By Onochie Anibeze
For the sake of Nigeria I may not be tired of repeating myself. I am happy that Stephen Keshi has said so much about the need for us to return to our league.
We have no option. Our league should be our strength. The dearth of stars in our football can be attributed to the state of our league. We have watched our league collapse to nothing.
There’s no longer the desired ambiance. Officiating is terrible and fans, except in Kano and one or two other cities, have all deserted our league venues. But in the same league abound talents. There are some fairly good players and a lot of raw materials in our league. That’s why clubs in Nigeria still go far in continental championships.
As bad as it was this season Sunshine, Enyimba and Kaduna United all faired well. They did so because of fairly good players in their teams. They played against teams which boasted many national team players and still survived. So, there’s talent in the Nigerian league in spite of the poor administration of the league. But with a new board led by Rumson Baribote, let’s hope for changes.
These changes are absolutely necessary. I hope that Baribote will swing into action and pull all strings to revive the league and make it viable. But it is not what only his board can do. The Football Federation has a big role to play. The media, corporate Nigeria and all those who care about sports in Nigeria have great roles to play.
I have done a lot on our league. But for the purposes of emphasis I may recall some of the points especially now that everybody seems to agree that our league should create the platform for our football revival.
There’s need to set standards. We must not continue to thrive in mediocrity. Setting standards will help a lot. Teams that do not meet the standards set by the league board may not be registered. If, for example, only ten clubs meet the standard to feature in the Professional League let the board register only the ten viable ones.
Teams must have club houses, they must have their grounds even if they do not own them. They must be professional in running their affairs. Players and coaches must have contracts. In Nigeria , they pay sign-on fees every year. It is wrong. But because of the poor remuneration to players, we welcome it.
If there is professionalism and at the time of signing a player the contract spells out his entitlements and a deal struck on what he gets from the total fee being offered by the buying club the problem of yearly sign-on fees will end.
If there’s professionalism contracts will be respected. Clubs owe players and coaches and even when court of arbitration rules on matters implementation is difficult. If a club wants a player before the end of his contract then they know that they must buy out the contract. They have to pay for it. We read about how these things are done in advanced leagues in football countries but we fail to emulate the good syste
m. What we only do is to mouth support for clubs in Europe . Manchester United came to Abuja to play three years ago and the attendance was just over 2000. And yet we have millions of Nigerians who claim to be Man U fans. They did not travel to Abuja to support their club.
People who don’t know where Arsenal FC and Chelsea are located are stabbing themselves in a madness they think is supportership. Unfortunately, even governors whose clubs are not faring well because of poor funding and bad management pride themselves as supporters of foreign clubs.
They have contributed to the poor state of our league. And a badly run league will not attract the sponsorship that can make it viable. Chief Mike Adenuga Junior did the much he could with Globacom because of his passion for sports and not because he earned anything in return.
But sponsors should enjoy tremendous mileage. They should be able to count on the visibility their sponsorship has created for them to boost sales or promote their services. There are other benefits like sale of replicas etc. But we know how difficult the terrain is in Nigeria . Nike offered Nigeria so much when they were kit sponsors of the FA but they earned almost nothing.
Dwindling fortunes of Nigerian soccer did not give them any good exposure and they could not sell replicas in Nigeria . Nigeria was no market for replicas.
Even the little in our sports shops and market places are privately produced in China and Onitsha . The sponsors and the federation, therefore make noting in return. I have added this point so that our law makers could know that they also have a role to play in rejuvenating Nigeria ’s football.
Premier League clubs must have feeder teams and they should have their own league and could play just before the main teams line out for their league matches. This will help develop young players and the problem of cheating in age grade competitions may be reduced. It is a fine way out.
Since our economy is not encouraging and clubs are always in debt, proper abridged league could be appropriate. Our clubs travel to league venues in rickety buses. We don’t have the rail system and air fares are high. We could, therefore, abridge the league into two zones with each zone producing two best clubs.
The four top clubs will then play a super league to produce the league champions. It is not fair to the health of our players to have them travel from, say, Calabar, Porthacourt or Lagos to Yobe, Kano or Maidugiri for a league game.
In advanced football countries clubs fly to long distances or take the train. Here in Nigeria , they ply our bad roads and get exhausted before games. Sometimes clubs arrive at match venues just before kick off time and head straight to the field. We cannot get the best this way.
A good league will produce good players. When our league was good we had players moving from Nigeria to top European clubs. It doesn’t happen anymore. Due to differences in football culture and mentality, players who started their career in Europe do not always fit into our system. The greatest players we have had all played here before moving abroad. There could be a few exceptional cases but players who developed here before going abroad always perform better for Nigerian teams.
Against this background, therefore, Keshi’s plan to return to our league to fish and develop national team players will pay more if the league has high standards that can attract followership and produce good players. I applaud his plan to return to our league to build the Eagles. There will be greater results if the league is viable, so let everybody work towards this. The League Board and Football Federation should lead the way.