By Enefiok Udo-Obong
The stadium looked lively. The activities were a welcome scene. The painters were happily putting coats of paints to walls that had seen years of neglect and dirt. Sweepers were all over the rows of seats. Cleaning and sweeping and their brooms made complementing tones to their melodic chatter. The grounds men we covering every blade of the lush green turf and making sure water was well rested within their soils. The activity was good. Some kind of maintenance to make sure that the stadium was well kept for sporting activities.
The only abnormality was that this was an abnormality. The athletes of different sports had trained in the stadium for a while now. Nothing seemed to go on. It was always neglected and dirty. Through the prompting of their coaches, athletes had been responsible to keeping their training areas neat and tidy, Picking up used water bottles, arranging training props, disposing of litter properly and so on and so forth. This over the years had been the norm. So there was a palpable curiosity when all of a sudden the arena became busy.
“The Eagles are landing…” was the response an observer gave when asked why all the activities in the stadium. He was making reference to the Super Eagles of Nigeria. The National senior football team. After almost two decades of exile, the Super Eagles returned to their historical home city, Lagos. Logistics, due to heavy traffic and decaying infrastructure, a dilapidated and decaying National Stadium and the menace of ‘Area Boys’ had contributed to the exit of the national teams from playing in Lagos in front of their most vociferous fans. These supporters too, it must be said, played a significant role in their exit. The knowledgeable and impatient Lagos fans had grown accustomed to an effective national team during the Westerhof era. One that played with power, pace and poise. A team that destroyed opponents with four goals or more during home matches irrespective of their credentials.
These successful team had spoilt the fans. And when the generation of golden stars like the Yekinis, Okechukwus, Keshis, Wests, Owubokiris, Rufai, Olisehs, Kanus and Okochas had departed the Eagles, it was always going to be an almost impossible task for the new generation of stars to meet up their successes and style. So when the fans expectation fell short, team was roundly condemned and booed. Sometimes this attitude helped the away side and the Eagles will has the impression of playing the home game at an ‘away’ venue. In rare occasions, especially when the team failed to win, the fans could become violent and this posed a security risk for the law enforcement persons.
So it was with these issues that the authorities banished the Eagles away from Lagos. They then became a team without a traditional ‘home’. They played their home matches anywhere some headline seeking politician offered financial incentives. They were new brides to state governors who wanted to score political points for their people, showcase a new project in infrastructure (especially stadium) or who just wanted national and international headlines. States like Kano, Rivers, Delta, Kaduna, Cross River and Akwa Ibom all jostled to host the team. Financial rewards were often promised. And even when the States did not host the team, they played in the perpetually almost empty MKO Abiola Stadium, Abuja. This no doubt removed energy and verve from the team’s performance and while often times the Super Eagles ‘Wobbled and Fumbled’ (Apologies to Ambassador Fanny Amun), the Lagos fans starved of live international football.
So when the Teslim Balogun Stadium was re-grassed recently, fans began to dream. They all awaited the day their beloved team would return to what they believed was their real home. However this has not come easy as new stadia with great facilities sprang up around the country offering not only a good for TV experience but with locals like in Uyo offering some great visitor tourist experience in food, accommodation and other forms of hospitality. So the Teslim Balogun Stadium was left to host ‘smaller’ sports events like tennis, taekwondo etc. Even the successful hosting of the National Sports Festival did not bring their Eagles back.
But they are back. The Eagles will play an international competitive match in Lagos for the first time in a long time. So the drums are out. The coats of paint are splashed on the walls of the stadium. The brooms are out again for a non-political function. This time sweeping dirt of floors and not in the air hailing politicians. The vendors are smiling once again. The restaurants around the stadium would come to life. The staff of the Lagos State Sports Commission would suddenly bark out instructions in a vain bid to convince us they are busy and important. The security guards would now change their bored frown into an active grin as tips would abound once more.
And athletes of other sports using the stadium, despite the feeling of knowing you are of a lesser sports would still smile, at least your training venue is being cleaned at last.