Former Governor of Abia State and Senator representing Abia North in the Senate, Orji Uzor Kalu, while answering questions on a WhatsApp group, NSM, monitored by CHARLES OGUNDIYA, said insecurity and lack of investment are inhibiting the growth of football in Nigeria. Excerpts…
Have you been following Enyimba of late and are you impressed with what you are seeing or hearing about the club?
I have followed Enyimba Football Club since I left as Governor. It is unfortunate that this club has not been adequately taken care of; I know in football, sometimes you win, other times you lose but the truth is that Enyimba have not been doing well since I left. When I was in office, I paid personal attention to the needs of the club, the needs of journalists covering the club, those of the coaches and of the larger society. So, you need a lot of means and coordination to be able to run a football club.
How do you feel to hear that Enyimba, a club you love so much and followed passionately, is now struggling to get funds?
Well, Enyimba is an international club and it is sad the club I used to love so much is not really doing well. Before I left, we wanted to commercialise Enyimba and make it go public (at the Stock Exchange Market). I briefed the governor I handled over to, thinking that he would follow through with the plan but he failed to do that. Enyimba was really the love of our people, Enyimba was everything to Aba people, they worshipped Enyimba after God in Abia State, it was a pride of our city. I am not very happy that such a thing is happening to Enyimba, but as I said before, you will continue to reign, and one day you won’t reign anymore. So, Enyimba are in their worst period since I left; they have been for the past 15 years and they have not done well in anything, and I don’t see them doing well because you can’t owe the players, the coaches, you can’t fail to motivate even the journalists who are writing about them and expect to do well. I used to travel from Umuahia to Aba to train with Enyimba; I followed Enyimba almost everywhere they went to; that is part of the motivation. I believe they are struggling now but maybe tomorrow they will come up again.
Could you tell us how important it is for governments at the federal and state levels to invest in sports using yourself as a yardstick?
It is very important to invest in football; football is a business; you can sell one player and make all the money you have spent in three, four years. So, it is important to invest both in football and other sports. I encourage state governors, I encourage the Federal Government with what we did in Enyimba. It was part of my campaign that I would bring the African Cup of Champions down to Aba and I did it back-toback. I even tried to do it the third time. The Nigerian Super Eagles can win the World Cup because it is not a mirage; it is a matter of hard work and provision of resources. So, I believe we can do well. Although the government has no business in doing this business, they can try.
What do you think should be done to repackage Enyimba for greater glory?
Repackaging Enyimba is a collective business of Abia State governor and the government because they’re the sole owners of Enyimba and there is no other person who can bring in the investment. The governor needs to make up his mind and if he does that, the club will come back on track. He needs to spend time, money, provide quality accommodation for the coaches, for the team, and even motivate the journalists, be friendly with them and Enyimba will go back to the top. The governor should not allow the coaches to just buy any players they like; I used to identify the players myself and buy them. It is a passion; when I was in Enyimba and you look at our 11 players on the pitch you would see the face of Nigeria, you would see what represented Nigeria not what represented Abia State. I never cared where the players were coming from and that was why you would see Mohammed, Yekini,Afolabi, Mustapha, you would see all kinds of people on the field that represent the face of Nigeria and that is why when you look at me, you will see that my face, my behaviour represent the identity of a nation called Nigeria.
What has changed in football between when you were in office and now?
What changed in football is the lack of interest and lack of massive investment, so these things have changed. More so, insecurity; when you have insecurity, the spectators will not come to the stadium and players are not been cheered. Again, players’ money need to be paid as and when due. When you don’t pay the players, you don’t want them to perform; so you need to be serious to make sure that the players will give their best. Ordinarily, a lot of things have changed in terms of security, in terms of atmosphere, in terms of investment. I believe sincerely that if we get the security right and the players back on track things will become better. I couldn’t believe it when I read that Enyimba were stranded in South Africa; you can’t leave players to get stranded, you can’t owe them and expect a positive result. You have to motivate them and pay them by the 23rd or 24th of every month and if any player misbehaves, you seize his salary. Those were the things we were doing and I am sure that you people know where we were and we were going to be and that is the name of the game.
Sir, why did Enyimba as an international brand under your administration, fail to attract commercial sponsorship or it was a decision of the government at that time?
We are the first club that signed an agreement with Glo to the tune of N120m a year; when I left they misused that partnership. When others like MTN, Dangote Group, Budweiser, in fact, the South Africa group gave me a very good incentive, but I said I wa not going to put beer on the players’ jersey, so we continued to use Glo, but it was mismanaged after I left. We were going to be a big team, sponsored by many companies, we were almost getting there but everything was mismanaged.
Has ownership of clubs by the state governments helped in the repositioning and success of the league?
I will say the ownership of Enyimba by the government has not helped the club. Before I left, we were already planning to go public with the club, but due to the loss in the stock exchange, it didn’t happen before I left. I can tell you we were almost there before I left office, we were looking at selling the shares of Enyimba to the public and if not for what happened to the stock exchange, a share of the club would have been gold, we were so close, but the setback then was we had no threeyear audited account of the club, and the stock exchange will not allow us to come. It would have been the best time to go public with Enyimba when I was the governor.
You blazed the trail guiding Enyimba to back-to-back CAF Champions League titles and ever since then, no Nigerian club has attained that feat. Is this down to the quality of players, coaching, or finance?
It was a mix of all the factors. The quality of players and the quality of coaches. I had an interest in the club, I was buying the players myself, I had an interest that we must always play good soccer, we always featured players that were fit, we didn’t care where you were coming from or who you were at the time, the key thing for me then was the fitness of the player and how good you are able to use the ball, no matter who you are, we would bench you because we need to do that so as to show the players that they were not above board. We didn’t have any important players in Enyimba then. The 36 to 40 players that we had then, were all very important players.
Are you in any way planning to float a football club that will fight for laurels at the elite division of Nigerian football league?
I actually floated one. People will recollect that the current Abia Warriors, I floated the club. It was my personal club and I named it OUK but the state government took over the team. I am already preparing to take back the club when I return to Abia because it is my personal team and I believe that as time goes on, I will take back the team and put them in their rightful position. It is difficult at the moment for someone to start floating a new club especially with the outbreak of Covid-19 and also the security situation in the country. Nobody is ready to go to the stadium at this time. When I was the governor, the Aba stadium was always filled to capacity and at times we used to reject people. The kind of money we made from the gate-takings alone was enough to run the club.
Some years ago, there were speculations you wanted to contest for the president of the Nigeria Football Federation and later there were stories too that you were looking at the CAF seat. What has happened to both dreams? Is there any truth in those?
And what can you say of the success story of Amaju Pinnick in CAF and FIFA? Initially, I never wanted to contest for the position of the NFF president, but Amaju Pinnick and Gbenga (Elegbeleye), many years back in London, wanted me to come to the NFF and be the president with Amaju as the vice. I changed my mind and said that was a difficult terrain for me, at that time. Gbenga was the DG of the Sports Commission, and as a member of the commission, I knew how difficult the place was, I knew it is difficult to run the organisation you are not in control of; Nigeria is a difficult place to run football. The presidency of NFF is a difficult position and I praise my friend Amaju for standing firm so far. On CAF, I never said I wanted to go to CAF, people were just speculating and I never opened my mouth to say I wanted to run for the position of CAF president; people from all over were asking me to come and do it but I’d rather help my country, Nigeria, lift trophies than to go and be sitting in CAF. Anyways, age is still on my side, I am 61 and CAF can as well be a secondary issue.
As someone who has good knowledge of Nigerian football, how can billionaires like Aliko Dangote and Femi Otedola be convinced to do business in the NPFL?
It is only by persuasion and interest that anyone will invest their money in football because you cannot tell people what to do with their money. If they see the right kind of people to talk to them and the right a t m o – sphere , they will be able to invest.
I know you are a diehard Arsenal fan, at a time like this when fans are calling on Stan Kroenke to sell the club, will you be willing to put in a bid, and are you sad with the way Arsenal is being run?
Honestly, I am not an Arsenal fan; I wanted to use Arsenal to make money because it is business. I put in a bid before and asked them to sell the club but they were not serious about selling the club, I pray they will listen to the voice of reason and wisdom. I sent them a bid, an interest but Arsenal just replied and said they would come back. We were serious with the bid as we were backed by one of the biggest banks in America to do this bid.
A section of the fans believe Enyimba Int`l is for the Igbos, do you share the same Ideology?
When I was the governor, there was nothing like Hausa, Igbo or Yoruba, it was a Nigeria team unless it has changed now. No fans of Enyimba made it an Igbo team. People were coming from all parts of the country to watch the team when they had international matches. I believe if you are trying to make it a tribe thing, then you are doing the wrong thing.
Why is it that only a few Nigerian politicians like yourself and Senator Ifeanyi Ubah are identifying with Nigerian football, why do you think others are shying away?
Nigerian football is not profitable and there is little people can do about it. I was working hard to make Enyimba profitable when I was there, from the year 2000 but when I left, a lot of things happened, the insecurity in Aba and all the rest made it impossible. No investor wants to come and I can tell you we don’t have the infrastructure to put football where it supposed to be. We needed rail line, needed electricity; for me, I want a situation where we enter a train from Abuja maybe 9 am or 12 noon and go to Aba to watch a match and immediately after the game, I should be able to enter the same train back and be in Abuja and go to work the next day. These are some of the infrastructure we don’t have, these are investments we need to make available. Also, we don’t have a stable income, those who are traders today might not be there again tomorrow, so the economy must be well developed without which we cannot really develop football.