by Bassey Ibiatisuho
On November 7, 2014, the gates of the $96million-valued Godswill Akpabio International Stadium in Uyo, Akwa Ibom State, notably referred to as ‘The Nest of Champions’ were officially opened amidst fan-fare and jubilation especially from football fans across the country who took a deep breath with heads held high that Nigeria had finally gotten a stadium that could pass any international test.
The ultra-modern sports complex boasts a 30,000-capacity stadium with bulletproof VIP and VVIP areas. Natural grass, high-tech floodlights, provision for an indoor sports hall, training pitch, village games, helipad, collapsible seats and two scoreboards that comprise electronic scoreboard and video facilities for replays.
Among all these are dressing rooms, media facilities, a box office, video facilities, 7500 seater Grandstand, a standard eight-lane 400m track, warm-up facility with a six-lane 400m track, a standby power supply system and an ambulance bay.
The stadium structure, modelled after the Allianz Arena in Germany, was designed to meet International Safety Standards. There are 30 emergency exit points estimated to facilitate exit in 6 minutes at full capacity, closed-circuit security cameras, crowd control steel fencing, stand by firefighting equipment and metal detectors.No doubt, the magnificent structure majestically located along the Goodluck Jonathan Boulevard in Uyo is the best stadium in Nigeria and unlike the poor maintenance culture evidently affecting multi million naira projects across the country, the beauty, neatness and original design of this sports facility is intact thanks to the effort of the Akwa Ibom State government in maintaining the pitches and structure.
Since 2014, the stadium has been a fortress, not just for Akwa United, the state-owned NPFL team that qualified and played CAF Confederation Cup matches on two different occasions on that turf, but also the Super Eagles of Nigeria. Qualifying for the 2018 FIFA World Cup and 2019 African Cup of Nations both in record time is a credit to that facility.
In fact, the beauty of the stadium which extended to the good hotel accommodation, good transportation network within the city, security and the warmness from the fans whenever the Eagles were in Uyo, endeared the Technical Adviser, Gernot Rohr to the Nest of Champions as the home ground of the Eagles because of the focus and concentration the environment provided for the team. Whatever reason provided by the Nigeria Football Federation – NFF for moving the team from Uyo to Asaba and now to Benin this week can only be understood as leaving the best for the less because of factors only peculiar to Nigeria. Yes, an average Nigerian would prefer the Super Eagles play their matches in a government school football field in his city than watch the team play on TV in a standard stadium.As an international stadium, The Nest of Champions has attracted international footballers and legends. In May 2018, Fernando Torres, Jan Oblak and Thomas Partey were in Atletico Madrid’s squad for a hybrid GOtv MAX Cup against the Nigeria national team in Uyo. The team also had defenders JuanFran, Sergio Gonzalez, Francisco Montero, Rafael Munoz, Andres Solano. Midfielders Gabi Fernandez , Angel Correa, Victor ‘Vitolo’ Perez, Thomas Partey, Roberto Olabe, Juan Aguero Nunez, Antonio Moya, Mikel Carro, Joaqiun Munoz, Jot and strikers Kevin Gameiro, Borja Garces all present with Coach Diego Simeone. A year later, in April 2019 the Nest of Champions played host to the former Champions League winner and legendary international footballer, Carles Puyol, who was in Nigeria as part of the UEFA Champions League Tour presented by Heineken. The Unmissable Match also featured Nigerian legend, Jay Jay Okocha. Aside football events, the facility has also hosted many track and field events; Akwa Ibom State/NNPC/MPN Schools Athletics Championships in 2015, Nigerian Air Force Combat Sports Competition took place in March 2018 and was immediately followed in December of the same year with the launch of the maiden Chief of Naval Staff sports competition. The Nigerian Army and the Police inter-command games also took their turns. Akwa Ibom State Youths Sports Festival has also featured prominently in the last years.
Today, the Nest of Champions remains the pride of the Nigeria Professional Football League as it boasts of the best facilities and can be approved for league games from Abuja without an inspection team except to enjoy the ambience of the city and its hospitality. Football can be played day and night, under the sun and in the rain, it was built for all seasons and conditions. Even the NFF President, Amaju Pinnick can attest to this. He too had a feel of the stadium at night in a friendly match between SWAN Selected and Sports Journalists in Akwa Ibom.
It is no accident that Uyo has become the sports capital of Nigeria. It was a well thought out plan by the then administration of Governor Godswill Akpabio who said on the day of inauguration, “The sports industry is the industry we can no longer ignore in a developing country. That is why we built this stadium with sophisticated facilities that have met the expectations of FIFA. The stadium is a treasure for all Africans to enjoy and we hope that the stadium will hatch and produce enough athletes in future because this stadium is the ‘Nest of Champions.”
As we celebrate the 6th anniversary of this iconic structure, I hope that the Nigeria Football Federation will maximize the potential and respect this stadium accords the country without sentiment and understand that Eagles only fly anywhere but can only be comfortable in their Nest. While we await other states canvassing to host the Super Eagles matches to put similar standard structure on ground or even more superior, let’s not sacrifice our best for their want, let them pay a price for a world class stadium. The Super Eagles deserve the best. For now, Godswill Akpabio International Stadium, Uyo remains in its honour unrivalled.