Stephen Dunmoye

The long abandoned and dilapidated National Stadium, Lagos State which incurred unforgettable moments and memories into the minds of the Nigerians 50 years ago is under re-construction as Nigerians hoped that it will bring back its lost glories.

The Sporting Arena which was built and commissioned in 1972 by then Head of State, General Yakubu Gowon, was one of the best in Africa with 39,858 capacities for spectators.

The Stadium was a complete sports arena which housed every other sports facilities, including an underground passage into the main bowl of the stadium.

Besides, it was a stadium of firsts for the country, as Nigeria won its first African Games and AFCON titles there in 1973 and 1980 respectively and also hosted its first FIFA tournament final, the U-20 World Cup, in 1999.

Chioma Ajunwa, who won Nigeria’s first Olympics gold medal at the Atlanta 1996 Games, represented Nigeria in athletics and football at the fortress.

She was wowed by the remembrance and also reckoned that it was her stadium of firsts as well.

She said, “It was in that stadium that I won my first gold medal for Nigeria at the African Championships in 1989. It was also there that I beat Mary Onyali the first time. And the tracks were really fast”.

“I also played football for Nigeria there. I remember matches against Cameroon, Ghana and other African countries,” Ajunwa added.

In football, Nigeria’s first piece of AFCON title was won as host nation in 1980, where the likes of Segun Odegbami, Adokiye Amesimaka, Sylvanus Okpala and co were on parade for Nigeria in front of the packed stadium.

Okpala, while speaking with The PUNCH, described playing at the stadium as a dream.

“I watched the 1978 AFCON as a secondary school student and by then I was dreaming of representing Nigeria at that National Stadium. In 1980, I made the team and winning the trophy was one of my biggest moments. I was an integral part of the team as a secondary school leaver and I featured in almost all the games. It was really a thing of joy to have played and won there.

“Aside us then, every other important games for Nigeria, including the 1994 World Cup qualifiers and the 1996 Olympics qualifiers were played and won there. Before then, we had tried to qualify for the World Cup in ‘82 and ‘86 but we couldn’t. Still, the memories we had there are still with us,” Okpala said.

The ex-stars however lamented the current state of the stadium, which is now undergoing repairs.

“It is a pity that stadium looks like that, and it’s because we lacked maintenance as Nigerians. That place is the home of Nigeria sports and I hope it gets better after the ongoing repair,” Ajunwa said.

Okpala stated, “I will be very happy to see our teams play again at the National Stadium. It is historical to play there. So, it is down to the authorities to take the steps to bring back its glory.”

One of the eye-catching attributes of the ground was the electrifying atmosphere the fans created, an attribute that’s been absent from any sporting arena since the Lagos-based stadium was abandoned for close to two decades.

Journalist Toyin Ibitoye, who covered so many games, including the Ghana/Nigeria 2000 AFCON final at the stadium, said the stadium’s atmosphere would be hard to create anywhere else again.

“I think the biggest game I’ve seen at that stadium is the 2000 AFCON final, which we lost to Cameroon on penalties. And be it that or any other game, the stadium is always packed with spectators. Back then, as early as 10am, fans were already thronging into the stadium for a 4pm match. From Ojuelegba, you would have seen the streets filled with people going to the stadium. At 11am, everywhere is filled up,” Ibitoye recounted.

“Due to civilisation and many other factors, I doubt if we can ever recreate that kind of atmosphere again,” he added.

Ibitoye, who now doubles as the media aide to the sports minister, Sunday Dare, hopes that the current repairs ongoing at the stadium will return its lost glory.