Thank God, Heartland FC Escaped Relegation


oga kcc

For a greater part of last week, I was always on my knees for prayers. Though, daily prayers are obligatory part of my lifestyle since my seminary days, but last week was exceptional because I had a special focus; survival of the darling club of Imo people, Heartland Football Club Owerri. For the first time in the history of the club fondly called “Naze Millionaires”, it struggled to swim above the murky relegation waters of the fledging Nigeria Premier League (NPL).
At the end of the 36-week NPL League, that was concluded last Sunday, Heartland managed a distant 11th position, few metres away from relagation zone. The Naze Millionaires kept their fans edgy for weeks as they were spitting-distance to less fancied National League division.
The history of Imo State cannot be written without including Heartland FC records in the archives. It would be recalled that immediately after the war, the prominent football club with Igbo identity is Rangers International of Enugu. It became a household name in Eastern Nigeria. Apart from being an avenue of producing great soccer stars of Igbo extraction, who dominated the game in the national teams, it was the most cherished local side for an average Igboman. However, the creation of Imo State in 1976 gave rise to another soccer outfit named Spartans FC of Owerri. The Owerri-based Spartans drew several supporters from Rangers International of Enugu. Otherwise branded as Arugo Boys, Spartans from inception made great soccer landmarks in the local scene and beyond the shores of Nigeria when it reached the finals of West African Football Union, WAFU, losing to Sekondi Hasacas of Ghana in 1982. As a toddler, the waves created by Spartans during that era with their scintillating performances reverberated more than the noise popular English Premier League sides like Chelsea, Arsenal and Man United echo today. It was Spartans exploits that forced kids like us to develop interest in sports in the early 80’s.
The fortunes of the Owerri-based side changed for better when a renowned philanthropist and sports enthusiast, Chief (Engr) Emmanuel Iwuanyanwu took over affairs of the club. Similar to what Late Moshord Kolowale Abiola, the multi-millionaire businessman did in his home state Ogun, when he formed Abiola Babes of Abeokuta, Iwuanyanwu took over Spartans and renamed it Iwuanyanwu Nationale. Many may not understand how the club bears the “Naze Millionaires” name and its “scientific soccer” motto. On taking over affairs of the club, Iwuanyanwu sent management and players to an interesting training tour of Brazil. As at that time, I stand to be challenged that Heartland was the only Nigerian soccer side that went to the believed land of soccer for training. On arrival back home, the club was renamed “Naze Millionaires” because of the well furnished camp, the business mogul provided for the players at their Naze camp and training ground. The “scientific soccer” trademark came as a result of the Brazilian brand of “tip-tap soccer” exhibited by the players on for that year’s league. It was a beauty to watch mesmerizing right wing wizard, Benjy Nzeakor, diminutive midfield generalismo, Ben “Zico” Nwosu, left footed Paul “Okwute” Uzokwe, Chike Arisa and Sylvester “Bahama” Oparanozie dazzle in the attack with the man with bullet shots, Mike Obi. At the rear, long time captain of the side Sunny Ikwuagwu and Joe Ubanwa remained a rock of Gibraltar to opponents. I must confess that I sneaked out of the dormitory complex to watch these players at the Owerri Stadium because the soccer commentaries of Iwuanyanwu matches ran by Agwu Nwogo, SamRose Anyaugo, and “Ndaa” John Nwaogu on IBC radio were not enough to assuage our desire of watching the players live. The Iwuanyanwu era put Imo State in the map of soccer-loving states as no year passed without the club representing Nigeria in continental engagements. There was a time it became Nigeria’s well loved club when it carried the country’s flag at continental levels. I remember in 1988 while in Lagos, people from different ethnic groups gathered to monitor a live commentary ran by late icon in the football commentary business, Ernest Okonkwo, when Iwuanyanwu took on Setif of Algeria in the Final of Champions Cup for African Clubs, now CAF Champions League. It was an epic clash after Iwuanyawu had a small margin lead at home during the first leg played in Ibadan. Two reliable players of the club, Ransome Madu and Mike Obi were down with sickness occasioned by the harsh weather in Algiers. Few minutes into the game, midfield maestro, Friday Ekpo was red-carded and expelled for alleged serious foul play. Commentator Okonkwo shouted “how are the mighty fallen, any hope for our Iwuanyanwu”. At that point, Nigerians who stuck their ears to the radio set lost hope and gradually took their leave from the gathering. And Iwuanyawu finally lost. I remember the club represented Nigeria in pre-Olympic tournament of 1988.
Ironically, I stopped soccer partisanship because of the Owerri-based club. That is why I divorce myself from the Eurocentric craze for European clubs. I don’t argue over Chelsea, Arsenal, Man U, Liverpool, Barcelona matches for any reason.
Iwuanyanwu in 1991 almost gave me a high blood pressure, no thanks to their fumbling approach to a second leg continental game in Owerri. As a staunch supporter of the club, I abandoned my family in Lagos and rushed to Owerri to watch return leg match between the club and Nakivubo Villa FC of Uganda. Iwuanyanwu managed a befitting 1-2 loss to the Ugandan club in far away Kampala and all fans of the Owerri club were optimistic that the return leg would be a mere walkover. But numerous Owerri fans got what they never bargained for when Heartland drew 1-1 at home. The draw was not my problem, but how the equalizer was scored was more than an evil attack. Yours truly was behind the goal post of Dan Anyiam Stadium on MCC Road end when an unmarked attacker nodded in the goal from a pull out. I almost collapsed because it was in the dying minutes of the game that the goal came. The usual “Owerri wu oke mba” song of the vociferous and colourful supporters club of the Owerri side ended. To avoid heartbreak I quickly left the Stadium before the end of the game thereby abandoning my cousin who I attended the match with. Till date, am yet to come over the Ugandan Nakivubo nightmare and that informed my resolve not to show sympathy again to club sides.
It is pertinent to note that my interest in football referee and journalism was necessitated by evergreen love for the “Naze Millionaires”. Apart from operating as grade one Nigeria Premier League referee for eight years after missing FIFA badge by whiskers, I started pen-pushing job as a sports writer with defunct National Sports Link newspapers and edited Sports@7, all Lagos-based print media outfits. The present Heartland FC media officer, Cajethan Nkwopara was a newsroom mate during our days in Sports link.
There is no doubt that the Owerri side was witnessed a chequered history in Nigeria football diary. When it became apparent that Chief Iwuanyanwu has paid his dues in uplifting the club, the Ikedi Ohakim government formalized state government retake of the glamorous club by renaming it Heartland FC. The name Heartland is synonymous with Imo State known as Eastern Heartland.
Again, Heartland was at the threshold of history when it narrowly missed the money-spinning African Club’s Champion League. After an impressive run in the Champions League in 2010, it fell to the fire works of the Congolese side TP Mazembe, that finally won the cup.
Gov Rochas Okorocha’s ascendancy to power brought good tidings to the club. Few months after the Governor took over mantle of power in the state, Heartland heralded his entry with the Federation’s Cup the state missed for several years. It was a welcome development. Similar feat was recorded last year. But this season remains one of the worst for the club that has won many laurels at the local level. Ominous signs that this year would be an uneventful soccer season for the club began when the management disclosed that it would abolish sign on-fees for players and convert all monetary entitlements to salaries. I found the approach obnoxious and unacceptable in club management. What motivates players are sign-on-fees and any attempt to demean this incentive could be catastrophic.
The abolition of sign on fees to players at the beginning of the season gave room for lack of motivation. The management was starved of necessary funds and logistics needed to prosecute the season. Unlike in the past, the mandatory sign-on-fees was not forthcoming. The abject poverty ravaging the club came to the fore when the famous Owerri side scandalously missed honouring second leg of this year’s CAF Confederation Cup in Congo. As representatives of the Nigeria in the 2013 Confederations’ Cup, Heartland failed to be in Gabon for the second leg, thereby risking sanction from Africa’s greatest soccer governing body. It was an embarrassment not only to Nigeria but Imo State, that for the first time in the history of the club that is a regular customer to international engagements, if failed to honour an away game. Reports have it that later or rather non release of necessary fund for travel purposes was behind the disgraceful outing in Gabon. To the greatest chagrin of soccer pundits in the country, Heartland players traveled to Gabon in batches a day after the scheduled date for the return leg match.
I recalled with great nostalgia the era when Heartland not only traveled early to honour away continental games but also went to nearby countries of the host teams for acclamitasion. It became a source of concern to many that if less-fancied countries like Niger, Benin Republic and Chad would honour away matches, what went wrong with a team from African giant, Nigeria. The Gabon failure was the beginning of Heartland misfortune this season as their chances of surviving the 2013 local scene nose-dived. There was no morale booster to players and management as hunger and lack of fund ravaged the team. The resultant effect was periodic strike that saw the players dropping their kits for several games thereby loosing vital points to other clubs in the Premier League.
The situation worsened when few days and hours to competitive matches, players would threaten “no pay, no play” strike action. Strike action became familiar with Heartland FC. In one of the occasions, I almost wept for our local league players when I spotted the starving players around the Government House, Owerri gate. Armed with their playing kits, the players were eating Okpa, Agidi and Akara at the gate of seat of power while passers-by shake their heads with disapproval.
Against the normal procedure of hiring players to beef up the squad during mid season, Heartland management did not take part during this year’s interval transfer session. The mid-season transfer remains a crucial period in the life of a club when new legs are injected to cover up for ailing departments. But lack of fund inhibited the darling club of Owerri people from taking part, and the end result was relegation zone.
The seeming politicization of the club led to power tussle and unnecessary squabbles at management level. The change of Government in 2011 also gave rise to schisms among decision makers in the club.
Forces working against the interest of the management crew surreptitiously pulled strings for the club’s downfall to enable the state government come hard on the officials. The battle for who takes charge of the club was intensive and political colouration was added to it.
These factors cannot be divorced from the near downfall of Heartland FC this season. However, the state government especially, the Deputy Governor, Prince Eze Madumere deserves accolades for spirited efforts made to save the club from relegation. It would have been disastrous and historic for the Rescue Mission government to allow Heartland go down to the lower division two years after it took charge of the affairs of the state. The ill-treatment meted to Governor Okorocha during the last league game against Rangers should serve as a warning signal to the present administration on the space Heartland occupies in the heart of Imolites. Reports have it that Okorocha’s diminishing popularity was further confirmed when fans booed him after the encounter. In apparent bid to exhibit his excitement that Heartland crossed the relegation hurdle, Okorocha in his usual style of seeking attention attempted to acknowledge cheers from the crowd. However, he received a rude shock when aggrieved fans shunned his smiling entreaties. In defiance to his friendly approaches, the Heartland supporters reportedly told him that he should go and pay the players their sign on fees, backlog of salaries and match bonuses.
For sure, Heartland belongs to the people of Imo State and not personal or private property of the State Governor. If previous administrations beginning from Chief Sam Mbakwe had kept the flag flying since the Spartans days till date, as the club has constantly witnessed action in the top flight league of the country, Okorocha’s regime should not lower the flag and allow the club go into soccer oblivion.
As a recreational and sporting outfit, Heartland serves a purpose to Imolites. It had become an avenue for scouting and breeding young football talents for export and national team selectors. It also serves as an employment organ for many job-seeking youths who take football as a career even as the entertainment value and crime reduction associated with a football club of that magnitude cannot be over emphasized. The economic activities revolving around the Dan Anyiam Stadium, home ground of Heartland FC during local and continental matches are better witnessed than imagined. Above all, Heartland no doubt is the body and soul of the state fondly called Eastern Heartland.