The Moustached Journalist says;
There is no better evidence of the power of football fans overtime in the nation’s top league than the recent outpouring showcased in the Matchday Two Fixture of the 2023/24 Nigeria Premier Football League between the newly-promoted Northern giants that ended in a 1-0 victory for Kano Pillars over Katsina United in the fizzy atmosphere of Sani Abacha Stadium in Kano on Sunday, October 8, 2023. Days before the game went down, there was that contagious bittersweet yearning around the fans as both clubs have long tasted top-flight football for years since last relegated to the Nigeria Nationwide League (NNL).
The Nigeria Premier Football League (NPFL), in the past decades, without dubiety had possessed subsequent historical-cum-intensive football rivalries and fandoms that envisaged its esteemed organization in the cadre of respectable top-flight leagues in Africa and the world at large. This, categorically, was a pleasant honour to the nation’s ever-beautiful scintillated competition as fans across the country were enthralled by the domestic actions seen at different match centres from Lagos, Ibadan, Benin, Enugu, Calabar, Port-Harcourt, Jos, Kano, Kaduna, and so on.
This was when most match venues across the country were usually packed up with no single seat left as early as 11 a.m. The famous rule then was that for any fan to gain access to any of the stadiums, he must have been at the stadium before noon, or else he would not gain entry to the stands. This was due to the followership the local clubs commanded that fans had to start preparation for league matches at least three days before the games.
That was the period when games involving the likes of the Benin derby of Bendel Insurance and New Nigeria Bank; all-based Lagos masterpieces of Stationery Stores, African Continental Bank (ACB), NEPA, and First Bank; the Ibadan showdown between Water Corporation and IICC Shooting Stars; the Southeast clash of Iwuanyawu Nationale and Enugu Rangers; the battle of the Rivers between Calabar Rovers and Sharks of Port-Harcourt, among others.
However, the league may have suddenly witnessed a downturn in the hearts of its fanatics to the extent that some matches are not only played in half-empty stadia but also on bad pitches that are prominently unsightly even on television screen which have heavily dealt with the establishment, development and sustainability of the Nigerian top-tier division in most recent times.
While the realities of the new alteration rocked the NPFL’s boat, memories paddled on. It has soon moved to resuscitation, and the fans’ character towards the league is gradually assuming life and determination to revise the mess becomes more visible. A little over the years, since notable efforts have been immersed into creating a new face for the country’s topmost division through the enactment of a defined league management board to propel its overall affairs, things may have slightly changed for the better.
Unfortunately, one would barely drive through the streets of some of the major cities in Nigeria, without glaring at several fans parading in the jerseys of their favourite European clubs. It is even commonly seen among these ardent followers who would rather have their attention glued on the television screen, while others could be seen aggressively bantering away with opposing fans at the uppermost of their husky voices at football viewing centres randomly constructed around town.
The aura within the country’s elite league is almost dispirited and devoid of flair which has remained vile for years, especially, in the Southern parts of Nigeria where we have a cluster of traditional clubs like Bendel Insurance, Enyimba, Shooting Stars, Heartland FC, Rangers Int’l, among others has suffered eras of hiatus from these respective fan bases cheering their favourite clubs at most domestic league matches.
Gone are the good old days when ecstatic crowds were excitedly flocking in the stands of various stadia in some of the big cities in the country, stepped up to fill the void, and usually went berserk to the echo of the most watched and passionate sport since the existence of mankind. It is otherwise, these days, as these match venues are mostly seen filled with empty seats in the stands due to bad management and retrogression of Nigerian football. With this being said, some of the clubs are now deliberately compelled to throw open their gates for the few willing fans to come and watch the game free of charge.
The massive turnouts at stadia being recorded by these faltering Northeast clubs, Gombe United and Doma United, without doubt, have left an unsavoury taste in the mouths of many. However, one intriguing thing that has continued to linger on the minds of most Nigerian football stakeholders is the unwavering support these clubs still enjoy despite their slothful performances last season. While more successful clubs like Plateau United, Akwa United, Rivers United, and Enyimba play in near-empty stadiums; the stadia where the struggling clubs from the North play their home matches are usually crowded to the rafters.
Interestingly, even Kano Pillars and Katsina United which just returned to the Nigerian top-flight scene after some years in the lower division are enjoying teeming support from their buzzing fans. The Sani Abacha Stadium and the Muhamma Stadium in Kano and Katsina respectively are filled with enthusiastic fans who troop out to watch their teams battle opponents.
From the foregoing, it is clear the other clubs are not living up to the expectations in terms of the club’s social media presence and awareness, publicity, quality merchandising, branding, lucrative business investments, incentives and mobilization of fans to the stadiums. Just as expected, pressure has begun to mount on the league administrators and the management of these clubs, especially, Bendel Insurance who has emerged as one of the fastest-growing exploits out of the country.
Indeed, the Edo State Government through the pride of the Heartbeat of the Nation, Bendel Insurance, is now leaving an age-long blueprint for other state governments to follow suit as regards the impetus for properly running a football club for the first time in Nigeria’s modern football history. It is commendable to say that a few of these state governments are determinedly paying attention to their clubs by heavily investing in and recruiting capable hands to propel the affairs and activities of the teams.
The deafening silence from different NPFL match venues on respective matchdays has clearly shown that both the league management board and club administrators are yet to champion a renaissance to change the negative tendencies plummeting Nigerian football. One may succumb to the fact that this negligence has killed the joy of Nigerians across the country with poor knowledge and understanding of how to run the domestic league to make it attractive to both the fans and intending sponsors. This, however, is a dubitative truth that with time would be proven.
The lesson to learn from this malaise is that football following in Nigeria will continue to zero out until the necessary things are done to retract the genuine love of fandoms in the once famous Nigeria Premier Football League. Unsurprisingly, rumour now has it that some state governments, oftentimes, are fond of luring fans to the stadiums with cash gifts to throw maximum support behind their local clubs during specific domestic matches.
I had most times asked myself that if Nigeria had these strong football fandoms in the past, why do the clubs and their respective stadiums continuously remain short of fans during matches in this current age of ever-evolving world of football? Several factors can be blamed for this downward spiral; insecurity during league matches, displeasing condition of the stadiums, unusable convenience and dilapidated seats in the stands, quality of football games, bizarre match officiating and poor management of the league, and most especially, the win at home syndrome for many years has been touted to be one of the major factors affecting the growth of the league.
Most of the football pitches where these domestic actions in the league are being staged look like a long abandoned ranch, for example, the Abia Warriors’ Umuahia Township Stadium. I wonder what criteria was the approval of such a horrid facility granted by the NPFL board in this very era. Such a stadium should be completely delisted from the operations of the league. Football lovers in the country demand from every NPFL club, private and state government-owned, a lush green pitch that will encourage the players to give their absolute best during matches without any fear of sustaining any career-threatening injury.
The trauma of watching a live match at poorly constructed stadiums with bad pitches on television screen kills the passion many have for the game and has taken life away from the league. Coupled with this is the fact that in the past, all the major clubs were owned by business minds who desired to make profits from the huge capital investments and better management strategies in running football clubs. Sadly, they have all been taken over by state governments and are run as political tools. This problem has brought about mismanagement of club funds and poor business development strategies.
As a new dawn beckons, a phase will soon come in the NPFL when the reality of ineptitude and lethargy to revive true fandoms will rub off on all these state government-owned clubs that are failing to transcend. Hopefully, the newly-inaugurated executive board of the NPFL can create something different of an impressionable feeling in our soccer polity such that the stadiums would be safe, convenient and pleasing for Nigerians to take their families to watch football matches as seen in other climes in Europe.
Moreover in a few years from now, a few private clubs like Remo Stars and Sporting Lagos may pride themselves as an establishment that has indeed been able to penetrate an unconventional demographic that has proven reluctant to follow local clubs. One can never completely deny the fact that the Nigerian youths are the core of these clubs’ growing fans in the Nigeria Premier Football League.