Heartland’s campaign in the NPFL has been blighted by financial issues and poor players’ welfare, in sharp contrast to their nickname Naze Millionaires, writes ’TANA AIYEJINA
Nigerian football followers were left bemused December 29, 2020 when reports emerged that Heartland FC, the Owerri-based Nigeria Professional Football League side, were stranded in Katsina, where they had gone to play their opening game of the 2020/21 season against Katsina United a day earlier.
The Naze Millionaires, as Heartland are nicknamed, lost the encounter 3-2, after going ahead twice, but reports said players and officials of the club were held back by the management of Fadama View Hotel, where they had lodged before the game, following their inability to sort the bills incurred at the hotel.
The incident came after the club were handed a two-window ban from signing new players by the League Management Company for failing to pay the salaries of two former players Maduabuchi Okereke and Fatunwase Olusegun.
Both players had in separate petitions to the LMC dated November 5, 2019, complained about unpaid dues, wrongful termination of contract and compensation. While Maduabuchi claimed a total of N10, 400, 000, Fatuwase asked for N6, 250,000.
The LMC ordered Heartland to pay both players N16.65m.
Also, world body FIFA’s Disciplinary Committee found Heartland guilty of breaching their contract with Brazilian Santos Da Costa Ivo Jorge.
Santos Da Costa joined Heartland from Flumenese SC of Joinville, Brazil in 2018 on a two-year contract but was reportedly abandoned by the club after a change of management in July 2019.
FIFA ordered the Owerri-based side to pay the player a cumulative $56,000 or face a ban from signing new players.
It was learnt that Imo State Governor Hope Uzodinma recently came to the rescue of the club when he released funds for the club to pay the Brazilian.
Heartland’s documented woes
In a recent edition of Monday Night Football on SuperSport, sports presenter Charles Anazodo described Heartland’s woes as “documented.”
Truly, the issues plaguing the club over the years have gradually turned a big snag for the NPFL.
The club, who were formerly camped in Naze, near Owerri, have not had a camp in over a year.
Last week, an audio clip of head coach Fidelis Ilechukwu lamenting the harsh conditions he was subjected to at the club went viral.
“We don’t have accommodation for the past one year, they haven’t paid for my accommodation, sometimes we come back from training and we stay outside because there is no accommodation for players,” Ilechukwu said.
“They owe me five months salaries and an outstanding sign-on fee of N1.5m. Do you know what it means to be working and not get paid? ”
Despite the crisis at the club, Ilechukwu performed the unlikely when he led Heartland to a 2-1 win — their third in their opening nine games — over his former club MFM away at the Soccer Temple in Agege, Lagos, to bring some relief to their fans.
However, the poor quality kits worn by the players in Lagos, which was unbranded and without the club’s logo, and had players’ names and jersey numbers written with a pen, took the shine out of the hard-fought win.
An infuriated Lagos-based sports journalist Afolabi Oni wrote on his Facebook page after the encounter, “The League Management Company must do something about Heartland FC now or risk bringing the league into disrepute.
“Apart from owing players for months, they went to a low level of absurdity today (Sunday) against MFM when they played their game with training and unmarked jerseys.
“Imagine the game was scheduled for live TV? If LMC don’t act now in a decisive fashion, other clubs will hide under this tomorrow.”
A League Management Company official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to speak on the issue, said Heartland bought jerseys for the encounter on match day.
“They (Heartland) had a delegation of state commissioners and politicians in their crew, these people were putting on kits that could have afforded the players three jerseys each. They were all well kitted, but the players were not,” our source said.
“Heartland presented blue jerseys, which were MFM home colour, in the morning of the match; they said their traditional red colour jerseys were with the drycleaners. That’s when they went to buy another set of red jerseys on the morning (Sunday) of the match. We also told them that they could do the jersey branding at sports shops around Ojuelegba, at least players names and numbers can be imprinted in the jerseys, but they didn’t heed our advice. It was a show of shame.”
The League Management Company consequently fined the Owerri-based side N1.1m on Tuesday, to further compound their misery.
The league body said on Twitter, “The acts breach Rules B9.7-8 for non-display of name & number on kits & B9.26 for wearing unregistered kits of the NPFL Framework & Rules.
“A fixed penalty of N100,000 is imposed on Heartland as well as a fine of N1m for the breach.”
Good old days
Located in Owerri North Local Government Area of Imo State, Naze is one of the first towns that a first-time visitor who flies into the state gets to see.
It’s about eight kilometres from Owerri, driving in from the Sam Mbakwe Airport.
The commercial community is renowned for its farmers markets, vegetable stands, and large churches.
But football brought the small town to global limelight when Heartland, then known as Iwuanyanwu Nationale, set up a camp there.
The club, founded by Imo State in 1976 and named Spartans of Owerri, was acquired by businessman and politician Chief Emmanuel Iwuanyanwu in 1985, and he significantly turned around the fortunes of the hitherto struggling side to powerhouses not just in Nigeria, but in Africa.
The business mogul brought in the finest players in the country then, including Thompson Oliha, Uche Okechukwu, Ben Iroha, Etim Esin, and Edward Ansah and handed them excellent packages including a three-week training tour of Brazil, brand new cars and houses at Naze.
And the result was instant. In their first season as Iwuanyanwu Nationale, they finished runners-up of the Nigerian topflight league.
They were duly nicknamed Naze Millionaires and went on to dominate the local scene with their array of established stars.
“I joined Nationale in 1987 as the most expensive footballer in Nigeria. It was inside the 505 Peugeot car that Chief Iwuanyanwu gave me that robbers attacked and shot me same year,” retired midfielder Etim Esin told The PUNCH about the state of the club during his era.
They would go on to win four straight league titles in the following four seasons. In 1988, they won the double, beating Flash Flamingoes 3-0 in the FA Cup final, as well as reaching the CAF Champions Cup final, winning 1–0 in the first leg tie in Ibadan, before losing 4–0 in Constantine, Algeria in the return leg versus Entente Setif.
In the 1990s they also held sway, winning a fifth league title in 1993. They also won the league in 1999, but ended up losing the title to Lobi Stars in the inaugural Super League play-off, as well as finishing runners-up in the FA Cup to Plateau United.
There were also consistent in continental competitions.
On February 7, 2006, the Imo State Government re-acquired ownership of the club from Chief Iwuanyanwu and renamed it Heartland FC.
Ever since, the club have struggled to meet the standards set by the previous owner, though they won the FA Cup in 2011 and 2012 and the Nigerian Super Cup (2011 and 2012) and reached the final of the CAF Champions League in 2009 under the ownership of the Imo government afterwards.
In 2016, the club were relegated to the country’s second-tier league, but staged an immediate return to the topflight the next season.
However, our correspondent learnt that power play, political bickering, intrigues and scramble for juicy positions in the club by politicians have wreaked havoc on the five-time Nigerian champions, which has largely affected the welfare of their players and officials.
These off-the-pitch issues have played a huge part in Heartland’s dwindling on-field performances, with well-documented scandals of non-payment of players and officials’ salaries, despite reported financial backing from the Imo State Government.
Our correspondent learnt that the club receive N30m monthly allocation from the Imo State Government, with N17m budgeted for players and staff salaries, but club officials have often been accused of funds misappropriation.
Last year, the Imo State sports commissioner Chike Ogu was involved in a widely publicised rift with the management board of the club, which led to the board’s dissolution.
But then General Manager of the club Godson Onyemaobi insisted Ogu “lacked the locus standi (authority and power) to dissolve a board duly instituted by the governor of the state.”
Charles Ezekwem, immediate past chairman of the club and a former People’s Democratic Party chairman in the state, alleged that accusations of funds misappropriation by his board were targeted at the removal of Onyemaobi, who was eventually replaced by the returning Ifeanyi Chukwudi.
“I know that I’m not the target in this crisis, but the GM (Onyemobi). So, if he is sacked, I will resign because I know he is a performing GM,” Ezekwem said.
In an interesting twist, Ezekwem had sacked Chukwudi in 2019, and brought on his preferred candidate Onyemaobi.
But Governor Uzodinma overturned the decision last October, when he reappointed Chukwudi as the club’s GM, forcing out Ezekwem in the process.
During his time, Ezekwem slashed players’ salaries, saying the decision, which had goalkeeper Ikechukwu Ezenwa’s monthly wages cut from N700,000 to N500,000, was “in full agreement with all the players.”
When our correspondent asked the Deputy Speaker, Imo State House of Assembly, Amara Iwuanyanwu, who currently oversees the affairs of Heartland, via a text message, plans by the state government to properly fund the club and pay outstanding salaries, he replied, “I would call.”
He however didn’t call as at the time of filing this report.
For the players, it’s been tales of lamentations.
Our findings show that seven players and members of the technical crew are owed six months’ salary arrears by the present board.
Last August, goalkeeper Ekoi Agbor told The PUNCH that he borrowed N300,000 to bury his late mother having been owed seven months’ wages by the club.
“I borrowed N300,000 to bury my mother after Heartland failed to pay my outstanding salaries,” he said.
The shot stopper says he was forced to quit the club following the continuous non-payment of his salaries and allowances.
“As I speak with you, Heartland still owe me N3.6m. How can I remain at such a club? It’s better to look elsewhere,”Agbor said.
But it had never been like this, laments Etim.
“In our camp in Naze then, we had everything; chefs, physiotherapist, doctors and we lived like kings. We were never owed and we got the best treatment.”
Today, the millionaires have been sent packing from Naze and are now resident in a property in Orlu. The state government, it was gathered, paid for the new accommodation last week.
“Heartland has left Naze after the owner of the property took over because the club couldn’t pay. I learnt it’s even been demolished,” Agbor said.
A football journalist, a regular visitor to the Naze Camp during their glory days, sums up the fortunes of the former Nigerian champions.
“There are no millions there (Naze) any more, if anything, Heartland are now glorified tenants.”