The idea of Eko United and Lagos United Football Clubs
By Segun Odegbami
Published: Saturday, 6 Jan 2007
My mind is working hard on how best to revive the matter of a mega-club for the city of Lagos. Let me recount the story of two previous attempts for better illustration of where I am headed, as the circumstances that brought about the initial idea still exist till now, unfortunately.
About nine years ago, when Brig. Gen. Mohammed Buba Marwa was the Military Administrator of Lagos State, I mooted the idea of a mega-football club as a means of arresting the dwindling fortunes of the game in Lagos, exploit the unique opportunities that the cosmopolitan city offers in the development of professional football and the sports business in Nigeria, and engage many of the youth in the state in the productive activities around the game.
Lagos presented the perfect setting for the establishment of a model professional club in the mould of Manchester United FC and Barcelona FC. One close look at what the city offered would lure anyone with an eye for business to jump at the idea. So, I met with Marwa and ‘sold’ him the idea of the Lagos State government laying the foundation of the establishment of a football club to be eventually owned by the inhabitants of Lagos. I told him that government’s role would be to kick-start the process and to give it credibility, but not to own it.
At best the State would become a minority shareholder in the project. Its identification with the project was critical - to give the club authenticity in an environment where business partnerships were always suspect and hardly ever worked. The club would also need the support of government to weather through the initial period of skepticism, probable financial ‘drought’ and that people would need to be convinced that the project was real, could work and then support it. I had always believed that professional football would thrive in the developing world if the citizens founded their own clubs - not companies involved in other businesses and setting up clubs only as a corporate social responsibility.
Interested companies could identify with existing clubs, fund their projects, sponsor their programmes, use the clubs’ images to promote their products or services, but not own them (as in the case of Union Bank FC, First Bank FC, Julius Berger FC and others). When companies own clubs it is hard to get the ordinary citizen to emotionally and financially attach to them. That’s why the supportership base of most clubs (apart from Stationery Stores FC) in the history of Lagos State is almost always limited to staff and a few friends of the game.
The way to go is to grow community-backed and funded clubs. That would ensure people’s commitment– they own it and so they must ensure it succeeds through investment, subscriptions, followership, merchandising and sponsorships. A people’s club would attract the attention of the corporate world! That’s why the idea of town-clubs is a very attractive option.
Football was the loser in the absence of any serious attempt to tap Lagos’s enormous economic, social and demographic resources to promote and market a true mega Club that would have, in a few years, challenged for a place among the biggest clubs in Africa.
That was the idea I sold to Marwa, to set up Eko United Football Club in Lagos to be driven by the state government, supported at its infancy with some facilities and opened up to the inhabitants of the city as partners. He bought the idea. Finance and management consultants did a feasibility study. Only the final details of take-off were left when an article appeared in the Tribune, written by respected veteran journalist, Fabio Olanipekun, titled “Marwa Don’t!” It frightened the army general into withdrawal. Meanwhile, Uncle Fabio wrote his opinion when he heard about Eko United FC. It was obvious however that he did not have any details about the philosophy of the project and how it was going to be run or funded. His opinion was for the government to support Stationery Stores to make a comeback. I can’t remember what else he wrote. Nevertheless, the long and short of it is that Marwa chickened out of the entire idea. He left me stranded in mid-stream.
It’s almost 10 years since then and the situation of football in Lagos has grown worse. Stationery Stores has remained very dead. NPA has gone down to a lower professional league. First Bank and Union Bank Clubs have become shadows in the amateur ranks. Julius Berger, one of the best-funded clubs in Nigeria, has relocated to Ogun State. Others like NEPA and NITEL have gone into hibernation or oblivion. The common denominator in all these clubs (except Stationery Stores) is their glaring lack of a large supportership base. Company clubs cannot have a large followership. That’s how Eko United Football Club was buried in the dustbin of abandoned ideas.
I did not give up on the idea. The original idea of a club to be established completely outside of government was revived. That’s the birth of another project, Lagos United Football Club. By this time Asiwaju Bola Tinubu had become the governor. To register a club as a limited liability company with the Corporate Affairs Commission with the name ‘Lagos’ required the approval of the state government. Through the intervention of one of those that I invited to share the concept with me, Tokunbo Afikuyomi, the approval was secured and the Federal Ministry of Justice approval to the Corporate Affairs Commission to register Lagos United Football Club Limited. The club still exists legally till this day.
I invited many eminent Nigerians with strong links to football to join the club as pioneer investors. The list is impressive - Augustus Aikhomu, late Emeka Omeruah, John Mastoroudes, Afikuyomi, Segun Awolowo, Odunlami Kola-Daisi, Dewunmi Ogunsanya, Noel Okorougo, and a few others. It was a fantastic ‘team’ on paper. Starting and running such a club required heavy funding. Well, that’s where the problem lay. It is a business with a long-term return on investment.
No one was willing to put down personal money to the level that would make the club ‘mega’ right from the onset. So we ran the club for one year within the Lagos Divisional Amateur league ranks, until the politics of 2003 set in and most members became diverted by it. The distraction was such that the project simply fizzled into a state of inertia.
Four years down the road, as we enter 2007, Lagos still beckons on people of courage and vision to set up a mega-club. It is needed. The environment is perfect. A skeletal club platform even exists.
That’s why one of my major thoughts is to place the idea before the people of Lagos and get their reaction. Will the philosophy of ‘little drops make an ocean’ convince people to invest in such a club by paying a token to subscribe to be part of the ownership? An army of supporters drawn from a population of 15 million inhabitants need only contribute a token to create a mega club for Lagos. Can we, with the football-starved people of Lagos, pull this through? Why not? I ask the readers’ responses through my e-mail box. Only after that will I take up the challenge or abandon it!
This is an idea that I think the club could use to boost their profile in Nigeria. The reason I've chosen Nigeria is because they love their football and we have two Nigerian players in our ranks one of whom is the international captain.
The largest city in Nigeria is Lagos. The population is currently around 16m but is expected to be 20m by 2010.
They are a footballing city city and some of prospects from that city include Taribo West, Obafemi Martins and our very own Vic Anichebe.
They had a football club last year called Julius Berger FC in the Nigeria Premier League, however the construction company that owns the club is going through hard financial times and in order to stabilise it, they have had to introduce cutbacks, one of which is severing the ties with the football club. The club itself is small and only seats 5,000 people although when in the champions league they easily filler a nearby 45,000 seater.
The club has been in the African Champions League in the recent past and there is a lot of potential for a club
To paraphrase Kevin Keegan, I would absolutely love it if Everton took over the 'running' of the club, by this I mean introduce Brand Everton to the Lagos. It would help us gain a foot in the Nigerian Market and allow us to keep an eye out for talents for the future (Yakabu was a previous Julius Berger player) and cost little to run.
Also we'd have Amokachi as manager (he's a national team coach and managing Nigerian outfit Nasarawa United)