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Saturday, 02 December 2023 06:40

Segun Odegbami: Good tidings from FIFA for Nigerian football!

Last Thursday, purely out of curiosity and the unusual invitation I received from Augustine Eguavoen, former captain as well as former Manager of the Super Eagles, for whom I have a lot of respect, I attended a Nigeria Football Federation program for the first time in ages.

The invitation aroused my curiosity.

 

FIFA is promoting and funding a new development program targeted at the global grassroots. It involves supporting Member Associations to identify, educate and train young football talents, and nurture them to become the best. This automatically means proper involvement of schools and football academies in the country’s football development agenda and architecture.

 

It was all sweet music to my ears. I dropped everything I was doing and headed to Abuja for the one-day workshop. I am glad I did.

Air Peace Ambassador

I had not been to Abuja for a while. This was my second trip only, and my second opportunity since July 28th 2023, experience, first-hand, travelling as an Air Peace Ambassador. On July 28th 2023, Dr. Allen Onyema, Chairman of the biggest airline in Nigeria presently, and one of the fastest growing on the African continent, Air Peace, celebrated, honoured and decorated a group of forgotten national sports heroes. He made them Air Peace Ambassadors with the unprecedented benefits of flying to any destination in Nigeria without any limitation for the rest of their lives. There is also the additional privilege of doing so in style by flying in Business Class whenever a vacant seat is available. Such generosity has never been seen in history! My American friends, world-renowned athletes, find it hard to believe that any such reward was possible. That’s the magnitude of Allen Onyema’s humanity, patriotism, and generosity.

Last Thursday morning, I had the opportunity of a ‘taste’ of it. It was an absolute treat. Now I understand why a few of my colleagues will not stop harassing me about wishing to see Allen personally to thank him, and to make him understand how much he has touched and even changed their lives for good, forever, with his uncommon munificence.

I was amply reminded about all of these things last Thursday as I booked a seat, took the early morning flight out into Abuja, and returned on Friday morning, also on the first flight out. My experience is only be better imagined.

In summary, both flights, in an almost brand-new aircraft, were great experiences – the ease of booking the flights, the friendly reception at the desks, the elevating courtesies on board, the timely departures and the smooth flights. It was all a dream!

I know it will not always be so for every passenger and on all flights. Yet, our responsibility as beneficiaries is to continue to acknowledge and to testify to the uncommon and unprecedented gifts that have changed the lives of the surviving members of the 1976 Olympic contingent, as well as the 1980 AFCON football winners.

On Saturday, December 2, 2023, some members of those teams will join me on “90 minutes with Mathematical7” on Eagle7 Sports Radio, to share our experiences. Have all the pledges made to them been redeemed? Are they truly enjoying free-flights around Nigeria?

Now, back to the primary reason for my going to Abuja.

FIFA and Nigerian grassroots Football

FIFA is driving a new football development program called FIFA Talent Development Scheme. The program gives every boy and girl an opportunity and space to play football, the most gifted to be discovered and to be trained to become elite players, and subsequently made to play more often and at higher levels enough to prepare them for the highest levels of football, particularly, in their national teams.

This means focusing on young players between the ages of 11 and 16 in all Member Association countries; introducing new FIFA competitions deliberately designed to impact football at grassroots levels; involving stakeholders through their national federations by playing a role in this grand vision; developing training programs to improve the human capacity to drive the entire project; and provide the essential funding, expert guidance and supervision for the project to succeed.

Two technical experts from FIFA came to Abuja to explain the details of the project, guide stakeholders into playing a role and how to partner with FIFA through their national federation in the implementation process. The assembly of stakeholders were from academies, clubs, state football associations, schools sports, the NIS, and so on.

The event went well enough. I was surprised about the large turnout of grassroots stakeholders from different parts of Nigeria, particularly the owners of academies mushrooming in every cranny, the largest constituency in Nigerian football today.

The main highlights are that the academies must meet certain criteria to be set, in order to be officially registered with the Football Federation to enjoy the benefits of being in the FIFA family. FIFA is creating more competitions for the youths. The Under-17 Championship shall become an annual event with an increase in the number of participating countries. There is also an increase in women’s competitions.

Austin Eguavoen presented the assembly with an ambitious vision for grassroots football in Nigeria, setting the standards and targets at every level to be achieved by 2027.

It was all very interesting. If properly implemented, I believe it will fill the missing gaps in Nigeria’s transition from juniors to seniors.

I can’t wait to observe the outcomes, of this very laudable program, on paper.

Special time with diplomats

Shortly after the FIFA program I decided to honour my friend, the Director-General of the Nigerian Council for Arts and Culture, NCAC, Otunba Olusegun Runsewe, who was officially re-opening the re-furbished Arts and Culture Centre in Abuja. He had invited me to the ceremony targeted at the diplomatic committee in Abuja.

It turned out to be a good outing for me, particularly in my role as Head of the Sports Diplomacy Unit of the Nigeria Institute of International Affairs, NIIA.

About 16 Ambassadors turned up, plus several lesser officers from various other embassies.

An opportunity came for me to pass on a remark, and trust me, I went into reminiscences, recalling my experiences in some of the countries whose ambassadors were physically present.

I recalled how, in 1973, I played my first international match against the national team of the Central African Republic, and scored my first international goal. The Ambassador was pleasantly shocked at the revelation.

To the excitement of the Cameroonian Ambassador, I recalled my first international football trophy. It was a confrontation with the legendary Roger Milla, Africa’s best player at the time, and captain of Tonnerre Kalala FC. We won and I was a scorers again.

I recalled the trip of the Green Eagles to Varna for camping on our way to the All-Africa Games in Algiers in 1978; how driving down one of the major highways we saw an exact replica of the National Theatre in Iganmu, Lagos, in the Bulgarian city. It was an eerie experience. The Ambassador was relieved as I did not recall Nigeria’s trouncing of Bulgaria in the 1994 World Cup. We have become friends.

I recalled the Green Eagles’ visit to China, the first Black and African national team in the world to play across several cities in China. The China Ambassador was mesmerized.

My message to the American and Jamaican Ambassadors was about Nigeria’s mission to conquer the world through deployment of soft power diplomatic tools. Nigeria’s music has taken over the world. Nigerian films and sports are on the warpath.

Arts and Culture will soon join them, and together, Nigeria, with some of the smartest people on earth, will soon rule the world by using soft tools.

I must have left many of the Ambassadors basking in the brief moments of history of past relationship with Nigeria that they may not know existed, at the new Arts and Culture Centre in Abuja.

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