The Moustached Journalist says;
It is best believed that a football league can only grow at the pace of the country it is domiciled, which means that the country’s development in a way would affect the status of the league. Although, history as it that football was first played in Nigeria during the early twentieth century, even with that, the country had to wait for another 86 years to start playing the game professionally in May 1990.
Since its establishment, it has been a bumpy ride of more than three decades through the good, the bad and the ugly experiences in the depiction of its great successes, failures, upheavals, complacence, and a whole lot more as regard to subsequent developments and constant mismanagement of Nigerian football league. All these are to the displeasure of the football fans who are usually the end consumers of the political antics on and off the pitch that have either mooted or exacerbated the hiatus of professionalism in Nigerian football league.
In the simplest language, football is more often than not a professional sport and should always be treated as such. The once famous Nigeria Premier Football League (NPFL), is marred by some scenarios of unprofessionalism that must have suddenly favoured the impetus to cut short the colossal long walk of the league through the amateurish wilderness.
Trust remains the soul of any relationship, but that may not be the case in this proposition. After many concerned Nigerians have trusted the league management’s ability to ensure that there is a level of professionalism in the league, their support and loyalty are not being returned with dividends in running a full or abridged season’s calendar of fixtures without rancour between the NPFL organizers and stakeholders; the club owners/administrators. Sadly, it was one of the causes for the misfortunes that met with the league in the early 2000s before things started crumbling like a pack of cards.
Management, accountability and transparency in all the revenues generated from huge capital investments and other financial entitlements to football clubs, is not a thing of priority to state government-owned clubs in Nigeria. The chairmen who are appointed by the state governors based on political considerations and saddled with managing the affairs of the clubs are usually cronies of the ruling party. Therefore, they walk about with free passes and rarely account for money allocated to them for running the clubs. This is one height of unprofessionalism that is rampant in Nigerian football league; nothing but corruption at its worst.
Another thing that has over time conveyed the nation’s top football league in a bad light is the shrewd and sham manner players’ transfers to African, European and other clubs around the world are covertly negotiated. With lots of money being racked from the sales of some of the best talents by the clubs in the league, but most times, such money coming into the hands of some management may likely not be taken into account, put into good use, or even remitted to neither the government’s coffers nor the club’s.
Even the failure of the defunct League Management Company (LMC) cannot be overlooked, with the discontinued league management board’s inability to tie down a long-term title sponsor of the league was another major setback for the NPFL. Neither has the present NPFL Board of Interim Management Committee (IMC), chaired by Hon. Gbenga Elegbeleye been able to secure one for the rebranded Nigerian top-flight division for over a year now.
In the past, corporate bodies like Globacom and South Africa’s MultiChoice Group, owners of DSTV, partnered with the defunct LMC, but none endured the shortcomings in Nigeria football league system. Presently, the Elegbeleye-led IMC was able to secure a few sponsorship deals for the 2023/24 league season such as GTI an asset and investment management company; a streaming and broadcasting tech, Propel Sports Africa in collaboration with telecommunications magnate, MTN, and perhaps; StarTimes a satellite TV, are all in one partnership or the other with the NPFL.
Before the scrapping of LMC, the Nigerian football league was organised without a major sponsor for some years. Some of the financial responsibilities which the defunct LMC once shouldered fell heavily on the clubs, who in turn rely completely on funds from their respective state governments. Although, there is a difference now that clubs are being paid a participation fee of N10 million annually by the GTI, and partake in other relief packages, palliatives and incentives through The Nigeria Football Fund (TNFF), among others.
However, there is this common sentiment that suggests that the only way out is for the government to hand off the running of football clubs. Recall that in the past decades, the governments have solely been in charge of the propulsion of the clubs, which even makes it impossible not to interfere with them. Perchance, when we start to run football as a viable business, we can then reopen negotiations for takeovers of state government-owned football clubs by private individuals and corporate organisations. I have seen many also argue that as long as governments continue to fund clubs, true professionalism will remain elusive. That clearly being said, I don’t think we as a country are even more concerned about what can be tailored out of our football.
These public officeholders would not cease to use the game as a political tool to satisfy their selfish interests. It is in this same country I have come to the sense that it is decent for politicians to engage achievements recorded in the state government-owned football clubs under their leadership in political electioneering. It is, therefore, not surprising that the world has not only left us. Africa is gradually leaving Nigeria behind too, if urgent steps are not taken to salvage football and bring back the touch of professionalism to the game, on and off the pitch.
Let’s also take a cursory look at some recent unprofessional acts of match officials, coaches and players in the NPFL. I don’t have to be compelled to believe that in this era of Nigerian football league, we are not sure whether we have gone past the nonchalance of referees in the guise of officiation seen at domestic matches.
Recall that in 2019/20 NPFL season, the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) through the Referees Committee decided to sanction Ahmad Rabiu and his team of officials, comprising two Assistant Referees; Peter Ogwu and Musa Dung Davon, and the Fourth Official; A. Udoette who handled the game between Heartland v MFM in Okigwe for unprofessional conduct until the end of the first stanza of the season. Also, the referee who handled the game between Katsina United and Enyimba, Prince Isiah was given a five-match suspension.
A much similar occurrence happened in 2021, 12 NPFL referees were summoned to appear before the Referees Committee of the NFF to answer questions relating to alleged dubious officiating in four different league matches. However, these affected match officials were handed immediate and indefinite suspension from league matches pending when cases against them were determined. Those referees affected and the matches are; Nura Abdullahi, Aromona Moruf and Francis Friday (Akwa United v Enyimba); Garbabi Abdulrasheed, Aminu Salihu and Akinola Tosin (Kano Pillars v Dakkada); Yohanna Dauda, Ishaya Usman and Okoye Cosmas (Jigawa United v Rivers United); and, Olayinka Olajide, Isa Aliyu and Jimoh Abdulrasheed (Akwa United v Warri Wolves).
However, earlier this year at the inaugural ceremony of the Referees and Match Commissioners’ Committees held at the NFF Secretariat in Abuja, the President of the NFF, Alhaji Ibrahim Musa Gusau sternly issued a warning to Nigerian referees against bringing football into disrepute. He also made it clear that it was no longer business as usual for match commissioners and referees in the domestic game, as persons who fail to meet the high standards already put in place will be summarily ejected and sanctioned appropriately. The chairperson of the committee, Mrs Faith Irabor, added that the narrative will change from the umpires’ side as Nigeria football moves to implement the highest standards of probity in match officiating.
On the part of coaches’ unprofessional misconduct in the league, in most recent times, we have seen emotions unintentionally tainted with football by top football coaches around the world. However, it still does not take out the fact that professionalism remains the backbone of the game. Many would willingly come to the party when coaches in Nigerian football league slightly misbehaved or outburst, and will prettily treat them like they were never humans too. In the aftermath of the 2-2 draw against RS Berkane in the second preliminary round of the first leg of 2023/24 CAF Confederations Cup in Benin City; Bendel Insurance Head Coach Monday Odigie came under fire for his aggressive reaction where he rubbed his frustration on the faces of journalists during the post-match presser by querying their tactical ingenuity.
It is not completely out of line to say that the result was pretty hard for Odigie to take, but the truth remains that he should not have acted unruly as such a manner is unacceptably sportsmanlike. Although, several people may have claimed that Odigie’s uncontrolled reproach was not new to them, having been exhibiting such in the past. Others would even say that Jose Mourinho, Jürgen Klopp, Thomas Tuchel, Antonio Conte, Diego Simeone among others in Europe, are sometimes fond of being overly aggressive when results don’t go in their favour. Must we now make it a trend in the Nigerian football league system?
A common awful display of unprofessionalism from a player in years past would be in the 2019/20 NPFL Super Six Playoffs between Enugu Rangers and Kano Pillars at Agege Stadium in Lagos. The Kano Pillars’ fans broke onto the pitch to attack the centre referee, Quadri Adebimpe after the final whistle. However, this was never the case until the sight of unprofessional conduct from their captain, Rabiu Ali added fuel to the already burning fire.
Before that, a free kick awarded to Kano Pillars was delayed due to the fan’s disturbances. Immediately after Rabiu Ali took the set-piece, the referee ended the game without a second added on and did not augur well with Kano Pillars’ team as Ali went up to the referee asking him to show him the stoppage time. While trying to exit the pitch, Adebimpe had to run for his dear life due to the claws of the fans.
The most recent is the intense brawl in the game between Rivers United and Remo Stars at Adokiye Amiesimaka Stadium in Port-Harcourt; where Andy Okpe and his former coach, Daniel Ogunmodede got into an altercation immediately after the blast of final whistle. Though the two had earlier in the game got into the books of the referee; receiving a yellow card each that resulted from a heated exchange of harsh words. In the sequence of events, Andy Okpe, who had arguably been one of the spotlights in the build-up towards the game, topped the lead late into the second half to claim all three points in the bag for his new club. To add to the drama, he celebrated provocatively with hint pointing at his former boss who was enraged on the touchlines.
Ogunmodede couldn’t wait for the final whistle to vent his frustrations. He ferociously dashed out to confront Okpe, which resulted in retaliation before the intervention of the coaching staff and fans. It was rumoured that there was a strained relationship between them before the player’s departure from Remo Stars earlier this season. Afterwards, a pressman of Footballrover had an exclusive chat with Andy Okpe, but chose not to comment rather he smiled. Efforts to obtain Ogunmodede’s perspective was unsuccessful, as he declined to say a word about the scenario.
In another odd fashion of unprofessionalism recently witnessed before the game between Rivers United and Kwara United on Matchday Three of 2023/24 NPFL season at Adokiye Amiesimaka Stadium in Port-Harcourt; the players and officials of Kwara United suffered a hostile reception in the hands of the host team as seen in a viral video that was making rounds on the social media space.
It was an ugly situation that fateful evening before the matchday, as the Afonja Warriors were denied access to the main bowl of the stadium ahead of their domestic encounter. It was allegedly claimed to have been an order from above. While the visiting team had no other better alternative but to settle for the mini-pitch of the stadium.
At the moment, the professional league in Nigeria called Nigeria Premier Football League (NPFL), is dominated by a large chunk of unprofessionals who barely know their onion about the game. The Nigerian Football League and the fans deserve better, we cannot continuously wallow in the same ditch for years without any feasible evolution in the game. It is not a mission impossible to cause positive changes into our football; it is something we can do but would not do.
These, among other inadequacies, cast a huge shadow of doubt on the self-acclaimed professionalism in the NPFL. One can easily be provoked to dispute the recognition given to the league by concluding that it is not better than amateur football leagues that are played elsewhere. In my opinion, I will endorse with strong conviction that the NPFL does not measure up to the standardization of a professional league. It is lagging in so many areas and can not be rated among football leagues in the world of football that are truly professional.
It is sad to say that the state of football in Nigeria is not near what we can boast of being good at years back, but with the recent steps being taken by the Honourable Minister of Youth & Sports Development, John Enoh with that of the Ibrahim Gusau-led NFF board has also weighed in on repositioning the entirety of Nigerian football. Turning these motions into movements will utterly fine-tune the game until it can be optimized.