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Where Are The Fans?

THE rows upon rows of empty seats at last Sunday’s 2011 Federation Cup final between Enyimba of Aba and Heartland of Owerri at the Teslim Balogun Stadium in Lagos has brought to the fore, once again, how deeply apathetic the local fan base has grown towards Nigerian domestic football.

As worrying as this ugly trend is, even more worrying is the fact that the Nigeria Football Federation (NNF) do not appear to be bothered about the situation and are doing virtually nothing about it. Our domestic football appears to have been left for dead.

Sadly enough, we saw this coming. Several years ago when I wrote about the scourge of “Chelseamania” (a metaphor for the invasion of  English/European football on the local game), I drew attention to the fact that even though we couldn’t completely stop the “invasion,” we could mitigate its “tsunamic” influence by taking deliberate steps to protect and promote the domestic game. Unfortunately, the situation is even worse now.

Ordinarily, last Sunday’s game should have drawn a full-house to the modest 25,000-capacity Teslim Balogun Stadium venue, with thousands more stranded outside without tickets. Enyimba and Heartland are two clubs with a sizeable following especially amongst their Igbo kinsmen who have a large presence in Lagos. The Igbo traders are famous for their enterprise, so it is not as if they couldn’t afford the gate fees. They also love their football dearly, yet they couldn’t be bothered to come watch their “own” teams play, even if it was just for the Cup Final. We’ve always known that local football was in crisis. But last Sunday showed that things are much worse than we imagined.

The media (including Complete Sports) has often been accused of being partly responsible for the state of affairs allegedly because we focussed more on international football. The truth, however, is that the media is only reflecting the preference of its audience. Publications that have devoted themselves fully to the coverage of domestic football (our own Sports Souvenir, followed later by Goal are two examples) have simply died off due to dwindling patronage as “Chelseamania” swept through the land.

Nevertheless, we (the media) still try to set the agenda by directing attention to the local game as exemplified by Complete Sports last weekend when it made the Cup Final its major lead story, just like several other newspapers. But it would appear that the impact was lost on the fans as they simply refused to show up at the stadium in numbers. It was so disappointing.
But we can’t give up. Indeed, the task is daunting because English/European football parades world-renown super stars, who play highly entertaining football that is served to soccer fans either in the comfort of  their homes or at relaxation centres a stone-throw from home. It will take a truly die-hard domestic football fan to abandon all of that to embark on the stress of battling through a traffic gridlock on bad roads, to go to a stadium where the quality of football is less attractive, while the danger constituted by  “Area Boys” remains ever present. The task is daunting but it must be accomplished.

It is the statutory responsibility of the NFF to find a solution to this problem. These are the sort of fundamental issues affecting our football that they should be dealing with, rather than flexing muscles over election processes. Is Alhaji Aminu Maigari reading this?

Heartland Worthy Winners

lTHE blue corner of Enyimba supporters outnumbered the red corner of Heartland fans roughly by three to one, but it was the Naze Millionaires (Heartland) who deservedly won the Federation Cup Final 1-0 last Sunday to upset the Aba Elephant.

The day after I previewed the match in this column last week, someone walked into my office with an Enyimba jersey which I bought for N2,000. I had planned to wear it to the stadium, but after speaking to Heartland general manager Fan Ndubuoke, I changed my mind. Fan confessed that he didn’t have any jersey for me but promised that he would make amends in future. So, I decided to go to the stadium as a neutral.

Good thing I did because, even though I had tipped Enyimba to win, it was Heartland that turned up with a better tactical plan, their swift passing and movements on and off the ball leaving Enyimba looking jaded and confused.

Enyimba coach Okey Emordi would later blame his team’s loss partly on ball boys who allegedly connived with Heartland officials to delay the game and run down the clock after Heartland had scored. But the question is, what did Enyimba do with the ball when they had it on the field of play? Not much.

Admittedly, I also observed the sluggish manner that the ball boys, particularly those behind the goal posts, fetched and returned balls to the two goalkeepers. But they were sluggish right from the start of the game, not only after Heartland had scored.

Overall, the Cup Final was not really spectacular as goal-mouth action and exciting moments were few and far between. But in the end, the better side won on the day and I’m sure that is good for football.Congrats to Heartland, for ending a 23-year wait for another FA Cup trophy since they last won it in 1988.

Disappointed Fan

lI WATCHED the Cup Final from the press tribune, which I must say was filled to the brim, compared to the empty seats that dominated the rest of the arena. (The media really played its part fully in this Cup final). Seated to my right was my son, Mustapha, who is a Chelsea supporter (a victim of Chelseamania!) and to my left was Christian Onyemaechi, a businessman who lives in Aguda-Surulere, Lagos.

Christian is a fan of SOCCERTALK and he was pleased to meet me. I told him I was pleased to meet him, too. Christian is from Okigwe in Imo State, but he came to the stadium to support Enyimba who are from the rival Abia State. That got me curious.

Christian was unapologetic. “Heartland are from my state (Imo) but I am not supporting them because I prefer Enyimba any day, any time. I have supported Enyimba since they won the African Champions League in 2003 and, for me, it’s Enyimba for life! We will beat Heartland 2-1,” he predicted.

Obviously, Christian was later disappointed by the final result. But his loyalty to Enyimba says a lot about the commitment of the modern Nigerian football fan. With a well-researched strategy, proper planning and good sponsorship, the NFF can still get Nigerian football fans trooping out to the stadiums again to watch domestic football. But it will take a lot of hard work and committed leadership.

Christian has a warning for Enyimba. “I’m disappointed by their performance today. If they play like this (Cup Final) in the Champions League semi-final , they will be eliminated.”

True talk from a genuine supporter.

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