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Clamour Spreads In Lagos For Revival Of British Council’s Defunct 'CATS Project'

SpeedFingers
By SpeedFingers | self meida writer
Published 27 days ago - 0 views

By Femi Fasetire

A strong clamour is spreading across youth football circles in Lagos State for a revival of a once-vibrant and highly-successful developmental project, Community Action Through Sport (CATS), which was sponsored by The British Council in Nigeria.

Pressure is mounting on The British Council to bring back the epoch-making youth development and empowerment project, which relied on the tool of football as a vibrant sport to propel the agency’s target of lifting teeming youths from the inner communities to international limelight.

That was the basic mission of CATS, which hit tops after it symbolically commenced operations on the anniversary of Nigeria’s Independence Day, October 1, 2000, with a view to reaching far out and touching as many lives as possible.

That was the target of The British Council, which popped into the progressive picture through a renowned medical practitioner, Dr Femi Desalu, who linked up with a colleague of his on the then executive board of Lagos State Football Association, Alhaji Agboola Dabiri, to bring into reality what initially appeared to be nothing but a pipe dream.

However, backed by the reach, acumen, mettle and vision of his youth football development and teenage support impetus, starting from his ownership of Farmers Football Academy of Surulere and his role as the pioneer president of Nigerian Grassroots Football Federation (NGFF), Alhaji Dabiri set about making impossibility become possible.

That marked the beginning of turning dreams into reality, as Dabiri pooled all resources together from NGFF, backed by the already existing foundation of their lofty pet project and bludgeoning centre of excellence, National Grassroots Dream Team at White Sand Field, Orile-Iganmu, Lagos.

Dabiri pooled resources together with NGFF secretary-general, Oscar Ezinwa Emmanuel and the media officer, Sam O’Femi Fasetire to set in motion what turned out to be Nigeria’s biggest and most successful community reach out youth sports venture.

The trio put their heads together with technical acumen, effort and material provided by Coach Anthony Onuoha, of blessed memory, who was then the gaffer at former Super Eagles’ winger and 1994 African Footballer of The Year, Emmanuel Amuneke’s pet club, Soccer Warriors FC of Orile-Iganmu, Lagos.

Together, they scurried the nooks and crannies of Lagos State, from Surulere to Ebute Metta, to Okoko, Ikorodu, Epe, Agege and beyond, all in search of not only football talents, tomorrow’s stars of today, but also youth in need of support in academic and vocational training.

That set the stage for tentative steps that put the ball in motion at K. Kotun Memorial School, Bode Thomas Street, Surulere, which was founded by Dabiri’s mother, also of blessed memory, and the family was more than willing to welcome the teeming starry eyed kids and mentors, as they set about putting in place training schemes for tailoring, shoe making, catering and barbing.

Such a promising ensemble it surely was; with kids turning up every Saturday to learn one new trick or the other, as they coined words like fashion designer, hair stylist, cobbler and dietician to add colour to the vocational training that had been set in motion in grand style in the hall and some selected classrooms of the school that is still owned till this day by Dabiri’s family.

However, CATS was basically for sports, football in particular, not just vocational training; hence the frenzy that erupted when an announcement went out that the project was set to roll fully with the ‘S’ in its name, starting on October 1, 2000 – until sponsorship ended in 2007.

The football frenzy began with trials for kids from Puma FC and Jolomi Boys of Surulere as well as Santana Boys of Ojo, Doyin Okpara of Ebute Metta and Coach Issa Stars of Ikorodu, who came together excitedly and gathered in their teeming numbers at the hockey pitch of Lagos National Stadium for trials aimed at selecting the core of lads and lasses to form the bedrock of CATS.

Yes, not only boys, also girls, which occasioned the arrival of Nigeria’s first woman to become a football coach, Joy Nnenna Etim to handle the lasses, while two-time Grassroots Football Coach of The Year, Hyacienth Nkwocha (now late) won the contest to be named CATS’ foundation head tactician and technical director, with Coach Sunny Epochie as his assistant.

They were not alone in the technical crew, as Eric Otinwa soon became physical trainer and now late Edwin Nyong stepped in as referees’ trainer, with Oscar Emmanuel as team manager and Dabiri project director, and CATS turned out to be as a ‘revolutionary’ as could ever be.

Trials soon moved into team building, with Dabiri’s alma mater, Government College Lagos (GCL), Eric Moore Road, Surulere, providing the pitch that was developed with funding from The British Council to beef it up to the high standard that was expected of such a lofty venture.

While ‘GCL’ provided the starting point for CATS’ football training, which was at that time restricted to Tuesdays and vocational training on Saturdays, nearby Union Bank Sports Complex soon became the official location of the project’s sessions that expanded to Thursdays.

That was where the maiden Jubilee Cup sponsored by The British Council eventually held, with a view to officially set the project in motion, with a number of other teams invited to participate in the highly competitive ceremonial contest that was laid bare to officially introduce CATS to youth football followers and the generality of Nigerians.

Soon after came Deb Ball from Voluntary Services Overseas (VSO), with a mission and vision to set CATS on an even greater pedestal, and what a great impact she created in taking the venture to the highest level thinkable, while never shirking in her duties as Project Manager.

From the small beginnings that saw foundation captain, Izunna Ohakam, then 12 years old, head an array of greenhorns to a take-off talk shop at The British Council’s former headquarters at Alfred Rewane Road, Ikoyi, CATS soon snowballed into a never-before-seen youth project with the biggest impact ever on the Nigerian developmental scene.

Visitors came from far and wide. From Britain came the Duke of Edinburg, The Baroness, a crew of Her Majesty’s Royal Navy and many others; while those from the domestic front included Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) secretary-general, Ambassador Fanny Amun and Korea 2017 FIFA U-17 World Cup-winning coach, Yemi Tella, with several others too numerous to mention.

There was also an approval of a proposal put forward by Dabiri to stage Diplomats Cup, a mini-football competition among staff in various  foreign missions represented in Nigeria, and what a wow they had with novelty action at an international school in Admiralty area of Lekki, Lagos.

All these underscored the relevance and prominence CATS had gained within such a short time, but the biggest and sweetest part of the pudding was yet to come. That emerged when Deb Ball began the international reach-out scheme of the hugely successful project.

Her efforts brought about trips to England, Kenya, Togo, Ghana, Benin Republic and a number of other countries for CATS’ boys and girls as well as officials of the project and representatives of supportive agencies like Government College Lagos, Union Bank Sports Complex and others.

Those trips were made possible mostly through an inner-venture called Dreams & Teams, which took CATS beyond just sports into mental aptitude development, social-cultural links, educative schemes, academic exchange and other intelligence building activities for the kids and mentors.

It was in this regard that Coach Hyacienth excelled, as he brought his multi-talented acumen to bear on the far-reaching exertions, with his skills of song writing, poetry, dancing, oratory, peer values and human relations turning out to be a big bargain that helped the lads and lasses make immense, astonishing and outstanding progressions on various other fronts.

Back to football, which happened to be the core fulcrum on which CATS was built, the female team soared beyond expectations, with spots achieved almost overnight in the first division of Nigeria’s women national league and gained promotion after just one year.

CATS Female Football Team’s surging strides were spurred by the efforts of severally talented damsels, including their rock in defence Blessing Akuobi (Onye Aba), battling midfielder Comfort Etim, velvety attacker Kehinde Ogunneye, who went on to star for the Nigerian youth national team, and agile goalkeeper Tochi Oluchi, who later played for the country’s senior squad, Super Falcons as well as Chinasa Ukandu and Florence Okpara, among others.

The boys were not to be left out, as they won Ajegunle Youth Cup, reached the final of Nathaniel Idowu Cup, semi-finals of Nike Cup and contested adequately at several other youth football competitions across the Lagos metropolis.

The biggest star among the lot turned out to be the junior team captain, Chima Daniel Uchechi, who went on to play as Nigeria’s assistant captain behind Odion Jude Ighalo in the national youth squad that reached the round of 16 at Egypt 2009 FIFA U-20 World Cup.

Other lads from CATS’ Boys who made great strides included Seun Savage, Azeez Dairo, Mensah Gadoka, Sunday Ibrahim, Chidi Chukwuka, Danlami Ibrahim, Chibuzor Joseph, Harrison Enyashi, Paul ‘Pokar’ Agu and Kazeem Kareem, who went on to play professional football in Portugal.

The list also includes FC Midtjylland of Denmark sensation, Riliwan Hassan as well as Jamiu Isa, who is now one of Nigeria’s fastest growing young coaches and Elijah Dominic, who shot to yet another dimension of Nigerian glory when he won a talent hunt reality show that featured ex-England international, John Fashanu and was sponsored by Oceanic Bank in Lagos.

To further confirm that CATS was not just about football on the pitch alone, one of the then budding lads, Emmanuel Etim has become a leading sports analyst, broadcaster, commentator and current head of sports at Nigeria Info 99.3 FM radio station in Victoria Island, Lagos.

All these are pointers to the attestation and affirmation that CATS indeed ‘touched more than nine lives,’ with several of the kids now waxing strong in varying aspects of life, the coaches who are still alive still holding firm positions in the scheme of things and their officials as vibrant as ever; which has left many observes now calling for a revival of the highly-successful project.

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