By David Oche
In times past, the typical Nigerian boy knew the names of all the leading clubs in the country and remarkably chose aliases that are the real names of their favorite club player. It was not uncommon to find lads at schools’ playgrounds in Ibadan bearing the name ‘Muda Lawal’ and others playing street soccer in Artisan Quarters, Enugu wearing jerseys with names, Nwobodo, Nwabueze Nwankwo while yet along Rayfield area in Jos, Inuwa Rigogo was a popular name. Those remain the nostalgic ages of Nigerian football which held dreams of a greater future for those kids who today are adults but with kids whose allegiance now lie with European clubs.
In the hearts of some of these Nigerians lived great expectations of what will become of football in the country and while it appears that the talents are coming up from all corners of the nation, there has been inadequate infrastructure, absence of the needed administrative savvy and commensurate financing to win global attention for the league. This has led to what was unearthed in a recent study which showed that 89% of Nigerians now follow foreign leagues as compared to 49% that follow the domestic league. Even at this, 70% of those polled in the study are known to have hinged their followership of the Nigerian League on patriotic grounds and not from any qualities emanating from the games. Thus our streets are dotted by kids wearing jerseys of foreign clubs with the names of foreign players.
The fans who are the base support of every thriving football club are now feeding their passion with football from Europe. They turned away because their lofty expectations have been bogged down by the seemingly intractable challenges of the professional football industry in the country which range from unstable administrative framework, outdated stadium infrastructure, poorly structured clubs’ administration and its attendant poor revenue base and most recently, the bleak national economic outlook occasioned by rapidly dropping export oil receipts.
The wrong approach of government to football funding has contributed to the vanishing fans phenomenon and the switching of allegiance from domestic clubs to European clubs. This in itself is a product of the comparatively poor spectacle of the Nigerian game both on television and at the venues. Some of those who compare the broadcast quality of domestic league games and those of Europe fail to take into account the quantum and quality of equipment deployed to broadcast those European games that have become hot buns for corporate sponsors. A typical Nigerian stadium lacks mere television stand leading to broadcast partners to improvise and in some cases bring in their own scaffolds whereas modern games’ arena come equipped with broadcast production suites with over 24 cameras and properly fitted editing suites.
In the twilight weeks of the just ended 2013/14 league season, several embarrassing scenes were witnessed at training grounds, match venues and seats of government when players openly threatened to boycott sessions and marched in the streets to demand payment of wage debts. These clubs save for one were government funded in the wake of imminent budget slashes, it is not expected that football will benefit from increased allocations. Not with comments attributed to a state governor who during a Town Hall meeting to mark his 100th day in office explained his aversion for funding sports which he described as an engagement for the rich and idle.
At the end of 2014, global oil prices reached a seven-year low of $57 per barrel, $19 less than the previous lowest of $76 in 2009 and the projection for 2015 is not looking any brighter. In 2008, we had the highest price high of $145 and 2014 has had the second highest oil price high of $106 before the crash. While the debates for and against how states involvement in clubs’ ownership continues to capture our attention, developments in more prosperous football nations show that state officials, politicians and political parties are now championing the drive for community ownership of clubs.
A recent report in the London Mail disclosed that the Labour Party is already thinking ahead on the transition of club ownership from the present billionaire owners’ model to fans’ empowerment. Labour Party Member of Parliament and Shadow Sports Minister, Clive Efford announced recently that the party will introduce a legislation to give voice in the boardroom to Supporters. His proposition has been adopted by Chi Onwurah, another MP for Newcastle and who is honorary director of the Newcastle FC Supporters Trust. Onwurah, British Nigerian said, “We’ve got to give power back to the fans if we’re going to reclaim the beautiful game.” Adding strength to this declaration is the head of Labour Policy Review, Jon Cruddas who said, “But football is more than a business. Football clubs are part of people’s identity and sense of belonging”.
Finally, there is also the need to address the corporate community which has been exploiting the passionate love of Nigerians for football to increase their earnings and; rather than build domestic football to create more jobs and improve existing capacity, export the funds to foreign leagues and clubs. It is the most disservice to football in Nigeria for a company to tap into our passion and not invest in our economy through the growth of domestic football but invest in the economies of England and Spain. These companies deceitfully run commercial campaigns purporting to be talent development schemes but in the last six years of such promos, no single product of those campaigns has made it to a domestic league club or to any of the European clubs to which the promos have been affiliated. Companies that have not done anything to support local football either at club or national teams level are known to have paid in excess of $3m (over N450m) earned from the Nigerian consumer to foreign clubs and we are expected to compete favorably with those clubs and economies?
It is recommended that the Federal Government creates a policy that will tax such investments in foreign clubs and leagues for the benefit of domestic football. The Federal Government must also see football as an industry and a national asset that deserves rescue funding as was done for the aviation, banking, insurance and entertainment sectors.
- Oche, a football enthusiast, wrore from Abuja