By Paul Bassey
After a nineteen-year wait, nothing would have stopped me from the Presidential reception planned fo the Eagles last Tuesday in Abuja. In company of my colleague Aisha Falode, we left Lagos Tuesday afternoon and by the time we got to Abuja airport we needed no one to tell us that something pregnant was in the air.
The airport arrival area was filled to the brim with Nigerians of all walks of life, anxious to catch a glimpse of their heroes. Journalists came in great number and some of them misinterpreted our presence to mean the Eagles had landed and rushed towards us, knowing that we were in South Africa and must have come back with the team. The drive into Abuja was also very indicative. Civil servants and School children lined the routes, some of them very early on, not quite sure of when the Eagles will finally arrive.
It was Aisha that noticed the absence of bold billboards and banners welcoming the Eagles home, save for the effort of the Capital Territory Minister whose picture and that of President Jonathan eclipsed that of the Eagles they set out to welcome. The invitation card said "Guests were to be seated by 19.30pm" for a programme billed to start by 20.00hrs.
By 19.25 I was in the hall and spent over 30 minutes looking for a place to sit. I came across all manner of labels on the tables. There was the "Private Sector", "Invited Guests" (?), "Super Falcons", "Ex Super Falcons" (?), of course, "Ministers", "Permanent Secretaries", "First Ladie's Guests"... You name them.
As I was going round, frustrated, I thought that its national scope not withstanding it was first and foremost a football event. I thought there should have been a table for "Nigerian members in CAF and FIFA", "Board members of the NFF", "Ex Super Eagles", NFF guests etc. Unfortunately this was not the case as I could not find a seat! Predictably the politicians had pride of place. Tuesday was a field day in who's who in Nigeria. About seven governors were in attendance. Senators, Members House of Representatives, Ministers, Captains of Industry, movers and shakers of the PDP.
After going round and round I came across where the Super Eagles had been "dumped". I thought they were the celebrants. I thought they should have occupied the pride of place, sharing the same table with Mr. President, if not all of them, Captain Yobo and the Chief Coach (for the information of the MCs, he is not "The Boss", but "The Big Boss", that is why an MC with a sports background should have assisted Ali Baba).
Suddenly I saw a table labelled "Past NFF Chairmen." Twelve chairs in all. I made a mental arithmetic: Lulu, Oneya, Obakpolor, Galadima... I resolved that most of them will not come, and that even if they did, some seats will be available, so I took my seat, waiting to be told to stand up...
By 9.30pm the Eagles were not in the hall. And we were told by a member of the Presidential protocol that until they came, Mr President would not descend. Eventually they came and all hell was let loose. Photographers fell over themselves. Getting them properly seated was a study in confusion. Then Mr President made his entry and restored sanity.
The National Anthem. We were all expected to say "The prayer" (Second stanza of the National Anthem) and the camera exposed on the big screen, top government functionaries biting their lips, muttering incoherently. From then on it was confusion galore. Whoever wrote the long speech for the NFF President did not do him any favour. By the time he rose to speak the mood in the hall was that of him just talking for two minutes and presenting the players and the cup to Mr President. The sports minister had covered all the history of 1980 and 1994. All he needed to do was to thank the Minister and Mr President for giving his board the environment to excel. Besides, it is unpardonable that we could attend a function of such magnitude without video clips of the goals of South Africa 2013, not to talk of visuals of 1980 and 1994 when Keshi lifted the trophy.
Even the presentation of the players would have been better done. From those on the bench, to those who played less matches, to the believed heroes like Sunday Mba, Mikel Obi, Vincent Enyeama and Victor Moses, rising in crescendo. Last Tuesday, the players were muddled up with the coaches! By the way, where were the back room staff? Nobody remembered the team doctor, secretary, manager, physiotherapist, pshychologist, kit manager, etc, etc...
Came the photo shoot, and the "order" for the Sports Minister and NFF President to step aside. Then, when Mr President was about to read his speech, the Vice President, the Senate president and the Speaker among others were called up the stage for more pictures. Nobody invited the First Lady, but she knew this was an opportunity not to be missed with her specially made green-white-green attire.
Mr President then delivered an inspiring speech that touched on the very existence of this great country of ours and how this victory can be used to drive national consciousness bordering on unity because during the competition it did not matter whether it was a Musa or a Moses that scored. The cheer was as loud. When it came to the mention of the inputs of home-based players, the speech writers forgot to include a presidential directive bordering on the revival of the domestic league that has potentials of producing world beaters yet is now lying comatose.
After the speeches and the dollars and nairas rain (I lost count of the calculations) came the national honours decorations. Again, confusion. This time the President had to step in, insisting on decorating everyone before taking further pictures. Then, just as Skipper Joseph Yobo was getting set to render a vote of thanks, appreciate Mr President and a grateful nation for all the accolades and gifts lavished on them, we were told to rise for the National Anthem!