Halting premature deaths at sport arenas – Punch

The recent death of a football player while actively participating in a league game should serve as a basis for a radical review of the way sport is organised in this country. Never again should a professional league match, or any other sporting event for that matter, be allowed to hold without the emplacement of the requisite facilities and personnel to handle any medical emergency that might arise in the course of the competition.

Chineme Martins was playing for his club, Nasarawa United, against Katsina United at the Lafia Township Stadium when he slumped onto the ground in the 45th minute of play. Efforts to revive him on the pitch failed flatly. What however shocked many who witnessed the incident was that the ambulance that was to convey him to the hospital refused to start.

With much time spent in the futile effort to push the ambulance, Martins was eventually taken to the hospital in one of the vehicles in the state governor’s fleet. Not surprisingly, the player was later pronounced dead at the hospital. While it is still debatable whether his life could have been saved had there been the necessary medical requirement for first aid, it is still painful that he did not get the benefit of adequate medical care at the match venue, which could have eventually resulted in his death.

Certainly, this is not the first time a player would slump and die in Nigeria or other parts of the world. The country has lost valuable players, among them a former youth international, Charity Ikhidero, who was part of the 1989 Dammam Miracle team, and a former BCC Lions and Julius Berger player, Amir Angwe. Although a global phenomenon, what makes the Nigerian situation different is that there is usually no provision for dealing with any emergency.

For instance, one of the most famous cases of a player slumping to his death during a match in Nigeria was that of the late Sam Okwaraji, who died playing for the senior national team in 1989. During a World Cup qualifying match between Nigeria and Angola at the National Stadium in Lagos, the feisty midfielder suddenly slumped and could not get up again. In much the same manner as the incident at Lafia, the ambulance that was to take him to the hospital also developed a fault.

Such an incident should not be condoned in an international match; it is evidence of the ineptitude that characterises sport organisation in the country. There should be no reason whatsoever for Nigeria not to be able to pull all the stops to host a successful World Cup qualifier. It is perhaps the highest level of football before a World Cup match itself and an opportunity for the country to put her best foot forward; but Nigeria would always prefer to do things in half measures.

It is sad that the Sports Minister, Sunday Dare, and the League Management Committee (the league organising body in Nigeria), are only just now coming out to talk about safety measures at match venues. These things ought to have been addressed before Martins’ tragic death. But, beyond mere pronouncements, the country’s sport authorities have to ensure that all the standard requirements are met, especially ahead of other sports event such as the National Sports Festival that has just been postponed.

In the developed world, venues for any sports event cannot be approved if adequate provision is not made for first aid and other medical services. A former player, Fabrice Muamba, is alive today because of the prompt medical response that he received when he slumped during a match between his club, Bolton Wonderers, and Tottenham Hotspur in the United Kingdom in 2012. Muamba had stopped breathing for 78 minutes, but because of an ambulance that did not have to be pushed to start and the presence of medical experts he was able to pull through.

It is therefore difficult to understand why professional league matches should be played without having adequate medical services on hand. There is no justifiable reason why the game between Nasarawa United and Katsina United should have been allowed to take place when adequate medical arrangements were not in place. It is always a shame to see the response of the medical teams when serious injuries are sustained during matches in Nigeria – about two or three people rushing onto the pitch with some sachets of cold water poured on the player and some massage administered. When the situation demands much more, the officials are stuck.

Beyond the presence of a qualified medical team on the pitch on match days, the culture of testing players to ascertain their state of fitness should also be embraced. In Europe, unarguably the home of professional football, no player moves to a new club without undergoing medical. For instance, Nwankwo Kanu was able to become such a phenomenal player that he was for Arsenal and the Super Eagles because routine checks carried out on him as he was moving from Ajax to Inter Milan revealed he had a life-threatening heart disease. This enabled him to seek the best medical treatment that elongated his football career and his life.

Sport is entertainment but it is also a high-risk activity. Efforts should be made therefore to ensure that both the participants and the audience are safe. Even the world soccer governing body, FIFA, always ensures that a country’s health facilities are brought to an acceptable standard to be able to host its competitions. If Nigeria hopes to match the standards attained in the developed countries, then the administrators have to raise their game. Providing the best medical equipment and personnel may not stop death at the arenas, but it will reduce it significantly.

Finally, to ensure that Martins did not die in vain, the circumstances of the shoddy situation that resulted in his death should be thoroughly investigated and those found culpable punished.

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