Prosperity Cup 2023; Outstanding Talents Abound In Bayelsa – Ono Akpe

The Prosperity Cup project’s director general, Mr. Ono Akpe discusses the benefits and the reasons why the state’s residents want additional programmes like this in this interview. He discusses how it all started

In a build-up to this interview, you said so much about the number of teams and one of the high points of this year’s edition is the encouraging news on support.

In the past, we have had wonderful support from SWAN who are members of our LOC. You can’t believe the knowledge they have of the game and the enthusiasm. We have had wonderful and exciting media support from AIT, Arisetv, Channels TV, Brilla FM, and others.

This year, we are in touch with Sports Giants, Super Sports (DSTV), and the international media group. They are going to cover the final stages of our tournament this year because they have agreed to be our media partner. Talks are in advanced stages, and in the next few days, we are going to conclude on that. We are very desirous that our boys have good careers abroad and locally. We are equally in touch with the NFF and the Sports Ministry to ensure that we are properly guided and given the necessary support. We have also contacted the coaches in Abuja and the main body of the Nigerian referees.

They will come and monitor the matches and possibly select players for the various national teams. One thing we must note is that there won’t be any player who has featured in any club side allowed to play here. These are raw talents ready to be brushed for excellence.

How did you conceive the idea of this big grassroots tournament?

The Bayelsa State Governors Cup also known as Prosperity Cup is a tournament held in support of the Governor, Senator Douye Diri’s efforts to positively engage youths through sports, develop football talents at the community level, stimulate youth empowerment and enhance overall grassroots development thus engendering inter-communal interaction, peace and unity in the state and beyond. Initially known as The Restoration Cup, it commenced in 2015 during the tenure of former Governor Seriake Dickson with 110 community teams from clubs, religious bodies, and tertiary institutions.

This is the sixth year but the 5th edition of the prosperity cup, which is equally the Bayelsa Governors football tournament. We started planning in 2014 but commenced fully in 2015 with the kick-off at the newly built Nembe City SStadiumin Nembe, which our opening match was used to declare that stadium open. This was because the Ultra Modern Samson Siasia Stadium was being remodeled.

It was a tournament conceived to positively engage the youths of Bayelsa to become more productive, harness the existing talent which abounds in the state, and to equally connect the people, and the communities with the Government in Bayelsa. That was the basic idea we had when we started in 2014.
We used that period to plan and look at the whole idea before the first edition held in 2015 with the finals in Bayelsa. It was an outstanding success with about 115 teams participating.

It was such a huge success that the Police Command in Bayelsa state confirmed that the crime rate in the Metropolis had dropped to its lowest level all through the period the matches were played. This is due to the basic fact that the youths were positively engaged. It gave us a lot of encouragement when we saw that lots of communities were engaged in the tournament.

The second edition was held in 2016, and it was equally another exciting tournament that saw 150 teams participating in that tournament. The rise from 115 to 150 showed us that the people were passionate about football and the desire to see them excel. We were also encouraged by the interest shown by all the nooks and crannies of Bayelsa.

The exciting thing about the tournament in Bayelsa is that we played across the entire state. In all eight Local Government Areas, matches were played from the beginning of the tournament till we rounded off the qualifying stages. From the coastal town of Agge to Azzuzuama, Imiringi to Odi, to Nembe and Akasa before the final stages with the last 32 teams coming down to Yenagoa, the state capital, it was a festival of football all through.

You have enumerated so much on the exciting part of the Prosperity Cup. How are you mobilizing the funds for the events considering the number of teams involved and the logistics?

Like I said earlier, the Bayelsa Governors Cup which was initially called the Restoration Cup got so big and so popular when we had 165 teams contesting for honors, and the Minister of Youth and Sports, Mr. Sunday Dare, who was our Special Guest of Honour in that years’ finals in Yenagoa, called it the largest grassroots football tournament in the country. That excited us. And that equally motivated us to reach out to those whom we need to support us.

The support has been tremendous from the Bayelsa State Government led by the sports-loving Governor Douye Diri, who has done so much for youth development in the state. The governor is ably supported by the hard-working Deputy Governor Senator Lawrence Ewrudjakjpo and his Commissioner of Sports, Olympian Daniel Igali have in a short time taken the sports sector to enviable heights. With a burning desire to transform the youths of the state and indeed the region, a lot has been achieved in this sector.

Governor Douye Diri has taken the state from the middle position in Sports to the 2nd position in the last sports festival having come third in the last edition held in Edo state beating larger and other dominating teams like Lagos, Edo, and Kano States. He initiated and started the Unity Games in the state, which is the first local government sports festival in the state. The state became the first and only state to win the AITEO cup for the male and female categories in 2021. Our Mirracle Governor also hosted and sponsored thNationalal Scrabble Championship and wrestling championship, amongst others. He indeed has the touch of a winner.

We have had support from Linkage Insurance Company, Sterling Bank, and other organizations within the region. We have also got the support of Century Group, the oil service company, the Bayelsa Board of Internal Revenue, and the Local Content Management Development Board; they have done well for us. They have supported us twice. But surely they can do better

Very sadly, we expect more from the oil industry. We have not gotten the support of the IOCs like Shell, AITEO, Agip, and others exploiting crude and Gas from Bayelsa even as it is worth noting that Oloibiri in Bayelsa which has a team is the first place where oil was drilled in Commercial quantity and sold in the international market by Shell. Unfortunately, despite our concerted efforts, they have not been able to do anything for us. The NNPC and the LNG have also not been able to do anything for us. We expect that more organizations and corporate entities will do more for us as their Corporate Social Responsibility. They should know that the youths are involved, and it unites the state more when they engage in meaningful activities to ensure the greater success of the tournament. That is the position for now.

The last edition in 2022 attracted many scouts from within, Europe, the Middle le East, Europe, and Australia. What was the magic?

The last edition attracted not only international football scouts but also attracted a lot of local scouts as well. It was outstanding. We had scouts from France, the Aspire Academy, Mamelodi Sundowns of South Africa, the Scout from Australia who commented that they came to Nigeria to look for players because their league did not have Nigerians and they felt it was a challenge that any league without Nigerian players is not seen as been outstanding. They needed to get a lot of Nigerian players.

They came in and picked up several local players from the tournament. It was a good outing for us and for our young boys. Quite a good number of the players were selected and screened but some had documentation problems. We had about 11 of them expected to travel to Europe to places like Serbia, Asia, and other European countries. More have been snapped up by the local teams in Nigeria, including but not limited to Bayelsa United. In the tournament, it is fast turning out to be the true feeder pool for Bayelsa teams. It is important to let you know that in the 2019 edition, the team was taken to Cape Verde, where they played the African Youth Cup. They came third in that tournament.

That team was kept together. They came back and won the Bayelsa league cup, the first time an outside team could do so. Outstanding talents that abound in Bayelsa have been exposed through this tournament. The youths are engaged, the coaches are engaged, scouts, and the medical teams, and this is creating a lot of depth in the skills of sportsmen and administrators in Bayelsa. We hope to move with our scouts and the teams in years to come. This tournament engages over 10,000 footballers, administrators, coaches, referees, and other allied supporters for over 3 months the tournament runs. There are a lot of expectations for this year’s tournament.

This year, we want to consolidate the gains of the previous editions. We are excited by the interest shown by the communities. Last year, we had 210 teams. It was astronomical, and you could imagine what it takes to manage that number of teams in a tournament. This year, we had 214 teams, which confirmed it as not only the largest Grassroots Football Tournament in the country but indeed in Africa.

We plan to hold a refresher course for the Referees and Match Commissioners in Bayelsa by FIFA-accredited officials. This will improve their knowledge of the rules of the game and strengthen their skills for optimum performance in this beautiful game of football. More so that a FIFA-accredited official is coming to undertake that programme. We have equally proposed a mini-coaching course for our coaches to update them on the laws and rules of the game. We believe in a well-informed society, free and fair officiating, and transparent conduct of all involved. This will improve the skill, management, and handling of players and respect for the officiating officials.

Again, we intend to have our international scouts coming in again. We have been flooded with calls from various countries in Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and Oceania. At the end of the day, we equally expect that apart from the scouts that come, a select team picked by the scouts will go on a playing tour. We are also in talks with academies in Europe, Asia, and the Eastern Bloc. It is important to note that the second batch of scouts came for the last edition. The scouts from KAZ Academy in Europe wanted to pick a lot from the tournament so they could be drilled and moved to teams that needed their service. They wanted players within the range of 15-17 years. In that academy, they go through football and school at the same time. We want more academies to come and take our boys to go through good schools and to foreign clubs thereafter. We want them to have an education and a career in football so they can have something to fall back on when their playing days are over.

This year, and very importantly, we want to introduce the female tournament segment. Eight teams will feature in the final stages in Yenagoa. You know that Bayelsa Queens is another high-flying team on the continent. They won the female league as well. The team is Champions of Female Soccer FA Cup and the league. With that, we expect to get new players who will be snapped by the local and foreign scouts and equally put in schools where they will combine football with education.

We want to be gender friendly and give the ladies the chance to also exhibit their talents. One of the highlights of this year is that we are going to have the female segment. It may be small, but it will be at the final stages and possibly four or 8 teams if we get the much-needed funds.

Of course, we have a schedule where and when the foreign scouts will pick the players and equally form solid teams from the entire number registered. We are going to assist the players in Excel.

One good and interesting thing is that the players are very young. In some cases, we saw boys as young as 13, 14, and 15 from the nooks and crannies of Bayelsa playing. The two boys that were on their way to Serbia when I interviewed them were from the farthest part of Southern Ijaw. These are communities, and to access them will take you close to three or four hours by boat. Luckily, the State Government has continued the massive senatorial road with multiple bridges to Southern Ijaw.

These are the talents that abound despite the challenges of navigating to and from their places through rivers and the Atlantic Ocean. We were able to bring them to Yenagoa, and they have not regretted it. It is exciting because the tournament is for boys and girls between the ages of 14 to 21. Since it is a community-based tournament too, we allow about five overage players to be part of it. Though that is not the focus, the focus is on the young and exciting talents from Azzuama to Sagbama, Nembe, and Brass Yenagoa.

I must acknowledge the support of the former governor of Bayelsa Senator Henry Seriake Dickson who initiated the tournament and supported it for three editions before he completed his second term in office and equally took the players to the African Youth Championship in Cape Verde. I must equally salute the incumbent sports-loving Miracle Governor of the state Senator Douye Diri, who has given us the backing, financially and morally, to ensure that this tournament has grown and is sustained. With his ever-hard-working Deputy Governor Senator Lawrence Ewhrudjakpo and the Olympic Champion, Hon Daniel Igali, they have overseen every activity of this tournament and made sure that things run smoothly. We must thank him for his support, which has made the tournament a resounding success.

Indeed, we must say that the Prosperity Cup has turned Bayelsa State into a mecca of football for our youths not only in the Nigeria Delta region but across Nigeria as a whole.

The 2018/2019 edition with 190 teams attended by the Minister of Sports Hon Sunday Dare who described it as “the largest Grassroots football Tournament in the Country”. A selected team from this edition came 3rd in the African Youth Cup in Cape Verde and also won the 2019 Bayelsa League Cup.

The 2022 edition with a total of 210 community-based teams attracted International Scouts from France, South Africa, Australia, and Russia, and about 250 teams are expected to participate in this year’s edition. Indeed, the tournament has achieved a lot as several players from this competition now play in clubs across Nigeria and abroad.