In a repositioning strategy, Airtel has ingeniously identified with the ARS African Championship which has impacted positively on African football and is considered a platform for promoting African unity, Raheem Akingbolu reports
Much more than medals and trophies were at stake for the 484 male and female footballers from 16 African countries who took part in the second Airtel Rising Stars Africa U-17 championship held recently in Lagos.
For many of them, the competition provided tourism, music, friendship and adventure. Many also wanted so much to satisfy the yearnings to see the beautiful Nigeria they had envisioned through Nollywood and the works of her various musical artistes.
The players were drawn from Burkina Faso, Congo Brazzaville, Congo DRC, Gabon, Ghana, Madagascar, Malawi, Niger, Nigeria, Kenya, Chad, Tanzania, Rwanda, and Uganda. The youngsters ignored the boundaries created by language and geography as they displayed their skills and completely broke down barriers of borders and language.
In his opening speech at the Agege Township Stadium, Lagos, Chief Executive Officer and Managing Director of Airtel Nigeria, Mr. Segun Ogunsanya, explained that ARS has provided thousands of youngsters across Africa the opportunity to exhibit their talents and crystallise the hopes of becoming future players for their respective countries.
He particularly emphasised that the championship promotes African unity with the gathering of youths across Africa, coming together to take part in the competition.
Indeed, the championship has become a reference point in youths and sports development across the African continent and it has also been predicted that it will become the benchmark for future youth tournaments in Africa.
About 75,000 boys and girls registered to participate in this year’s Airtel Rising Stars national tournament in Nigeria alone. Entries were similarly huge across the other 16 countries. Seychelles had its first national tournament in 2013 but did not send a team to the African championship. Media interest was similarly high, with DSTV and Super Sport transmitting the semi-final and final matches for both male and female categories to all of Africa and beyond.
The 2013 ARS championship provided Nigeria the opportunity to host about 600 teenagers who made up the teams as well as other officials attached to each team including the coaches, technical advisers and team chaperons.
The week-long competition enabled the teams to mingle with one another, learn about other cultures and particularly experience the sights and sound of Lagos, the commercial capital of Nigeria.
It was considered a terrifying experience for most of the players who were flying for the first time. Narrating tales of their journey to Lagos from Democratic Republic of Congo, captain of the male team, Valao Empele, said, “We were afraid as we were flying in the air, but later we adjusted to the new experience. We have heard so much about Nigeria and so we could not wait to be here when we got to know that the 2013 ARS tournament would take place in Lagos. ”
The players were quartered in the halls of residence in the Federal College of Education (Technical), Akoka, Yaba, and living together provided them the opportunity to relate and bond with one another after the activities of each day.
Wisdom Uforo, a member of the Nigerian U-17 male team, said the accommodation gave them the opportunity to interact with the other players. “Whenever we got back to the hostel after every match each day, whether we lost or won, we found it easy to relate with players from other countries. They asked us questions about Nigeria and likewise, we asked them about their countries too.
“I noticed that most of them have Nigerian songs on their phone and they amused us with tales about their love for Nigerian films and artistes. They said they would love to meet some of the musicians and actors. Especially the ones from the West African countries they are very interested in Nigerian films and music. We also asked them to teach us their language. It was fun and part of sportsmanship,” he said. Uforo also added that some of the players loved the local Nigerian staples such as Melon (Egusi), Fufu and Yam Porridge.
A female Tanzanian player who eventually won the Highest Goal Scorer in the tournament, Shelda Boniface, said, “Being in this country for the first time is an experience that will linger in our memories for a long time. Apart from coming here to compete, we are also here to learn more about other African cultures and people. That is what a competition like this exposes players to. It is a good thing that Airtel is giving this opportunity to youths in Africa to blend. Right from the hostels to the pitch we relate with one another despite the healthy rivalry.”
Defending champions Niger emerged victorious in the male category; they retained the crown they won in the first edition held in Nairobi, Kenya last year. They came into the competition and went about business with so much effectiveness and focus as they dispatched teams one after another. They won all their group matches, scoring a total of 12 goals and conceding just three goals in six matches.
Some players in the Nigerien team expressed their delight at participating in ARS competition saying that Niger and Nigeria "are like one because of the proximity."
Adebayon Adje disclosed that his father is actually a Nigerian and his mother a Nigerien. “I cannot actually say the part of Nigeria where exactly my father came from, but I know he is a Nigerian married to my mother. I have lived in Niger all my life. I like Nigerians and it is indeed a privilege for me to be here in Nigeria. I wish we could stay longer so as to know more about this country and see many places in the beautiful country,” Adebayon said.
The surprise team of the tournament was Tanzania, which clinched the first place trophy in the female category at the expense of Kenya. A lone strike from Donisia Daniel was all the Tanzanians needed to emerge winners and end their 20-year trophy drought in any international competition.
The Tanzanians had come into the competition as underdogs in a group that paired them with Sierra Leone, Malawi and Uganda. They however shocked bookmakers with their dramatic performance in the group opener when they defeated Sierra Leone 2-1. As the matches progressed, they lost 0-1 to Uganda and drew with Malawi. In the quarter-finals stage, they defeated DRC 4-2 and then mauled Uganda 8-1 to get into the finals.
The Nigerian teams were gallant in their respective semi-final defeats and they recovered to clinch the bronze medals for their effort. Both the male and female teams defeated their counterparts from Tanzania 2-0 and Uganda 4-1 respectively in the third place matches.
The love some of the foreign players have for Nigeria music could hardly go unnoticed at the venues where the matches were played.
The Lagos tournament featured 58 matches packed with exciting soccer actions, thrills and entertainment. The teams competed at four venues; Onikan Stadium on Lagos Island, National Institute for Sports pitch and Legacy Pitch, both at the National Stadium, Surulere and the Agege Township Stadium.
Music was regular spice at all the venues to the delight of the players. Both male and female players danced to the music played by the DJs at the various venues. From across Africa, the players were very familiar with the songs and artistes so they sang along and moved to the rhythm. Songs such as Terry G’s ‘Kona’, which is a remix of a South African song, thrilled the players. On some occasions, the supporters of the teams sang their local songs and displayed their dance steps to motivate the players.
Winding his waist, gracefully switching from one dance step to the other with a wide grin, 15-year-old Zambian, Shadrick Kambwili, was equal to the task of gyrating. A first-timer in Nigeria, he felt very much at home and confessed that he was dancing for his team.
With the competition, Airtel might have made a fresh positioning statement and connected more with the youths in all the participating countries.