By Clement Nwankpa Jr

In keeping with his campaign promises, Imo State governor, Emeka Ihedioha has intensified efforts to boost sports in the state.

Consequently, Ihedioha has proposed and gotten the state executive council to approve an upgrade of facilities at the Dan Anyiam Stadium and Grasshoppers International Handball Stadium to meet international standards.

The latest development takes immediate effect and should attract Grade A sporting events in a few months while facilitating Heartland’s return to Owerri for their NPFL home games.

Prior to his assumption of office, the sporting industry was in comatose after eight years of neglect under his predecessor, Rochas Okorocha.

The Dan Anyiam Stadium (DAS) and Grasshoppers International Stadium (GIS) were in very poor state. The dilapidated state of these facilities meant GIS never hosted a handball event all through Okorocha’s administration. In fact, no meaningful sporting activity was held there as the place became an abode for miscreants and street urchins.

As a result, the fortunes of Grasshoppers handball club, arguably the country’s most celebrated club in the 80s and 90s, dwindled.

Similarly, Dan Anyiam stadium failed to meet organisers’ minimum standards for hosting NPFL matches resulting in the state’s football team Heartland being forced to play their home matches in Okigwe.

With no quality home ground, Heartland that had gotten used to playing more home matches away from home, suffered a dip in fortunes these past eight years. The team became a regular relegation candidate during this period and was relegated for the first time in 2016.

The team bounced back to NPFL but were already primed for the drop again in 2018 before an abrupt end to the league due to NFF crisis meant no club was relegated.

In 2019, the team frolicked with the drop till the last day and it took the intervention of Ihedioha, who was to be sworn-in, three days later for the team to beat El-Kanemi 2-0 in Okigwe and retain their Premiership status.

Ihedioha, who had keenly monitored the team’s struggles all these years vowed to restore their glory days as governor. He had as part of his cardinal plans to revive the Dan Anyiam and Grasshoppers stadia while giving the sporting industry a new lease of life.

For his inauguration, these two arenas were given facelifts and deployed for major events. While Grasshoppers hosted the interdenominational service and youth concert, Dan Anyiam was venue for the novelty match and swearing-in Ceremony.

Imolites were shocked at the transformation recorded in the arenas within the short period. Many were amazed that the GIS could be made habitable with just a few weeks touching-up.

During the novelty match, the DAS floodlights came on and many couldn’t remember the last time this was done while a football match was on.

Now in charge, Ihedioha has decided to take it a notch higher.

A proposal has been sent to the state executive council and an approval has been given for the complete refurbishing of the Dan Anyiam and Grasshoppers Stadia.

At the DAS, the grass surface will be resurfaced to meet international standards; the tartan tracks relayed; seats replaced and state-of-the-art scoreboard installed. The practice pitch behind the main-bowl will also be resurfaced and given a facelift.

The target of this phased refurbishment is to ensure the arena meets required standards and hosts international games. With Imo’s high tourism potentials, a top quality DAS will attract international matches to the state and boost sports tourism.

Ihedioha said; “We want to put in place a facility that will host the Super Eagles. This state has immense tourism potentials and one of the major avenues we want to drive this is sports. We will aggressively strive to boost the state’s IGR and tourism and sports is key”.

Of paramount importance is to ensure Heartland play their home matches in Owerri next season.

The governor continued; ” Dan Anyiam is the ancestral home of Heartland. You can’t take Real Madrid away from Bernebau or Manchester United away from Old Trafford. The era of the team playing their home matches away from the home ground is over.

“We will make the place conducive for the team and avail their teeming fans the opportunity to watch them live. You can’t take away the place of the fans in a team. We want to assure Heartland fans that we are bringing their beloved club home. We don’t want the club to battle relegation every season. They have to be up there winning trophies”.

The Grasshoppers arena will also undergo massive upgrade to complement what was put in place before the inauguration. The turf, seats and scoreboard will be replaced to meet international standards.
As the governor promised in his inaugural address, a handball tournament will be held at the arena in the next three months.

“Growing up, Grasshoppers club was the pride of Imolites. This was why a stadium was named after them. We will ensure Grasshoppers bounce back and the first way to do so is to make their home ground functional again”, Ihedioha added.

Preparatory to the elections, three years ago, Ihedioha commissioned a consultant to review the state of sports facilities in the state. Backed with sordid pictures of DAS and GIS, the consultant’s report was alarming.

Moved by the sorry state of the facilities, Ihedioha promised to begin his rebuilding process from these facilities, if elected into office. He is keeping to his words and with the Executive Council’s approval, work will be expedited at the DAS and GIS in the next couple of days.

Truly, the best days for Imo sports are still ahead.

Nwankpa, an author, member NFF Technical Study Group and online publisher, writes from Abuja.

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