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We Have Grown Our Support Base Enough To Win League ——Paul Bassey, Chaiarman, Akwa United


How prepared are Akwa United to start this season and what do they plan to achieve?
First of all, we want to thank Governor Udom Emmanuel because A!kwa United are now a factor to reckon with in Nigerian fooeball. Akwa United before now was not a club that made any news for whatever reason, either by commission or omission. It was then a whipping club both home and away. It was a club that struggled to survive. It was a club that gave people a lot of heart attacks. But as the saying goes you do not throw away the baby with the bath water. We invested emotionally in Akwa United but we were not getting the desired results. But with the advent of Governor Emmanuel the club started getting positives results. In 2015, Akwa United won their first trophy, Aiteo Cup, which was formerly the FA Cup.. In 2017, we won it again and went to Africa for the Confederation Cup.
When we were looking for kit sponsors, we wanted a deal where the sponsors wholly kit us and all of that. We got one on the condition that we should be able to sell about one thousand replica every season.
But we have turned the club around and everyone now wants to identity with it. We have done a few things. We have changed the Jersey colours and many things about the club. Now people are buying the replicas at N1500 and reselling at N2000. In the first season, we sold 2,750 replicas. We started having followers and you can now see people wear Akwa United jerseys everywhere. I met a young man at the bank and he was wearing Akwa United Jersey. I went to him and said, I like you; you are patriotic by wearing Akwa United Jersey. He replied that it was because the team was now performing well. We started doing well from 2015. Akwa United has become a factor in African football as it were, because we went to Africa. We were in the Super Six last year and came fourth. Yet all hell was let loose that we needed to have won it than come fourth. It all means that the expectations on us are very high. It means that we have got to a point where people believe that we should win the league. Three year ago we missed the league narrowly. This year we are going for the league title. In fact I will tell someone that if I win Aiteo Cup again, I may not be very satisfied. We must be in a position where we can win the league for the very first time. Given the passion His Excellency has for the club, the huge investment he has made and huge support from people of the state, the should win the league.
In readiness, we’ve hired a coach, re-jigged the team, put some players in the transfer market and brought in others. We are in camp. But the unfortunate thing is that we don’t know when the league will start. They said October 20. The boys are in camp. We even took them to Omoku in Rivers state and camped there for two weeks. For the past five years, we have been on top. That is how far Akwa United have gone and we now have a huge responsibility to make sure that we go for the best which is the league title.

Which is your priority: winning the league title or going continental?
It is always the league title. A league title guarantees you African position. Of course so also does the FA Cup which we have won twice. If we win the FA Cup again, fine. But we prefer the league so that we can go for African Champions League.
You said you’ve done re-jigging in the team, but supposing you win league, are you ready for Africa or would it just be making the numbers?
No. We always recruit players that will take us to Africa. One of the banes of football over time in Africa is that whenever a team wins the league, they begin to recruit more than 10 – 15 new players for Champions League or Confederation Cup. It doesn’t work that way. A team that wins the league should have had enough quality players and use them also in the Champions League. We took time to recruit good players. Although we didn’t win the league but came fourth in the Super Six yet five of our boys are now in the national team, the greatest number by any club. Next to us is Enyimba of Aba with three. Sometimes I do complain to the football authorities in Abuja, that taking out as many as five players from a team, basically kills the club. But the authorities will always answer that every club registers 25 to 30 players and should therefore have enough left to utilise. It doesn’t work that way. For example, imagine if Argentina takes Messi out of Barcelona, a lot of damage would have been done to the club. It is not as if they didn’t register other players but these are key players.

You talked of the support base. How deep is your support base? Is it deep enough to take you as far as you envisaged? When you look at Enyimba of Aba or Enugu Rangers, they have that support many years back. Do you have a deep support base?

If you look at support base and mention Rangers, then you need a lesson in history. That was a club that was formed out of the ruins of the civil war to get everybody united. Someone said recently that any Igbo man that doesn’t have Rangers replica is not a true Igbo man. And when you are talking about an Igbo man you’re talking about Igbo man spanning five states of the Federation. But sometimes I feel delighted when people equate us with teams like Rangers of Enugu or Enyimba of Aba and expect us to equal or even surpass their records. Before we came, with due respect to my predecessor, who were also in the process of rebuilding this team, sometimes you could hardly have 4000 people watching our matches. But now, we had a match two seasons ago under flood light when Akwa United met Enyimba and we had about 16000 spectators. The problem now is that the number of spectatorship can seem insignificant in a stadium as huge as Ibom Stadium which has seats for more than 30000. You may therefore think there was no good crowd. But take that same number to Kano Stadium and you will discover that there will be no space for people to sit down.
On a daily basis, we are growing the support base. Last year, we produced 300 children jerseys, because there are parents who thought that we should also do jerseys for their children to wear. People are demanding that we should open a sport shop in the stadium to sell replicas. Right now we do have new jerseys every season. The support base is gradually growing but it may take time to get to Rangers or Enyimba level. But definitely, we are making progress.

When we talk of sponsorship and partnership is Akwa United still relying only on government support and sponsorship. Don’t you have the privilege to have individual organisations partner with you to grow the club?

Partnership in sport is a systemic thing. When I came I was determined that I cannot be waiting every month for government to give me money. I had a lot of things I wanted to do that government budget alone was not enough to handle. For instance, the budget of average football club owned by government has no provision for bonuses. But in this club, for every away victory, players get N50000 each. It used to be N20000 but I had to raise it to motivate players. For every clean sheet, a goalkeeper gets, N20000 for not conceding goals.. All those bonuses have to be sourced within the budget. As chairman I should be able to walk to a player and say young man, take N100000 and so on for a job well done. I went out looking for sponsors and we got Dana Airlines sponsorship..
We exist in a country where out of 20 clubs in the league, only three can claim that someone is sponsoring their jerseys we still have clubs in this country who go about printing Akwa United, Plateau United, Kano pillars on their jerseys because they lack sponsors whose names should be on the jerseys.
But the same problem Akwa United is facing is the same Rivers United is facing, is the one Enyimba is facing, is the one Rangers is facing, because the private sector has not got to the level of appreciating what is means to bring out money to sponsor a brand. They use the poor economy as excuse for not investing in sports development.. How many of them are making profit and putting it into corporate social responsibility? How many of them can use a portion of their profit to support Akwa United? So, it’s a systemic problem. For example, I wanted somebody to supply the team drinking water because we consume N35000 worth of water every week as a football club and we can brand it Akwa United water. But a young man I discussed the idea with could not see reason with me and does not believe it will impact his business to sponsor with his product.. So, we are still struggling, to have support of the private sector.

Since the situation is that most football clubs are sponsored by government, but would there come a time when you think the private sector will step in and government will relinquished its sponsorship of clubs?
The question I will ask again is where is that private sector? Where is the private sector that will put in N3.5 million every week into a football club to travel and cannot even get in return N50,000 at the gate? Last year with the Boko Haram insecurity the Governor did not want us to travel from Abuja to Maiduguri by road for a match with El-Kanemi. After Dana Airlines dropped us in Abuja, we then boarded another flight to Maiduguri and back. We incurred a budget of N4.7 million for that one trip. How many individuals, how many organizations can foot such bills?, Chief M K O Abiola did his best of ability to run Abiola Babes yet it eventually collapsed. It is difficult to run a football club as a private concern especially when you don’t have a passion for it. I have in Akwa United, players earning as much as N600,000, N500,000, N400,000, N300,000 every month. That is far much more than the salary of a graduate. That is how the football industry pays. Therefore how many business concerns, how many individuals can afford such a high wage bill? Without the government I do not think the private sector can successfully sustain football in the state. As I am talking to you, the professional league has not started; because the sponsors are not forthcoming. We need N15 million every weekend for match officials across the country.

Are you worried that unlike in the 70s – 80s young Nigerian had so much passion for their country but today they to show great passion for foreign clubs outside the shores of Nigeria. How can we change this trend?
The English and European leagues bring the matches to your bedroom without stepping out of your house. Therefore you are bound to have an affinity

for them. The English league has developed in such a way that, you don’t have a choice but to watch it The Nigerian league is not even on TV. A supporter of European league knows all the players of Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea but can hardly know all the players of Akwa United.

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