For Blessing Okagbare
The urge not to write about soccer this week is strong. I wish I could do without writing about Nigeria’s king of sports. I cannot because of the season we are. It is the transfer period. We expect to see young Nigerians earn a living playing the game. With such a setting, it is only appropriate that the exploits of some of our kid stars in Europe come to the front burner at a time like this.
Today in Manchester City, Kelechi Iheanacho reigns supreme. His exploits in two friendlies have compelled the club’s scouts and coaches to consider him for the main team when the European season opens in England with the Charity Shield game against Arsenal at the Wembley Stadium.
Iheanacho was the best player at the last FIFA U-17 World Cup held in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), playing for Nigeria’s Golden Eaglets. After his dazzling moments for Nigeria, European scouts struggled to get his signature, culminating in all the stories leading to his picking Manchester City ahead of others.
So much was said about Iheanacho’s move to Manchester City, especially after his father chose his son’s career path. Iheanacho’s acrimonious movement to Manchester City set him against the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) chiefs and the country’s senior team coaches, leading to his exclusion from the Super Eagles squad to the 2014 World Cup.
A few people felt Iheanacho’s decision to join Manchester City was wrong considering the club’s penchant for signing celebrated players in its fold. But the beauty with the game is that it creates the platform for immensely talented players such as Iheanacho to exhibit their silky skills for the world to appreciate.
Manchester City’s manager Pellegrini’s comments about Iheanacho’s abilities lifts the spirit at this time when the Super Eagles need new stars to elevate the team to the world class status it truly deserves.
Pelegrini was so impressed about Iheanacho’s performance that he told media men after the citizens’ 5-1 thumping of Italian giants AC Milan at Heinz field, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on Sunday that: “ we have a lot of young players here with us. We have Kelechi Iheanacho, Greg Leigh, Jason Denayer and several others. Kelechi has stood out. He’s on fire at the moment. He can’t stop scoring; he’s very calm in front f the goal. It’s an important chance for them to show what they can do, and maybe this moment is their moment.”
One only hopes that Pelegrini’s wise words would tickle the imagination of Eagles coaches to quickly include him in their plans for the country’s defence of the Africa Cup of Nations diadem, which the Eagles clinched in Johannesburg, South Africa on February 10.
Such mundane talk as Iheanacho not fitting into the Eagles’ plans because of his age must be jettisoned because we saw several young lads exhibit tremendous skills that left their markers sprawling on the turf. Young boys can only improve if fielded in matches. They will never get a big break if they are left at home. Iheanacho could have done better than many players that our coaches picked as our best at the Brazil 2014 World Cup.
Iheanacho’s talents remind one of the glorious moment at the Hampden Park Stadium in Glasgow on Monday night when Nigeria’s speedster, Blessing Okagbare, ran a terrific race in the women’s 100 metres to fetch the country the prestigious gold medal. Okagbare also set a new Commonwealth Games record of 10.85 seconds to become the fastest woman in the Commonwealth this year. On Friday night, she clinched the gold medal in the 200 metres for women, the fourth person in the Commonwealth Games’ history. What a feat. What a moment for the girl with a humble beginning bolstered by the financial support of her state governor Dr. Emmanuel Uduaghan, who was in Glasgow to watch the worthy girl justify the trust placed in her to develop into the world class star that she is.
Uduaghan has been there for Okagbare through thick and thin. He lifted her spirits two years ago after Okagbare failed to sparkle at the London 2012 Olympic Games. Okagbare’s exploits in Glasgow underscores the essence of investing in our kids, who most times need financial assistance to raise their game to the heights where our national anthem would be sung at international competitions, such as the Commonwealth Games.
Uduaghan’s monitoring of Okagbare’s growth should serve as a wake-up call for companies and public spirited Nigerians to invest in potential greats such as Okagbare, if we truly want sports to be the business that it is in other climes. Uduaghan left pressing official duties in Delta to identify with his young kinsmen and women, who he had provided state-of-the-art facilities to train.
Uduaghan said in Scotland: “The important thing is that they are serving Nigeria. And I’m happy that they are from my state and all efforts in building these facilities are not in vain. In Delta, we appreciate and reward all our athletes who bring honour to the state. You can see the marvelous job they are doing for Nigeria and Delta. It is in our character to welcome them home as heroes and heroines.”
Well said, Uduaghan. One only hopes that other governors will emulate Uduaghan by using sports to reunite the people and create jobs for the youths. Sports can be used to rebuild Nigeria, only if those in charge can deploy the cash to develop the industry and not their pockets.
The government would continue to bankroll sports, if it doesn’t provide reliefs that would encourage corporate firms to invest in the industry. It is about time brand ambassadors are made of budding talents, such as Okagbare. Had Uduaghan not stood by her as she developed, what happened on Sunday night in Glasgow wouldn’t have occurred.
Okagbare has been through the worst and best of times in her career. But she has this irrevocable belief in her talents. She easily puts behind any bad tournament and plans for the next. She accepts that she is prone to mistakes. She accepts corrections, hence her steady rise to the top.
Many would want to ask who Okagbare is? She told her story to the BBC in 2011, before the London 2012 Olympic Games. There were plenty of interesting twists, including the fact that she spent over nine months in her mother’s womb.
Many had given up on her birth and expected the worst, but the family trusted God for a miracle. When eventually her mother gave birth on October 9, 1988 in Sapele, Delta State, her father aptly named her Blessing.
Blessing, daughter of Margaret and Francis Okagbare, has lived up to the meaning of her name so much so that she has grown to become one of Nigeria’s gold medal prospects at the London 2012 Olympic Games.
She told the BBC: “I asked my daddy why I was called Blessing and he said that I spent over nine months in my mother’s womb. When I was delivered, he named me Blessing. Since that time, I have brought joy, hope and aspiration to the Okagbare family. I have seven step brothers and seven step sisters. My family is behind me and keeps track of what I am doing. I would have loved to have them in London during the Olympics. But in Nigeria, such luxuries don’t form part of government’s obligation to athletes. I agree with the sense that they could distract me, but I will remain focused.”
With seven step brothers, Okagbare’s first contact with sports was football. She played with boys and later soccer clubs. But it isn’t in soccer that she is writing the name of Nigeria in gold and making her parents proud.
Let’s move away from the sport whose actors are treated like gods. Yet they cause us more pains when we bank on them to shine. Let’s consider athletes who bring us glory through their exploits in sports that we often derisively tag lesser sport. Let’s acknowledge these athletes who toil to make others perceive Nigeria from the prism of endless stream of producing world champions and not a polity of jesters.
For us as a nation, soccer is it. Other sports can hit the roof with their exploits, we cannot be perturbed.
It is extremely unfair to reward Okagbare with $7,000 for her feat in the 100 metres when soccer players are paid more than that to motivate them when they draw matches.
A national honour, $100,000, a house and a car are what Okagbare deserves. After all, don’t our fumbling soccer coaches and players have unrestricted access to the President? Again, this is the best time to give Okagbare training grants for the 2016 Olympic Games. Nigeria returned from the London 2012 Olympic Games without any medal. Okagbare’s feats in Glasgow, show that she can win a medal at the 2016 Olympics in brazil, if she starts her preparation now. Take a bow Okagbare. All hail Uduaghan for believing in her. Oba Khato Okpere, Ise.