The Heartland Football Club of Owerri has undergone many changes over the years. From its formation in 1976 as the Spartans Football Club till 1985-86 when it was sold off to a Billionaire businessman, politician and investor, Chief Emmanuel Iwuanyanwu till 2006, when the State Government reacquired the club and renamed it Heartland Football Club of Owerri, till 2011 when it last experienced real patronage and support from the State Government and its proprietor, the Naze Millionaires as they are also known have never had it so bad as they do now. Whatever happens to Heartland Football Club affects every lover of football, because like other football clubs across the world, Heartland is the darling of most Imo football lovers, who invest their time and even slim resources into supporting that football club.
When someone posted on Facebook that the club which is one of the oldest clubs in Nigeria and one of the two that has never gone on relegation since its formation, forty years ago, is eighteenth on the log, I dismissed it as one of those stories that fly around from lazy gossipers prowling the social media. Truth is, I have never really been a keen fan of the club, as my darling local team is Enyimba Football Club of Aba. However, as an Imo man, whatever happens to the football club, invariably affects me. I also understand that the happiness of thousands of my fellow Imolites is tied to the success or otherwise of that club. Football clubs are one of the things that people from any area pride themselves in; it is almost becoming an identity for some people. it is not strange to hear people identify with people from particular based on the Football club that is most popular with that city. For us in Owerri, it is Heartland FC.
I was later to confirm this Facebook story when I listened into the discussion of some people in a newspaper stand. The obviously angry and disappointed crowd was lamenting the plunge in fortunes of their darling club. They complained about so many things, about how the players don’t seem motivated at all, about how the match officials were obviously biased against the team and how the team has never been awarded a spot kick since the beginning of the season, while more than twelve spot-kicks have been awarded against them within the season. Some of the commentators blamed the State Government for not looking the way of the Football Club, while the others believe it is as a result of the dearth of good sponsorship from private organizations who should be the ones funding such football clubs as part of their cooperate social responsibilities. It was obvious, I wouldn’t get all the information I needed to know what was happening in the football club from that crowd of mostly uneducated artisans and non-informed football enthusiasts, hence, I left that place determined to get the real information about happenings within the club.
My efforts kept hitting the bricks as some of the club officials whom I approached were either afraid to confide in me, or didn’t really want their undies exposed in public. It is just by a stroke of luck that an insider in the club called me up one cool evening and started complaining about the fate of the Owerri Football Club. For the records, Heartland Football Club of Owerri and Rangers of Enugu are the pride, not just of the cities of Owerri and Enugu, but also of the entire Southeast, as they are the two most popular, most decorated and most loved clubs in this part of the country. Enyimba is a young team who is fortunate to have a visionary and football loving Governor at a time, which brought it back from near collapse and made it one of the best and most respected teams in Africa.
For the Heartland FC, the last time it savoured any worthwhile victory at any level is in 2011 September when it won the FA Cup. This victory, was hugely as a result of the massive investments made by the previous government in the State to position the club well for better success at all levels. The immediate past Governor of the State, Dr. Ikedi Ohakim understood how important football could be in the development of any society, hence, he took necessary steps to ensure that the club competed at the highest level. He hired the best coaches available. Starting with Mitko Dobrev, who took over the club’s management from August 2007 till 2009, Ben Iroha took over the management of the club in same 2009, but was replaced by a highly experience Dutch tactician, Lodewijk de Kruyf, who retained his position as the Club’s Technical Advisor even after Sampson Siasia and Christian Chukwu had their stints with the club as managers. Lodewijk left the Club in 2012, allegedly as a result of the non-commitment of the Club owners to the advancement of the club.
At a time when Nigeria’s major source of revenue is facing very hard times, one expects any responsible government to puts its money into alternative means of generating income and providing jobs for the teeming population. Football could be one of those very veritable means of income generation for the government, if the right things are done. However, accusing fingers have been pointed at the State Government for being responsible for the rapid decline in the fortunes of the Heartland Football Club. If privately ran clubs could be generating Billions of Dollars for its owners, there is nothing stopping the State Government from looking for ways of improving the fortunes of the State owned football club to make her more economically viable for the State.
A football club may be likened to a bride, her worth and attraction is proportional to the amount of resources invested in making her look attractive. You do not abandon a little girl no matter how beautiful she is, and expect her to get the best suitors around. With the enviable pedigree of the Heartland Football Club of Owerri, what the State Government needs to do is to find ways of investing in her, to win trophies and participate in continental and intercontinental soccer tournaments, which will properly position her as a beautiful bride to investors and PR seekers.
A top source within the Club confided in me that the club’s misfortunes may be traceable to the reluctance of the State Government to make funds available to the club for its operations. For instance, the present supervisor of the Club, who is also the Deputy Speaker of the Imo State House of Assembly, Rt. Hon. Ozuruigbo Ugonna is said to have invested personal funds in his determination to keep the club afloat, but there is certainly a limit to what someone’s personal funds can do in reviving an entity that is owned by the State Government.
A cabal within the State Government who are said to be mostly made up of the Governor’s close and distant relatives, and very close friends are being fingered for the reluctance of the State Government to release funds for the running of the Club, even after a committee set up by the State Government had found out that the earlier 28 Million Naira Monthly subvention which the Club originally got from the State Government was being mismanaged, as a bulk of the money was not getting to the Club. This Committee is said to have discovered that the actual amount require for the effective running of the club should be 18 Million Naira Monthly subvention, hence, they saved the government extra 10 Million Naira which was discovered to be unaccounted for. It is then curious that a government which wasted no time in releasing the earlier 28 Million Naira, now finds it difficult releasing 18 Million Naira which the present supervisory management team requested. According to my source, the government has never released the 18 Million Naira subvention in one payment since the present supervisory management took over the affairs of the club.
The problem is alleged to be that the cabal which was benefiting from the excess subvention felt shot in the foot by the supervisory committee, as they no longer got the kickbacks they used to get before now. This cabal is also said to be very powerful within the government that only monies which they have vested interests in, get released. They are so powerful within the government that any contractor or even Government official who wants his or her money quickly released must reach a deal with them, on how much will be going to them as kickback, before they facilitate the quick payment of that money. In this case of Heartland FC, the members of this cabal do everything to frustrate the release of funds to the club. This is to ensure one or all of the following:
- To frustrate the Club and ensure that she posts its worst outing in its history.
- To pass a message to the Governor and others who may care that the present management of the team are not competent.
- To compel the State Government to return the management of the club to them, and allow them have unfettered access to the running of that Club.
The players at the Club are said to be playing their hearts out for personal and professional ego, as they do not want it to be recorded that it was in their time as players in the Club, that the it suffered its worst ever fate as a football club. However, there is actually a limit to what these players can do, as it is obvious that the odds are stacked against them in all angles. These players are said to be owed months in arrears of their salaries and match bonuses.
Investigations show that match officials come to the Club, embittered against the club, thereby using their whistles to further pummel the club side, for what one source referred to as “The reluctance or outright refusal of the club management to give the club the usual PR packages which they are entitled to.” When asked why it is being difficult for the club management to do this, the source simply responded thus; “There is no money in the club, no money anywhere and the cabal within the State Government relish the fact that our club is struggling. They have not hidden their desire to ensure that the club gets relegated, so that they can score their selfish points.”
A particular event that proves the inexplicable happiness of the former management and beneficiaries of the club over the misfortunes of the Heartland FC, happened last week when the Club slugged it out with Lobi Stars FC, the immediate past General Manager of the club, Chief Okey Dike, was in Makurdi to cheer up the Lobi players to victory. As if coming to support his club’s opponents against his own club was not enough, the Ideato politician was said to have ignored the team when they met at the hotel, but came to greet them immediately after the match ended, apparently, to mock them for their loss.
It cannot be overstated that that the Heartland Football Club needs the Rescue touch as quickly as possible, before the unbelievable happens. Government officials and politicians who take time to attend the club’s matches in Owerri, taking photographs of them in the stands for political leverages, should go an extra mile by providing some support to the team to help her come out of the woods. The team needs serious reinforcement to enable it compete at the highest level and this may not be left entirely to the State Government as they have shown that funding the club is not part of its priorities.
Surely, there will be heartbreak in Heartland if our darling football club goes on relegation.