Akinfenwa’s Pet Squash Project Comes of Age

How often small ideas get translated into visible, tangible landmarks that shape people, societies, and even nations .It is amazing to behold when dreams crystallise into palpable, substantial achievements people relate with, and which often become references and inspiration to many who seek successes in life’s many endeavours.

When he conceived the idea of sponsoring a yearly squash tournament , he least expected it would become as gargantuan as it has today become. Captain Oluwashina Isiaka Akinfenwa only wanted “to start a closed, manageable squash tournament” that would attract veterans (of his ilk), enthusiasts and a sprinkling of amateur players, enjoying the game at a specific period every year to keep fit and healthy. But the Managing Director of Cargolux Merchant Express, Nigeria’s foremost cargo company, sponsors of the annual Cargolux Merchant Express Squash Tournament never reckoned with the huge interest his pet project would generate.

Today, after 14 years of resolutely keeping faith with his dream, he has not only achieved the initial objectives of building a tournament that wins converts to the game of squash, he has successfully helped to create careers for dozens of athletic youths who have taken to the sport through the catch- them- young programme introduced into the tournament a few years ago.

“Only three clubs were invited to participate in the maiden edition of the Cargolux Merchant Express Squash Tournament when we started in 2004”, Akinfenwa recalls and adds “using the Lagos Country Club, Ikeja as our venue, we have been able to grow exponentially over the years.Today, apart from retaining a host of active participants from top clubs in Lagos, we are never short of participation from across the country and even beyond”.

The success of the tournament has since inspired an expansion of its scope to include age- grade categories since 2008. The initiative has in- turn proved a masterstroke as it has spurned great talents that have excelled in the sport, participating and winning laurels in tournaments within and outside the country. According to Akinfenwa, this pleasant twist in fortune has served to further boost the profile of the tournament as a breeding ground for nurturing quality squash talents into stardom.

“The huge interest we generated through our sustained sponsorship of this tournament led inevitably to an expansion of its scope to include the age- grade categories , first to the U-19, then U-16, and now U-14 and even 10. And some of these boys and girls that the tournament has been able to discover are now household names in the sport, and doing well for themselves at home and abroad.”

Besides using the tournament to promote the game of squash, participants have never had to leave without taking anything home. Although he is modest about the monetary incentives that yearly accrue to participants in the different categories of competition, rather opting to leave the aspect to the discretion of the organisers, the Cargolux Merchant Express Tournament is reputed to be the biggest awarders of prizes as far as squash championships go in Nigeria. In the early days of its existence, participants were known to take home, apart from sumptuous cash prizes, washing machines, home theatres’, standing fans, refrigerators, irons and the like.Now that the tournament has grown bigger, participants are assured of bigger prizes, especially at this year’s edition, currently ongoing at the Lagos Country Club.

” I do not like to talk about prizes, for individuals or clubs participating in the Cargolux Merchant Express Squash Tournament as we have always left it to the discretion of the organisers, but I know for a fact that all participants are always well rewarded. We have improved in the standards of our prize awards so much over the years that this tournament has come be the number one choice for squash enthusiasts all across Nigeria. For this year’s tournament, we are even set to wow everyone who takes part, particularly winners in the various categories,””

Captain Akinfenwa is also excited by the boost the tournament has earned following the active collaboration of the Nigeria Squash Federation, under the leadership of Mr Boys Oyerinde, insisting it has added a new dimension to the competition’s profile.

“The tournament has attracted more participation with the added collaboration of the Nigeria Squash Federation under the able leadership of Boye Oyerinde. Together we have ensured that the tournament is better organized,” he noted.
But does he not feel that the rapid growth of the tournament could become an overbearing weight on Cargolux Merchant Express Nigeria, considering the huge capital outlay required to sustain it? “Not at all,” he fires back , as if to protest

“By the grace of God, we have been led to do what we are doing today, not because we were compelled to, or for pecuniary considerations. Cargolux has been bankrolling this tournament, and will continue to, as long as the company continues to exist because we are committed to encouraging the sport grow at both youth and professional levels, as well as giving something back to society as part of our Corporate Social Responsibility”.

But is he considering extending sponsorship to other areas, say football or tennis?
” Not now or in the foreseeable future. I don’t know any other sport. I will be like a fish out of water if I tried to put my money into bankrolling any other sport. I have played squash for more than 30 years. Its my terrain. I can relate with it. I know the game, the rules, ..all the people who make the game what it is today in Nigeria. So, you can see my predicament? “

But can Captain Oluwashina Akinfenwa categorically say that he has achieved the objectives which prompted the sponsorship in the first place?

“Oh, yes !” he says. “I’d say with no equivocation that we have achieved the objectives that inspired our coming into the sponsorship of the Cargolux squash tourney if you consider that we have succeeded in taking the sport to a better place than we met it. Like I said before, this tournament in 14 years of existence has succeeded in impacting lives, especially those of the youth who are now accomplished stars of the sport in Nigeria and beyond,””

The success of the Cargolux Merchant Express Squash Tournament is ,to a large extent anchored on the quality of officiating it has gotten over the years. Actively pulling his weight in this regard is the indefatigable Seun Peters, a policeman who is passionate about seeing to the growth of squash in Nigeria.
He comments on the impact the Cargolux tourney has had on the growth of the sport, calling for more support from government, philanthropists as well as corporate entities who he says can add more pep to the growth of the game in the country. He traces his involvement in the competition and reels out a list of accomplished achievers who have broken through while leveraging on the competition’s platform.

“I am fulfilled seeing how players like Soliu Faidat, Abel Shedrack, Desmond Iguodala, Adegoke Timiloluwa, ,Gabriel Olufemide, Kehinde Samuel , Olatunji Busayo, to mention a few , have developed to squash players of repute. Yet, most of them started in this tournament in the age grade categories. Because a platform like this was offered them, they have had the opportunity to grow and ended up as top professionals competing against the best the sport has to offer across the world.

But what does a youngster need to play the sport? ” Parents’ consent, first and foremost. Then aptitude and the tools to play the sport such as a racket, sneakers, and kits for training, ” says the tournament’s chief referee.

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