THE GREATEST and most memorable sporting event ever to have taken place inside the Samson Siasia Stadium, Yenagoa, may well be the novelty football match involving international football stars such as Didier Drogba, Taribo West and Kanu Nwankwo, players who had recorded World Cup appearances.
These renowned world class soccer maestros have played on some of the most standard pitches ever to be approved by FIFA, the world football governing body, and here they were to honour an invitation to play at the visibly sub-standard Samson Siasia Stadium, Yenagoa. Loveday Herbert, Sports Editor of New Waves, remembers how it happened. He holds strong opinions about sports development in Bayelsa State.
“Baribote Rumson came with the idea of a Bariebi Sports Academy under the Goodluck government. He was a stubborn young man, but full of ideas. He donated sports kits and suggested improvements in the sports profile of Bayelsa State. In the heydays of the Sylva government, Baribote brought Didier Drogba, Taribo West, Kanu Nwankwo and others to play in a muddy and waterlogged stadium.
But those professionals from Europe were happy playing in the mud just like when they were kids. It was fun to see them like that, but the embarrassment to the state was obvious. That’s what forced the Sylva government to award the first contract to Ebi Egbe of Monimichelle to upgrade the stadium.”
Twenty-two years after the creation of Bayelsa State, the growth of sports is a graph easily plotted by sports men and women, sports administrators, commentators and analysts, to say nothing of sundry sports enthusiasts. The low points of that graph are more than the high points. Loveday Herbert can hardly discuss anything outside sports, except perhaps business.
“From all indications,” he says, “Bayelsa has not made any meaningful impact in terms of the provision of sports facilities. But with respect to participation in sports, we have made a mark in certain areas. Otherwise, on the whole, encouragement has been poor.”
Sports prospects for Bayelsa were high when Chief Diepreye Alamieyesiegha, first civilian Governor of the state, rated the sports complex as “a practice pitch.” The popular expectation was that he would go beyond the efforts of the Olubolade administration which constructed the complex, and build a more befitting stadium.
In fact, Alamieyeseigha started an Olympic size swimming pool inside the sports complex, but it could not be maintained or upgraded, and for that reason, swimmers soon lost interest. In like manner, hockey was popular under the Alamieyeseigha government, and Bayelsa was rated number one even at the continental level.
“Today, there aren’t even hockey sticks,” says Herbert with apparent disenchantment, “and the training pitch at St Jude’s Girls Secondary School is waterlogged. St Jude’s field was a breeding ground for hockey and basketball.
Not so anymore. Facilities have remained a major problem in sports development. If Olubolade had not built that training pitch, we wouldn’t have had anywhere to call a stadium. So I am all out to decry the lack of sporting infrastructure in the state.”
The same thing applies to swimming. Facilities in the state are virtually nil. Swimmers have gone over to neighbouring states. Bayelsa was well known for swimming and wrestling, having produced continental champions in the past. Jackson Bidei, for example, was known for wrestling. Julius Kodei and Joe Anyama were former African boxing champions. They all hail from Bayelsa.
For wrestling, the saving grace came with the emergence of Daniel Igali. At the turn of the century, he emerged as the Olympic champion representing his adopted country, Canada. But his allegiance to his homeland, Nigeria, was strong.
He donated wrestling marts of his own accord to encourage wrestling in Bayelsa and Plateau States. He provided a standard private gym and camped wrestlers in training. Before him, there were no such overtures of encouragement to speak about.
The records show that Pius Brizimo was the javelin thrower to beat in times past. Where is he now? How many javelin throwers have come after him? How will Bayelsa fare at the next sports festival? What hopes for Bayelsa youth at the festival? These are some of the resounding questions demanding quick answers.
“Most of our swimmers have gone to Rivers and Delta States,” says Herbert. “All our swimmers represented the University of Port Harcourt which gladly admitted them into various courses. They made exploits at the NUGA games. Rivers State collected all the gold medals because all the swimmers were camped at Uniport. Rivers won twenty-one gold medals in swimming, losing only one gold.”
Even so, Bayelsa’s place in Nigerian sporting history is still well known. No competition is truly complete without Bayelsa, known for wrestling, weight-lifting, swimming, hockey, basketball, and karate. In times past, the regular order of recognition for sports excellence was Bayelsa, Rivers, Delta, Lagos and Ondo.
In 1996, Gloria Kemesuode was one of the female quartet to have won the Olympic silver for Nigeria. She hails from Bayelsa. Where is she now? She is helpless and abandoned. Someone who mounted the Olympic podium and received a medal on behalf of Nigeria is a destitute no one cares about today.”
For many years, the absence of training tracks was a major challenge inside the Samson Siasia Stadium. Herbert could only envision a day in the future when he would walk on synthetic tartan tracks at the sports complex alongside the contractor for the project, Moni Love. “A training pitch without tartan tracks is not a stadium,” Herbert declares.
What’s more, Nigeria is one of the top ranking countries in Paralympics, and Bayelsa can boast of medal hopefuls in para- sports and in power lifting athletics. That’s why Nigeria won the hosting rights for the Power World Lifting Festival billed for Lagos in January 2019, all kudos to the Local Organising Committee for creating recognition for physically challenged athletes.
“Anthony from Trofani won medals for Nigeria in the past,” Herbert recalls. “He is now an old coach. Who replaces him? Freedom Peregba was a continental swimming champion. He won medals at NUGA and NASIGA games.
“One day I asked him to bring all his medals for me to see. He wondered how he would carry them. So, clearly, we have a pool of sporting talents, but encouragement for them is minimal, almost non-existent.”
In 2004, Ebi Avi made his first trip out of Nigeria. He was in Athens, Greece, for the Olympic event that opened his eyes to great possibilities for sports in his home state, Bayelsa.
As he put it, “competition for the Bayelsa athletes came up very late in the games, but we took time off to visit the various venues to watch other Nigerians and also appreciate the aesthetic beauty of the facilities on hand for the games.
“Apart from the fact that the facilities were the most modern, the sites were equally beautiful to behold. In this regard, the Aquatic Centre clearly stood out as the most beautiful of them all. The centre was a combination of perfect architectural expertise, with water fountains and a well decorated exterior.”
When he emerged as pioneer chairman of the Sports Writers Association of Nigeria, Bayelsa State chapter, Chris Odi thought he would bring his veteran experience in sports reporting to bear on the growth and development of sports in the young state.
He deployed many remarkable suggestions toward the process in his regular input to sports commentary. He repeatedly decried the poor state of facilities at the sports complex and wished for such a time when everything would be of international standard.
For Mablas Macaulay Akpuluma Jr, the verdict on sports was no less severe. The famous broadcaster served as coach and team manager of Bayelsa Queens, and his grouse with government has been about delay in the payment of allowances to his players, or outright neglect of the team in the face of stiff competition with its peer football clubs.
At the moment, Oye Poku, one-time boxing champion for the Nigerian Air Force, and current boxing coach at the Samson Siasia Stadium, can boast of training twenty young boxers. Four batches have already passed out from the boxing and dance academy he established in the absence of support from government for his favourite sport.
In large measure, the Samson Siasia Stadium was a sad spectacle to behold in the past twenty-two years. For that length of time, it was denied the facelift it required. Its construction history begins with the government of Navy Captain Caleb Olubolade.
It is ironic that Alamieyeseigha declared it a training pitch, and it has remained so for twenty-two years. It remains a major indictment of all four governments run by sons of the soil so far.
Herbert maintains as follows: “I know for a fact that Alams designated a parcel of land along Elebele Road for the Yenagoa stadium. It was well mapped out and cleared. Then came Sylva with a plan in 2008 for a golf course extension.
It was to be a sporting range called “The Star of Excellence,” a training ground with excellent facilities. A consultant was appointed for the project. Neighbours have since encroached on the land. So the major headache with Bayelsa is lack of seriousness with respect to developing sports facilities.”
As a rule, athletes compete to make a living. In 2012, a young Bayelsa female athlete called Gabe won four gold medals. Lagos bought her for 1.5 million naira which she used to build a house for her parents. Yet she switched allegiance from Lagos to Rivers for a higher bidding. “
So athletes are bought to compete. You can’t employ them. They actually bargain. If I win, can you pay me three million? You can buy a team of five volleyball players for half a million naira each.”
For many, the Yenagoa stadium is appropriately named after Samson Siasia. He has been the most visible sports ambassador from Bayelsa. The 1994 World Cup featured two sons of Bayelsa, Finidi George and Samson Siasia.
After the Super Eagles experience at that level, Siasia returned to handle the under-20, -23, and Olympic teams as a coach. He discovered new talents, and made an impact. He contributed to national development on the Bayelsa platform, in spite of the unflattering politics of football administration in Nigeria.
Under Sylva’s government, Siasia was encouraged with funds to camp new talents for Bayelsa and, with the singular support of Dr Peter Singabele, his performance was remarkable.
The last time Siasia handled the Olympic squad, he returned with a bronze medal, in spite of the raw politics in the Nigeria Football Federation, NFF. Finidi’s impact, on the other hand, is not quite felt. He is as good as silent. Siasia is more mobile and visible.
As player and coach, he has made equally great impact. He has great push. Amongst the indigenous coaches, Siasia’s record is even more remarkable. Aside ethnic politics in the NFF, Siasia may well be the best coach in the ranking to have emerged in the last five years.
Next to him is Emmanuel Amunike. They were both in the 1994 USA squad and the 1996 Olympic squad. They both have the ability to identify good players and get the best out of them in a grooming routine.
“I was most impressed with Siasia when he was coach of the under-20 team,” says Herbert. “He found Isaac Success and his team mates from the local league and brought them to limelight. He built them into a national team. If you want Siasia to achieve results, give him a free hand. Give him everything he wants, and watch him work. He understands the system in Europe and US. He understands the local and international fronts.”
Any talk of upgrading the Samson Siasia Stadium will do well to take cognisance of international standards with particular regard to the dressing room, locker rooms, floodlights, electronic score board, pitch of play, spectator capacity, and perimeter fencing to avoid crowd invasion.
At the moment, there is a shortfall in all these areas. Through four sons of the soil, the Samson Siasia Stadium is yet to meet FIFA standards. It is as if government is unaware about the potential of sports as a foreign exchange earner. In more ways than one, sports can serve to boost tourism and create jobs.
The comparison is tempting. Fashola built a stadium in Lagos before he left office. Amaechi built the Port Harcourt stadium. Akpabio built a unique stadium for Akwa Ibom. Okowa built the Stephen Keshi stadium in Delta.
Why hasn’t one governor from Bayelsa built a standard stadium that would lift the face of the state, and consign the sports complex effectively into a training pitch? What stops the Bayelsa State government from investing two or three billion naira to build a stadium worth its name?
According to official records, the highest sum ever released to the Sports Council in the twenty-two year history of Bayelsa State was twenty-eight million naira per month, and it came from the Sylva government.
Sylva also equipped the Council with a gym, an ambulance and buses alongside training equipment. Ideally, say the experts, government should be talking of fifty million naira with eyes on hosting a national sports festival.