The future looked bleak for Bendel Insurance just five years ago.
The team, which was among the best five sides in Nigerian football from 1972 to 2004, had spent six years in the lower rungs of the country’s football, with signs that it was on life support.
The players were disillusioned, while the fans found solace in the senior national team, which unfortunately too, was yo-yoing up and down Africa’s football ladder.
The Super Eagles, which had found qualifying for the African Nations Cup a difficult task, were at the same time (at least) holding their own against some of the best teams of the world.
All the Bendel Insurance supporters had was hope; hope that one day somebody somewhere would remember the important role the Benin ‘Arsenal’ played in the lives of the people and do the right thing.
Bendel Insurance Football Club, originally known as the Vipers of Benin with its traditional base at the Samuel Ogbemudia Stadium (formerly Ogbe Stadium) was one of the founders of the Nigerian Premier League in 1972.
But the team’s woes started in the first month of the 2007/08 season when it faced a management dispute over who controlled the team.
The ownership crisis coupled with other problems plunged it into relegation at the end of the 2007/08 season, as it finished bottom of the table.
It was the first time the team would suffer the ignominy of relegation from the top level.
Despite the government’s intervention in 2008 that reversed its ownership to the state, the club continued to grapple with a series of challenges.
According to those who have followed events surrounding the team, Bendel Insurance’s ill-fortune in the 11 years was occasioned by a mix of bad governance structure; lack of transparency in the management of the finances of the club; low players’ morale and disenchantment, a weak technical crew and management team.
Adducing reasons for the club’s relegation and their long stay in the lower division, former National Deputy Secretary, Sports Writers Association of Nigeria (SWAN), Mr. Ben Ogbemudia, said: “The players wore tattered jerseys to matches, there was no provision for a serviceable vehicle to transport players to and from match venues. They were forced to travel to away venues only on match days, which stress usually exhausted the players before matches. The players did not even have a camp conducive for training.”
Ogbemudia said the team was crying for help, and that help came in the form of Godwin Obaseki, who became Edo State governor on November 12, 2016.
Obaseki, an economist, knew the importance of sports in the lives of the people and so he brought his reform-oriented approach to governance to Bendel Insurance.
The result is that Bendel Insurance will play their first top flight football in 11 years tomorrow at the Gateway International Stadium, Sagamu against Remo Stars.
Explaining the resurgence of the former Nigerian champions this season, Ogbemudia said: “Obaseki took Bendel Insurance from an all-time low period in which salaries and allowances were not paid and if when paid, the salaries were irregular, to a truly rebranded Bendel Insurance FC with a knack for winning matches.
“The players have demonstrated their appreciation to the Edo State government for investing resources and faith in them. With the revamp of the club, the players’ welfare is now top priority as their entitlements are paid immediately after matches. They now have a conducive camp with good beds, good food, water, a new technical team and all the things they need to excel. In fact, the players are ready to sacrifice their legs in matches now.”
Bendel Insurance’s return to the elite division would not have been possible if the government had not changed the club’s governance architecture.
According to Governor Obaseki’s Special Adviser on Media and Communication Strategy, Mr. Crusoe Osagie, the governor’s vision for the sports sector, particularly, football encompasses players’ welfare, infrastructure such as stadium and a sound management for the club amongst others.
Osagie said: “On assumption of office, Governor Obaseki declared his resolve to turn around the fortunes of the state in sports. He entrusted the task to his deputy, Philip Shaibu, a sports enthusiast and footballer.
“You will recall that right from our days as Bendel State, we were number one in sports. The governor was clear about his vision and it was to return our profile in sports to what we were as Bendel State and surpass those achievements.
“The short, medium and long-term plans were designed to attend to all the issues that blighted the growth of Bendel Insurance Football Club.
“The quick wins included an intervention in the welfare of the players, a new technical team, provision of kits and a bus to move the players to match venues amongst others.
“I must admit that the direct involvement of the deputy governor brought in fresh impetus into the team. The players saw that the Obaseki administration meant business.
“In the medium to long-term, the revamp of the Samuel Ogbemudia Stadium, the institutionalisation of reforms and the governor’s vision with the constitution of a Sports Commission, as well as the development of 20 mini-stadium, featured prominently.
“The point must be made that the promotion of Insurance FC to the elite football league in just two years of Obaseki’s administration after an 1-year flip-flop performance, was not a fluke. It was the outcome of a deliberate plan.”
As has been the case in other aspects of Edo State’s sports renaissance in recent times, the Deputy Governor, Phillip Shaibu has been constant in all the narrative.
Part of Shaibu’s job was to rebrand Bendel Insurance and make it attractive once more to sponsors and elite players, as well as to bring back the team’s supporters to match venues.
Narrating his role in the recent promotion of Bendel Insurance to the Nigerian Professional Football League (NPFL), Shaibu said the state governor gave him a marching order in 2017 to rebrand the club and other sporting activities in the state.
“We did a lot of rebranding in the club and we commend the governor for ensuring prompt release of the budget of the club and the payment of salaries.
“At the moment, Samuel Ogbemudia Stadium is being rebuilt. It will be ready for use in April. We cannot spend taxpayers’ money in rebuilding the stadium without attracting continental football to it.
“So between now and April, it would be ready for use. And not just that, we are building 20 mini stadia across the local governments of the state.”
Gaining entry to the NPFL is not the end of the Bendel Insurance project, Shaibu, who is a registered player of the club, said. “We want to make Bendel Insurance the apex football team in the state by creating feeder teams in the 18 local government areas of Edo State.
“We don’t want to be buying players for Bendel Insurance. Instead, we want to create a chain of supply of football talent for the team. We want to localise and internalise Bendel Insurance by using our own home-grown players.”
Shaibu, who wears the club’s jersey number 40, said his participation in the team, as a player does not conflict with his role as deputy governor of the state. Rather, he said his involvement as an on-field player has served as extra motivation to the team.
“I was a player even before I was elected as deputy governor of Edo State. When I decided to join the team’s players’ rank, it was aimed at boosting their morale.
“My presence in their training sessions and matches has a way of encouraging them. The most important thing is that Mr. Governor gave us a mandate to re-brand Bendel Insurance last year, which we did.”
He revealed that the club has a well cut out plan to ensure that they prepared well ahead of the NPFL season, “as the governor has given us mandate to go to the premier (NPFL) league and conquer.”
How far Insurance can live up to that mandate would be known this weekend in Sagamu. But there is an air of optimism among the fans that indicates that, perhaps, the team is inching back to the days of Alabi Aisien when the Benin Arsenal swept aside every obstacle on its way.
During the recent reception for the club after their triumphant outing at the Nigerian National League Super Eight Championship in Aba last week, the fans trooped out in their thousands to pledge their support to the aspirations of the club in the elite class.
At a recent reception for the team at the Government House, Benin, a visibly-elated Governor Obaseki said the club’s return was a dream come true for him.
Obaseki said the victory was another fulfilment of his administration’s promise to Edo people and residents.
“My joy knows no bound because of what you have done. I congratulate you and congratulate myself. I say this because it is another promise kept. We promised Edo people that we would bring Bendel Insurance to its lofty status, which we all will be proud of and make sure they go on to play in the Premier league,” the governor said.
He described the deputy governor, who led the team to winning ways, as the father of the New Bendel Insurance FC and commended him for the giant strides he made in rebranding the club.
“We have built a team and have a machinery that will win the premier league, and I urge you to go beyond the premier league and bring home continental trophies for the state,” Obaseki said.
###CREDIT TO THE GUARDIAN NEWS###