If Nigerian ex-internationals are to have their way, Lagos State Governor, Akinwumi Ambode would not only do a second term, but would possibly be given a waiver to do a third term in office. How come the outgoing Lagos governor, who was denied a second term ticket by his party, struck an accord with Nigerian ex-internationals? Waidi Akanni, a leading member of the group explains in this exclusive interview he granted Sports Editor, George Aluo. Akanni also spoke on other issues affecting Nigerian football.
Nigerian ex-internationals under the auspices of The Match International have a big event early next year. What is it all about?
You are very correct. It is a two-day event that would be rounded up with a football match in honor of incumbent Lagos State Governor, Akinwumi Ambode.
The game, which is billed for the Onikan Stadium on March 15, is tagged Africa X1 versus Naija Legends. It is a game that would be attracting several African soccer legends. We are bringing them to Lagos, ostensibly to say a big thank you to Governor Ambode for supporting sports, especially football as a governor.
We are also doing this because Governor Ambode has in the last three years identified fully with us…I mean ex-internationals. If other people had behaved like Ambode, ex-internationals won’t be crying that they are always neglected after serving their fatherland.
What is it, in concrete terms, that Ambode has done to deserve this honor?
Let’s start with sports generally, take a look at sports in Lagos. He (Ambode) is leaving it better than he met it. He has succeeded in laying a solid foundation for sports with the level of infrastructure he has put in place. He has in the last three years upgraded all the sporting facilities in Lagos.
The Teslim Balogun Stadium, Agege Stadium and now Onikan Stadium is there for everybody to see. He has also developed several mini stadiums in different parts of the state.
Ambode attracted several international competitions to Lagos. From table tennis to tennis down to squash and marathon. The story is the same. The Lagos City Marathon is a good example of what Ambode did to change the face of sports and tourism in the state.
Talking about us as ex-internationals, there was nothing Ambode did in sports without carrying us along. He even sponsored a few of our members to the World Cup in Russia. His doors are literally open to us as governor, even as we speak. So, it is not all about money, but about identifying with a group and respecting them for what they did for the country in their heydays.
So, who and who are in, talking about the Africa X1 vs Naija Legends?
Several African soccer legends have not only endorsed it, but pledged to be in Lagos for the game. Drogba has confirmed he is coming. In fact, he sent one of his aides to represent him during a recent press briefing we had in Lagos.
He (Drogba) is not coming alone. He is coming with a good number of ex-Elephants players. We have at least four Ghanaian ex-internationals coming. Ex-internationals from Congo, Egypt and other parts of Africa are also coming. And the biggest fish of them all, George Opong Weah, the President of Liberia has assured us he would be in Lagos.
On the home front, Samson Siasia, Austin Eguavoen, Ifeanyi Udeze, Henry Nwosu name it…we are all ready for the show. Note that the event won’t be all about the game.
We are holding a soccer clinic a day before the game. The Governor Ambode game would also be used to commission the brand new Onikan Stadium, which Ambode is turning into a world class arena.
Talking about funding…how is The Match International raising funds to bring the African soccer legends to Lagos including a sitting President, George Opong Weah?
We are going about that aggressively. We are marketing the event and, as we speak, some companies have bought into the project. Some of the companies are firms that have in the last three years sponsored sporting events in Lagos.
Access Bank has agreed to support us and as you know Access has been sponsoring the Lagos City Marathon. Sifax is also on board alongside Adron Homes.
More corporate bodies are queueing in. We are talking to several companies and we are confident many of them would buy into the project. We are looking to raise money, which we would use to help indigent ex-internationals that are in financial quagmire.
So, the game is private sector-driven?
That is it. We know the corporate bodies that buy into it would get a lot of mileage. You can imagine an event that is attracting former World Footballer of the Year, Weah, Drogba, Yaya Toure, Michael Essien, Egypt’s Aboutreka, Siasia, Eguavoen and even some current players. Odion Ighalo, I must reveal, has assured us he would play for Ambode.
Ighalo is happy Ambode has captured Ajegunle in his plans with the Maracana Stadium project. On the whole, I can assure you we are on course with how to fund the game.
This brings me to the issue of funds and sponsorship in Nigerian football. How do we get the corporate bodies to support the round leather game in the country?
It is very simple. We need first and foremost to get the game out of government control. If we do that, the soccer federation would run independently and generate funds.
You can see the present NFF board has achieved a lot in that direction…today we hear Amaju and his team has reached 65 percent of funding. If the NFF is given the free hands to operate, I’m sure more corporate bodies would identify with them.
We must not also forget that there must be transparency and accountability in the running of the game.
Let’s talk about the Eagles. They are through to AFCON 2019 with a game to spare. Do you think Rohr has a team that can rule Africa next summer?
To be honest with you, Rohr still has a lot of job to do. He is still building his team, even after the World Cup in Russia. You can see that some young players have been drafted in after the World Cup.
The Eagles defence is still a problem, just as the goalkeeping area. Rohr, as I said earlier, has a lot of work to do. He needs to play friendlies to blend his team before hitting AFCON 2019.
Don’t you think Nigeria should have joined the AFCON 2019 race as host?
That project won’t fly in an election year. Don’t forget elections are coming up in the country early next year. So, bidding to host AFCON would be difficult.
What is your assessment of the present NFF leadership?
Anybody who is sincere would give Amaju Melvin Pinnick and his team a passmark no matter the camp you belong to. Give it to Pinnick, he has succeeded in getting the private sector to invest in Nigerian football and that is what we need to take our football to the next level.
Some people would say probe him, drag him to EFCC and all that, but the question to ask is this? The money they are spending is it government money?
If a man goes out of his way to attract funding and the corporate bodies bringing the money are satisfied with what they are doing, that is fine. You can see the NFF prosecuted the last World Cup without any crisis of allowances, bonuses not being paid and all that.
To me, Pinnick has done well and it is good he got a second term.Those who wanted to push him out wouldn’t have done better and if Pinnick was pushed out, that would have taken our game backwards when we should be moving forward.