While Festac Town in Lagos is notorious for social vices like prostitution and internet fraud, a brighter side to the community is now emerging as a nursery for football talents.
The town grew out of quarters built by the Nigerian government for participants at the Second World African Festival of Arts and Culture in 1977.
Decades after, the sprawling community that is one of the few infrastructural relics of the cultural event that gulped millions of petrodollars would gain recognition for churning out talents onto the Nigerian entertainment scene, especially in music, movie and comedy.
Musical heavyweights like 2baba, Sound Sultan, Ycee, among others have roots in Festac town.
In recent times, however, the residents are showcasing more than artistic prowess and demonstrating dexterity in sports, football precisely.
The round leather game has benefited from the town’s talent base. Bimbo Fatokun, Victor Agali, John Ogu, Henty Ezekiel , Blessing Eleke, Kingsley Ekeh, the Oliseh brothers; Sunday, Azubuike and Egutu, Nnamdi Oduamadi, among others are football stars that have been churned out by Festac.
Even though it has retained its high rank as the abode of social vices like theft, internet fraud, prostitution and alcoholism, these amazing talents have stood tall and glittering, unaffected by the seamy reputation of life in their town.
Many have wondered what factors contributed to Festac’s footballing pedigree. One explanation is the close-knit nature of the community, in spite of its diversity.
Festac town is a reflection of Nigeria’s cultural mosaic and home to virtually all the ethnic groups in Nigeria. The Yoruba, Igbos, Hausas and the minority groups live live together as neighbours in the town. An observer once described Festac as a country on its own.
The town has an established system of grassroots football, which encourages talented youngsters to play competitive football for local clubs from very early ages.
This often gives talents from the town an edge against competing academies from across the country.
At the moment, the Festac Football League (FFL), an annual competition featuring football clubs from Festac Town and its environs, is ongoing. This year’s edition is named Ezekiel Henty Festac League and consist of 14 teams.
Former Nigerian youth international, Marshal Embre, is one of the more recognisable football figures in Festac.
Though the former Italy-based player grew up in Barracks area, Ojoo, he has stayed in Festac for over 20 years and owns a football academy, Flying Sports, where virtually all the recent bigshots from the town passed through.
They include the likes of John Ogu, Henty Ezekiel, Nnamdi Oduamadi and Blessing Eleke.
“No, I did not grow up in Festac,” Mr. Marshall told PREMIUM TIMES. “But for over 20 years now, I have been staying there with my family and I have seen generation of talents come and go.
“From the time of Oliseh to Agali and the rest, Festac indeed has contributed its quota to football growth in Nigeria and we are not relenting despite the challenges we face,” the Flying Sports Academy CEO added.
Mr. Marshall, on his 20 years’ experience in the town, said the football stars that have emerged from Festac are a source of inspiration to young boys in the town who have flair for the beautiful game.
“These stars assemble at the town that shaped them every off season to play on the same field where they started and honed their footballing career, thereby giving the younger ones a refreshing hope for a better tomorrow.
“Since the stars played and made it from this town, the younger boys believe that breakthrough is not farfetched as they watch these inspiring footballers from the hood showcase their skills.”
Almost all the stars from FESTAC trained in the popular FHA Ground, which is the only standard field in the town.
Unlike other areas like Ajegunle, which is also famous for producing footballing talents, one significant thing about Festac is that it has only one standard field, the FHA Ground, even though there are other makeshift playing fields in and around the community.
Despite the success of Festac town in unearthing talents, a former Nigerian international and an African Cup of Nations winner with the then Green Eagles in 1980, Henry Nwosu, believes much more can still be done and achieved.
“Yes, football is finding its voice in Festac, but I believe much more can still be done if most of these boys show more seriousness in what they are doing.
“I will also canvass for more support from the relevant bodies because when the youth are engaged in things like football, it helps reduce the chances of them going into vices,” said Mr. Nwosu who was honoured with the Member of the Order of the Niger, MON, alongside his 1980 African Champions’ Green Eagles colleagues.
Some of the famous footballers who emerged from Festac to reach the top in the game:
The most famous of the brothers, Sunday Oliseh, played on the popular FHA Ground in Festac and also Durbar Hotel field before going on to play for Julius Berger and Festac Nitel. A physical yet technically gifted defensive midfielder, Oliseh played for world famous clubs such as AFC Ajax, Borussia Dortmund and Juventus F.C.
He was in the Super Eagles team that won the 1994 African Cup of Nation in Tunisia before playing at the USA 1994 World Cup, the first time the Nigerian national team would play in the finals.
Now a coach, Oliseh rose to captain the national team before a stint as its coach. He is presently in charge of a Dutch second-tier club, Fortuna Sittard.
His younger brothers, Azubuike and Egutu, had less glittering careers but also attained prominence. Egutu still plays professional football abroad.
Ogu also played on the FHA field before moving to Fly Sports Academy. He launched his professional career in the Slovenian Premier League in 2006 and was called up to the Nigerian national side for the 2014 FIFA World Cup qualifiers.
Oduamadi also passed through Flying Sports and played at the local Pepsi Football Academy at the age of seven. Known by his shirt name Odu, he currently plays as a forward for Inter Milan in Italy.
Amuzie was in the U-23 Nigerian team to Senegal 2015 and currently plays as a defender for Italian Serie A clubside, Sampdoria. He was in the Dream VI squad for the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio, Brazil where Nigeria won the bronze medal.
These football stars and many more are products of Festac town giving back to the community that shaped them. Football activities help to reduce crime in that part of Lagos.
“Football has taken most of the boys out of poverty. Over 200 footballers have sprung up from the academy to the international scene.” Mr. Marshal, the Flying Sports Academy CEO stated.
If the claim is true, then Nigeria has more reason to love “The Beautiful Game!’