7th September, 2012
Christopher Okugbeni was popularly known as ‘Obiku’ during his playing days for the defunct NEPA of Akure in the Nigeria Professional League in the early 90s. He is presently the Team Manager of RASON Sports International, an academy based in Itaogbolu in Akure North Local Government in Ondo State. During this interview with Bamidele Olowosagba at our office, he talks about his experience in the country’s football league, the challenges in grassroots sports, and how Nigeria can qualify for the 2013 Nations Cup slated for South Africa.
How will you recall the experience of your playing days in the Nigeria Premier League?
The high point of my professional career was in 1990 when I featured in the NEPA of Akure team that won the Ondo State Challenge Cup. As a result, we competed in the preliminary round of the 1990 Natioanl Challenge Cup. our team were in the same group with Stationery Stores of Lagos and Calabar Rovers. It was the same year that NEPA FC of Akure gained promotion to the National League under the tutelage of coach Ayodele Phillip. It was a honour to be playing in the professional league those days, despite the fact that what we received in terms of remuneration from our clubs was nothing to be compared with what the players get these days in the NPL.
I was enjoying my game until I suffered an injury on my right leg. Then, I was playing for the defunct Julius Berger Football Club of Lagos with Yakubu Aiyegbemi and some of the national team players in 1996. Sadly, the injury forced me to retire from active football. After all efforts to recover from the injury proved abortive, my football career ended, and I called it quits with the game.
So, why did you decide to go into the grassroots when your contemporaries are going into Sports administration at the top level after their active days?
My decision to go into grassroots sports is born out of the need to give back to the society, where I came from. As an ex-football player who played the round leather game throughout my active days in this country, I’m expected to contribute my own quota to the development of the game.
That was a joint decision which my colleague in NEPA FC back then, John Ofulue and I took, to set up RASON Sports International in 2010. Our aim is to discover football talents in the grassroots, nurture and send them to our national teams.
As ex footballers, it is a challenge to us to comb our Local Government Areas and see how we could impact our football knowledge on the less privileged players at their tender ages through the talent hunt.
What are the challenges in grassroots sports?
Just like every other venture, there are many challenges in grassroots sports. In Nigeria, the major challenge is the issue of funding. Most of the sports academies in the country are being funded through contributions from the coaches and the players, because they do not have any support from the government or corporate concerns. The authorities need to assist owners of sports academies in the areas of loans and land ownership.
Also, there is the need for the government at all levels to recognise those of us who are contributing our quota to the development of the sports in this country. They need to see us as stakeholders and give us a sense of belonging. By doing this, it would serve as incentives for the retired footballers, who want to invest in grassroots sports. That’s better that allowing them to be lured into football administration at the top level, while the grassroots are abandoned.
What do you think about grassroots sports in Nigeria generally?
Nigeria is blessed with millions of talents, not only in football, but in all sports. Our problem is an inability to organise enough competitions to tap all the talents that are scattered in the nooks and crannies of the nation. Back in those days, when we were young, we had many grassroots sports for schools to compete in.We played in the Principal’s Cup, Governor’s Cup, Oba’s Cup and many others, through which talented school pupils and students were discovered for the National Sports Festival. Also, we had corporate bodies, that sponsored various competitions such as the Manufacturers Association of Nigeria, MAN, competition, which some teams, owned by Cadbury, Boulous, Cocoa Industry and many others compete in.
Through these sporting activities in the grassroots and among corporate bodies in the cities, talents were discovered, they go ahead to represent the country and brought glories to the country from competitions across the globe. It is the absence of these laudable ideas that led to the dwindling fortunes of the country in international sporting events.
How will you describe Stephen Keshi as Super Eagles’ coach ?
For me, one thing that Stephen Keshi has proved to us is that he is a coach who can take risk unlike his predecessors. For him to give both the foreign and home-based players equal opportunities in the Super Eagles is a risk which coach Samson Siasia and the others before him did not take.
As a product of the local league, Keshi has been doing the right thing and what is expected of him. When you look at what he has put on ground so far, you will agree with me that he has done a lot of work with the national team, more than what Siasia achieved during his entire time as coach of the Super Eagles.
Keshi has brought sanity into the Eagles by taking some crucial decisions when it comes to discipline in the team. The foreign-based players now now arrive the national camp in good time, unlike what we used to witness in the past when they come in late for national assignments.
Do you think Keshi can qualify the Eagles for the 2013 Nations Cup?
Definately. I think Nigeria will qualify for the 2013 Nations Cup in South Africa if Keshi continues to remain focused with his tactics of using both the foreign and home-based players together for matches. He should also maintain discipline in the team. It is the same tactics which worked for coach Clemense Westerhof, when he was in charge of the Eagles in the 90s.