who knew, to those who don’t even know anything, we have lost track, like the rest of the country anyway.
Now, its like the one eyed man leading us. We are not making progress. We are at a Plateau. We are not rising above the Plateau. So, we need to go back to look again at the basics, to look at the grassroot of our football, to start to develop our football from the grassroot and get our own players that have the embedded culture of the Nigerian game. At this last World Cup we depended on Nigerians who were born abroad, who played abroad, who had the European culture of football, not our own home-grown, that play with speed, that play on the flanks, that play with a certain kind of determination, they could dribble, that had individual expressiveness. All those ingredients were missing in our team.
So, we need to get those things back and add to them our new Knowledge and Experiences of Europe. So that the combination of a grounding in Nigerian football and the exposure of higher level of technical content in football in Europe would bring a blend that is truly African. That, we saw in 1996, in Atlanta when we won the Olympic Gold. That we saw in 1985 in China when we won the Under 17 Championship and we won it several times after that. But those ingredients could not happen properly and we can actually begin to prepare now if we want to compete to be the best in the world.
Don’t you think for now we are stuck in that rot of only handpicking players when a tournament is just a few days away?
Yes, for now we are stuck, because we are not developing fast enough and keeping them at home, so we still have to fall back on going to Europe where they will not give them enough time to come and do anything. The clubs will just release them 2 or 3 days before a game. They play and they go back and we are paying the coach thousands of money to just do that. So, we are not getting full value for our investments. So, what we need to do again is to look homewards. Charity begins at home. We have to look at what we are doing at home. If the environment at home is good enough and conducive enough, our players we remain. They will not just be flooding out in torrents to Europe and wasting. And we won’t just hire a foreign coach, because we are not producing our coaches locally. There are so many things we wouldn’t do. We would change the way we see it and change the things we do. But there is a lot to be done anyway. Thats for sure for us to get to where we are headed.