2023: What Next For Nigerian Football?

Nigerian Football Team

As the footballing world begins to switch its attention back to club football after the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, one country that will be looking to restore its lost glory is Africa’s most populous country, Nigeria. The West African nation who were absent from the recently concluded global show piece after being knocked out in the playoffs to Ghana have a newly elected executive board led by Ibrahim Gusau who is taking over from Melvin Amaju Pinnick whose tenure has been described as the worse ever in the history of Nigerian football.

Currently, football is at its all-time low with the country failing to qualify for the last three of the last four major men’s world football tournaments – the Olympic Games, the World Cup, and the upcoming Championship for African Nations while the football league is yet to begin due to financial issues, and no youth structure, one will begin to wonder where the incoming administration will begin from.

According to former International and NPFL star Victor Ezeji, the major reason why there is a crisis in Nigerian football is the lack of a strong domestic league. Ezeji who has played across a host of NPFL clubs including Dolphins FC, Sharks, Heartland, and Enyimba FC where he won the CAF Champions League in 2004 believes that making the league more lucrative will deter the young players from leaving Nigeria and also help the clubs improve its infrastructure.

“First things first, the infrastructure of most clubs does not allow player development to improve. So it’s difficult for the clubs to keep the players at the club for long and they can’t even sell the players for their real value. So the incoming administrators must do well in trying to inject money into the league so that clubs may be able to improve on infrastructure as well as deterring the players from moving to obscure leagues around the world just to make ends meet.”

Ezeji also believes that the newly elected board of the NFF must work towards making the league more professional, especially in the aspect of making attracting private individuals and cooperations to take over the club’s sides in Nigeria.

At the moment, the professional league in Nigeria is called Nigeria Professional Football League (NPFL), yet the league is dominated by government-owned clubs.

Following the relegation of FC Ifeanyi Ubah in 2021, and MFM FC in 2022, only Remo Stars and newly promoted Doma United will be competing as privately owned clubs in the 2023 NPFL season.

The rest of the clubs, Lobi Stars; Enyimba FC; Akwa United; Plateau United; Sunshine Stars; Nasarawa United; Wikki Tourists; Gombe United; Niger Tornadoes; Kwara United; 3SC; Dakkada FC; Enugu Rangers; Abia Warriors; Katsina United; Rivers United, are owned and funded by state governments.

“I strongly believe that if the clubs were owned by private individuals, they would be a drive and desire by the clubs to make a profit. But with the current setup, the administrators are just lazy to make money.”

In the case of the NPFL, since almost all the clubs are funded by state governments, the business side of the sport is relegated to the background. The clubs usually depend on allocations from the government to compete in the league.

Merchandising, which is one of the major sources of revenue for European clubs, is not a thing of priority to Nigerian clubs. The chairmen who lead the management committees are usually cronies of state governors. Consequently, they rarely account for money released to them for the clubs.

The failure of the League Management Company (LMC) to tie down a long-term title sponsor of the league has remained a major setback for the league. 
Consequently, for some years now, the LMC has organized the NPFL without a major sponsor. Invariably, some of the financial responsibilities which the LMC once shouldered have fallen heavily on the clubs, who in turn rely completely on funds from the government.

These, among other inadequacies, cast a huge shadow of doubt on the self-acclaimed professionalism in the NPFL. Those critical of the league say it is not better than amateur football leagues that are played elsewhere.

Furthermore, the absence of grassroots football tournaments is a challenge that has been present in Nigerian football for ages. Unlike other countries where the existence of academies where footballers get proper football grooming from a tender age, the case is different in Nigeria. 

Former Nigerian International Chikelue Iloenyosi who was part of Nigeria’s team that won the gold medal at the 1996 Olympic games in Atlanta strongly believes that for Nigeria to get back to the level it used to be, it must establish a great grassroots system.

“For so long we have had this fire brigade approach without a genuine desire for grassroots development. That has to change. We have to push for the creation of academies in Nigeria. Create age grade league and also organize a proper amateur league. This is the only way, we can get harness raw talent and have a good database.

Iloenyosi who during his playing days played for numerous NPFL clubs including giants Enugu Rangers also believes that it is also time for clubs in Nigeria to also invest in grassroots football, by establishing academies.

“It is also time for the clubs to have their own academies. It’s embarrassing that in 2022, the biggest clubs in this country [the likes of Enyimba, Enugu Rangers, and others] do not have proper academies. What this means is that a club like Enyimba can not boast of having wonder kids like Brazilian clubs do. Hence, they can’t consistently produce talents and competitive teams.”

On his part football analyst, Yemi Adesanya, wants the current new NFF board to come up with actionable goals: “First, they need to share their actionable blueprint; which, should be reviewed with timelines every two years with minimum achievable milestones. Secondly, sell Nigerian football as a package to corporate Nigeria, knowing that Nigeria football does not start and end with the Super Eagles.”

Adesanya added, “We must go back to the basics. Fund the league adequately, and create opportunities for players in the league to aspire to play for the national team.

“We must also develop a sustainable funding structure for school sports; coaches’ education and reeducation. The NFF President should be president of Nigerian football, not of Super Eagles.”

In addition to this many Nigerians believe that corruption is one of if not the major reasons why Nigerian football is going down the drain and they are right.

Throughout the eight years of the Amaju Pinnick-led board, the Nigerian Football Federation has been saddled with accusations of corruption. The football governing body has been operating with little or no accountability which in all fairness has to change if Nigeria has to grow as a footballing nation.

Coincidentally, most of the corruption accusation has been about the elite division of the NPFL. One such accusation is the last TV deal announced by the league. In November 2019, a flicker of light appeared to shine in the form of digital broadcaster Next TV, with whom the LMC auspiciously announced it had reached a joint venture agreement to the tune of $225m for a five-year period. 

Per the terms, both parties would collaborate in terms of production, sales, distribution, and commercialisation of content, with the live games broadcast first via OTT (Over The Top) transmission and subsequently made available to terrestrial and cable channels interested in purchasing rights.

However, there has to date been nothing concrete on the ground in terms of execution. In April 2020, then NPFL chief Shehu Dikko blamed the lack of activation on ‘the absence of production equipment (a curious explanation)

Football Analyst Obinna Okoli strongly believes that the Federal Government should cleanse out corruption from the NFF by making the administrators accountable for the funds made available to them.

“The Federal government has to tackle corruption within the NFF. The administrators have to know that they are accountable for their actions. The actions of past administrators have cost Nigerian football a lot of money as well as sponsors. If we do not put a stop to corruption in football, we will continue to be without sponsors which in turn will affect our football”

There seems to be some light at the end of the tunnel as The Federal Government in September scrapped the League Management Company from managing the Nigeria Professional Football League replacing it with an Interim Management Committee to oversee the league.

According to the Federal Government, the reason for them to scrap the LMC was several unpleasant incidents regarding the management of the Football League. The Interim Management Committee has been charged with the responsibility of rebranding the League with sincerity of purpose, transparency, and accountability. 

Nigerians will hope that these steps will be the beginning of a new dawn for Nigerian football.

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Nigerian Football Team
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