Sola Opaleye was the Chief Executive Officer of the now defunct Lagos-based amateur C.O.D United Football Club. He successfully managed the model club for a decade.
Having interacted and witnessed first-hand the foundational and structural defects in the Nigeria Sports sector, he was spurred to become a change agent in the industry and ensure sports is properly organised, well-structured and adds value like it’s obtainable in other nations globally. He spoke with DURO IKHAZUAGBE on his pet project. Excerpt….
What is City Sports Group all about?
City Sports Group (CSG) is a total sports development and a business of sports company which is professionally structured and run. We aim to develop leaders and capacity building of young individuals using sports as a platform.
The company was formed in January, 2018 and despite the expected challenges associated with businesses at the formative stage, we have managed to steady the ship and remain on the right track to be pacesetters in the business of sports in Nigeria.
City Sports Group, an affiliate of City Sports Group UK, is the parent body for six other brands here in Nigeria
Presently, our football clubs, City of Lagos FC, City FC Abuja and City FC Kano are fully operating in Lagos, Abuja and Kano, while plans are in top gear to make City FC Enugu, City FC Port Harcourt and City FC Ibadan operational by the fourth quarter of 2019.
Why do all your football clubs carry the name, City?
Our idea is to build clubs that are locally relevant to their environment while espousing our values as an entity. All over the world, the most passionate supported club are identified and known for the cities they are from. We want our clubs to carry the hopes and represent the aspirations of their various cities while retaining the same look and feel, general character, playing style and organizational philosophy of CSG. We want to build clubs with a local flavour but with a national view as well. We believe this is the direction to go.
You left your job in NLNG to start this company, how did you find the courage to leave certainty for uncertainty?
One word for that, passion! Despite the job security and income stability guaranteed working in a government regulatory agency, the desire to make a lasting impact in the sports sector was unquenchable, and I braced up to face the unquantifiable odds.
Growing up as a child, I was an active participant in sports, notably football. Despite never making it professionally, the passion kept growing and I got the perfect opportunity to hone my managerial sports skills when I was appointed Chief Executive Officer for the now defunct C.O.D United FC, a role I successfully filled for a decade. My interaction with major players in the sector as well as my witnessing some of the structural defects in Nigeria sports are responsible for why I am striving to become a change agent.
What is your objective in setting up CSG?
Preparation for life! Our programmes are designed to adequately prepare every participant, who goes through our system for the future. While a few of them might succeed as professional athletes, a good number due to various factors will not make the grade and must be ready to excel and be outstanding in whatever chosen career elsewhere.
We aim to ensure every participant in our sports programmes are armed with the life skills Discipline, Integrity, Excellence, Teamwork, Perseverance, Leadership and Courage as we tackle a fundamental societal problem.
I see us becoming a reference point in capacity building through the application of sports leadership values. In the next decade, we aim to be recognized globally for the outstanding impact and contributions of budding leaders that passed through our programmes.
You seem to be passionate about sports in schools? Why?
We are all product of the schools we attend. Look at American sports for example, school sports is the bedrock of their entire sports industry and their sports industry is the largest in the world. The NFL makes more money than the top five European leagues combined and it sources 90% of its talent from US colleges and high schools. In the heydays of Nigerian football and sports, the best talents were discovered through the school sports system. This shows clearly that if the right foundations are built, school sports has the potential to serve as the platform for discovery, nurturing and first introduction into competitive sports. We also believe that while in school, the mind is tuned towards learning. The students are very receptive to ideas and concepts because they see school as an environment to learn. So we are working with a few schools to develop frameworks and structures that will engage students in sports and create programmes that will significantly improves the outcomes of talented athletes in those schools.
Tell us more about the Sports Leadership development programme?
As the name says, it is about introducing young children to the concepts of leadership with sports as a vehicle. Concepts vital for leadership such as personal discipline, personal responsibility, communication, team work, planning, delayed gratification and how to deal with wins and losses can be taught in very exciting ways through sports. We held the first programme in Burnley, England and the children and their parents had a phenomenal time. We are holding a few more of the programmes before the year runs out as we have been inundated with inquiries from parents and schools. We are also developing a curriculum that can be embedded into sports programmes and taught by our coaches in schools or through the schools’ sports departments’ staff who we have trained
You recently met the UK Prime Minister Theresa May in England. Tell us about that experience
That was a great experience actually. We were training with the children at a brand new £4million facility which Burnley had built in partnership with others for the community and she had come to officially open it. She saw our boys undergoing training, became very interested in how they were so focused on their training and she came over to speak to us about our experience in Burnley. She was very excited to hear we had come all the way from Nigeria in partnership with Burnley FC. It was a great experience for us and the children particularly. Many of them didn’t know who she was she, understandably so, but they could sense she must be really important.
You seem to have close ties with Burnley football club, how did relationship develop and what are the opportunities?
In Burnley, we have a partner that shares our passion and commitment to seeing sports beyond entertainment (aprofessional and recreational activity?) but as also a tool to express values and teach lessons in commitment, dedication, discipline and belief. This is the team with one of the lowest budgets in England, but rivalled Arsenal for a 6th-place finish only two years ago and played in the UEFA Europa League despite revenues of under £150m. Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal all make in excess of £400m per annum and have played in the same competition repeatedly in recent years. That shows you what Burnley is about, not using your limitations as an excuse, optimizing whatever you have, however little and being undaunted in pursuit of your goals. These are the lessons they work with us to teach young boys and girl in our football leadership programme. We are working with them to expand the partnership to harness other opportunities. We would have announcements soon and we are excited about the things in the pipeline.
You have clubs and academies in key cities like Lagos, Abuja, Kano, Enugu and Ibadan, why?
Because we believe that talent is widely distributed in Nigeria and we want to be as close as possible to these talents, so that they can have the comfort and familiarity of home during their formative stage. One of the reasons why young players who leave their families at a young age struggle to adapt is generally as a result of cultural shock. If you can build a structure that allows them stay close to home, we have found that it significantly improves their focus and concentration. Once early stage development is done, they are better prepared and equipped to cope with being far from home. It is significant investment but we believe any investment that improves the chances of a young player living up to their potential is worthy investment.
You recently partnered Real Betis in Spain, tell us about that
Real Betis are one of the most professionally run clubs in Spain and they are looking to have a global footprint and Nigeria is an interesting market for them from a brand point of view and also in terms of scouting talents. We are also constantly open to new partners and opportunities so that we can find new opportunities for the players on our academy and clubs. It is a new relationship and we are both working on making it work for both parties and maximising the opportunities therein.
Apart from talent, what else do you look for in players before taking them on?
Attitude. Commitment. Dedication. An intrinsic desire to succeed. You can teach these things but only if the player truly wants to succeed. I always say that you cannot have desire on anyone’s behalf and that internal motivation is fundamental. Our programmes are built to teach these things but if you are not personally driven to achieve, eventually, you will fall by the way side. Comportment and personal discipline are also very critical now. Punctuality, courteous communication, respect for people and spaces are important as well. Talents are dime and a dozen. Sometimes, what makes the different is not what the players does on the pitch, it is in the little things he does or doesn’t do off the pitch that separates the wheat from the chaff.