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How community effort can save Nigeria’s football — Irabor

Chief Executive Officer of the League Management Company, Honourable Nduka Irabor was guest of the Vanguard Round Table Conference, Monday, May 11. He spoke on a wide range of issues concerning the workings of the LMC, Nigerian football and why Nigerians should take over the ownership of football clubs from government. Excerpts:

What is LMC all about?

Nduka-Irabor
Nduka-Irabor

The League Management Company is a corporate body institutionalised to revive the Nigerian Professional Football League. People sometimes get confused that it is a committee, may be because of the way the league was being run. It was in the 2012/2013 season that this body was formed to help organise elections for the League Board. We were given a seven-point agenda, including the clause that gave us the liberty to do any other thing that could bring about a positive turn around for our league.

It must be stated that the League, as we met it, was a crumbling house. We inherited nothing. We are starting from ground zero. Since the commencement of the professional league in 1990, we have kept making pretensions. Unfortunately, this crumbling continued until we were called in. There was no legal structure. We needed a legal entity.

The league was run by the NFL Limited. In February 2012 the court ruled that the NFL Ltd was illegally constituted. We therefore, decided to set up a company. We set up a company in trust and people misconstrued it to be a private company. It has now come to stay, because the day I leave, it will be handed over to those who would takeover from us, the company continues.

Do the provisions of Decree 101 affect the running of the league?

Decree 101 or what you call Cap 110 today does not concern the League, it concerns the football federation. However, in the provisions for the federation, which is part of our statutes as a nation and recognised by the world football governing body FIFA, they do have powers to delegate or sub divide their functions to anybody. So what has happened now is, the football federation has asked the League Management Company to run the elite league for them.

What we are doing is beginning to transcend as the lower leagues are beginning to adopt this. The Nigeria National League, NNL, which is supposed to be the second division has also incorporated. They are all running in that manner. What we have simply done is to adopt a high breed of what the English Premier League, the German Bundesliga run their leagues, the same concept.

I want to make something clear, we are not a government agency. Although we derive our right to run the league from a government agency, we are not a government agency.

In the Sharks vs Taraba fixture, which was aired on television, the standard of the game was good but the sad aspect of the game was that the stands were empty.

I won’t give you a direct answer. It is a wrong assumption to say that the stands were empty. It is a global phenomenon that most leagues are suffering from the invasion of homes by the consumption of football through technology. You don’t need to see Sharks/Taraba when you can watch Chelsea/Man U. But there is a certain patriotic zeal that makes people go to the stadiums. We all used to do it. We used to travel to Ibadan, to Abeokuta, Enugu.

But then there was no TV. Today, you have to love football before you want to go to the stadium. A recent study carried out by a certain body say most Nigerians love foreign clubs and don’t like their league, but they put that about 14% of Nigerians who like their local league say they do that out of patriotism. Football itself is like representing a tribe. You belong to either the blue or red side of Manchester, or Chelsea or Arsenal. They all have their tribes, represented by their colours.

We have a phenomenon going on here. Yesterday(Sunday) we had 10,500 spectators at the Sani Abacha stadium, Kano, 5,4000 in Akure, in Enugu we had over 5,000. You see, people are coming back to the stadiums. I will tell you why people stopped going to the stadiums, in the first place. The credibility of the results were always in doubt. Referees were either fixing matches or deliberately mishandling matches and the spectators were beginning to doubt what they were coming to see.

More importantly, what you have now is the decay of our infrastructure. We have to recognise that there is an entertainment aspect to football. To revive this link, we have to rebuild our infrastructure to reflect the times. Up till now we are still at ground zero. We don’t need gargantuan structures. If it is a 10,000 capacity stadium, let it have all the conveniences functional, hospitality suites, where a whole family can come and have dinner in air conditioned suites, for those who want air condition.

We don’t have security issues, because if you attend a wedding, you find urchins or what you call Area Boys who would want to shake you up. Area boys are not limited to stadiums. So, people will start crawling back to the stadium once the results are credible and because there are no security issues as was feared. But they will come back in larger numbers if they can go there and have full fledged entertainment with their families.

Security fear!

There was a time when fans used to misbehave. Part of the things we first addressed was that in the new governing structure, those who actually run the clubs cannot be the people governing the league. They will be involved in the process, you cannot be making decisions on your own matter. Because they couldn’t enforce decisions, people just took the laws into their hands; some became rowdy and such rowdiness scared people.

In every gathering of one or two thousand people, some people might misbehave, some arguments might arise; which is why ideally, in any special gathering you don’t need any special request for police presence because they will come naturally. So far, the kind of issues people used to term as security issues have taken the back seat.

How independent is the LMC of the NFF. Players are not paid salaries and there have been no sanctions on clubs. Do you rely on NFF to sanction clubs?

Within the general rules that govern the game world wide, we are affiliates of the NFF. We do not need them to sanction the clubs. We go to them on technical issues like; whether the referees have behaved themselves: whether the players registration complied with the rules. We go to them to interpret the rules. The actual operation of the game, we do. We are a regulatory body. If we sanction clubs the way people expect us to, then we will have no league.

However, when it comes to the question of the welfare of the players or whether they don’t pay them salaries, as a regulator, the most we do is keep reminding them of their responsibilities.

Funding of the clubs:

I said earlier that we have been pretending that we are running a professional football league. I don’t think we are. Professionalism means you should earn as much as you should as at when you should earn it – enough to keep aside when that professional course stops. We don’t have that right now.

Most of our clubs have been hijacked by government; I used that word deliberately. Football historians will agree with me that clubs actually belong to the communities, to the people. The communities invest in their passion, in the game and develop it into a brand then they can invite money bags, the Abramovic and co. There was Chelsea for over one hundred years before Abromovic.

Abrmovic will come and go and Chelsea will remain. It will remain a club for that locality. It might be relegated, a new buyer or a new owner would come up – the club remains. But over the years, in 1945 or earlier than that when we started playing organised football in Nigeria, clubs were started by neighbourhood people. Communities would just come together, played together and called themselves Onitsha Red Devils, or Ikpeazu Redoubtables etc .

The Federal or state governments were not involved with Alyufsalam Rocks. The problems we have had is that we have failed to transmute or transcend from ownership of club by one money bag in a locality to the actual community getting involved.

Government intervention

Government intervention started with the military. Wanting to ingratiate with the people the military government then thought football was the surest route, then they grabbed it. Enugu Rangers was doing well, they made the Igbos have a sense of belonging. In the case of old Bendel, they decided let’s give it to government corporations and let the players become part of the corporations. But those are short cuts. Nigeria is, perhaps, the only country where government is running clubs.

Even in Africa – the closest to government involvement in the running of football is where government corporations of para-military bodies like in Egypt and Zambia have clubs, otherwise, in most of Africa clubs are owned by individuals, friends and basically, community based. That is the direction we should be pushing for – that people should come in.

But before they come in there should be a semblance of organisation in place. What we have done in the last 2 to 3 years is to set that organisation in place. We are still at ground zero. It is only coming up now. Any keen observer would notice that some change is beginning to set in. As for players’ welfare, because these players are quasi civil servants and because a Permanent Secretary in the ministry feels uncomfortable paying probably a WAEC holder or a young inexperienced graduate 10 times as much as he(the Perm Sec) would earn, he dilly dallies.

That is why we have tried to find ways within our local environment and within our peculiar situation, means to deal with this. We have introduced what we call the Financial Performance Guarantee – that before you own a club you must give me a bulk from the bank showing that you will meet all your financial obligations. Either out of mischief or lack of sophistication the clubs did not want to sign. And unfortunately, the media also joined in resisting it without understanding what it was.

The FPG simply says before you gather 35 people to promote your name or for whatever purpose, you have got that money to undertake that business. And the only person who can prove that is your banker who will then give me a guarantee. In order to ensure the protection of the players we need to strengthen the system and then push things gradually. For instance, we have recommended that if you don’t give us your performance guarantee and you won’t pay your players, then be prepared to lose your points. May be that would spur them into doing the right thing.

Justification for Community-based clubs

But while we wait for them to do the right thing, can we find an alternative to government? We have created a rule which states that government cannot own more than 50% of a club. It doesn’t mean it cannot be less. It is just to let people come in. But I can’t find the people who are saying they want to take the clubs. People ask ignorant and uninformed questions like what do I get back if I should invest?

I know how Vanguard started. It has taken Vanguard up to 30 years to get this expansive structure. It applies to all businesses. You don’t say I don’t know what I will get back, so I won’t venture. There are inherent potentials in the league. But you must get in first and help rebuild it. I don’t think that a situation where we had the Adebajos(Stationery Stores of Lagos) which did not last, the Alyufsalam Rocks of Ilorin, which did not last, Abiola Babes of Abeokuta, which did not also last is what we want. It is the community.

We don’t need money bags. What we need is a community of people who are contributing a little bit. We have a paper, a proposition on community ownership of clubs on our website. We do not need more than 20,000 contributing about N2,000 each like for 10 months of the year. Let people organise themselves as cooperatives and we have created windows they can come in.

I learnt Stationery Stores of Lagos have picked up the idea – they are campaigning right now and I am told that they have about 500 people. I think you need about 25,000. If you have 25,000 people subscribing to a club – like the new South African champions, Kaizer Chiefs have 14 million people subscribing to the club — then you can stand well. South Africa doesn’t have the population Nigeria has and our clubs don’t have it.

The truth is that most of the people who hold the reigns of our football clubs are just not serious. They are not professional managers; they are political appointees who see their involvement with the clubs not as a long term but for as long as it pleases his majesty, the governor who appointed them. So, they don’t work for the long term benefit or gains of the club.

If you work for long term gains of the club, you will be looking at 10 to 20 years period – where you would know that it is cheaper to breed your talents than buy them, you will know that it is cheaper to get your community involved than to get empty stadiums each time your team plays. But because these managers so appointed have some affiliation and association with the governor they don’t mind playing in an empty stadium.

This is a bloody wastage of public funds. Where are the managers? Why can’t they get their communities involved. Where a manager is working, as Sunshine Stars of Akure have proven, you can consistently have as many as 5,000 people at the stadium. We even created incentives from the money we get for clubs that can get 5,000 spectators at their stadium, it is still difficult to achieve that for many clubs. You must, however, note that it is not peculiar to Nigeria as most South American stadiums are empty too. It is only when the national teams play.

I watched a game in Scotland about two weeks ago involving a 3rd placed team in the Scottish League with a Nigerian, Emmanuel Ufere playing for them, so I was curious and I went to watch the game. They had only 3,000 people. So what you see in Germany and I want to use Spain; you see full house whenever Barcelona, Atletico or Real Madrid are playing.

There are teams like Cordoba who play in near empty stadiums. People would cite South Africa, however, you need to work to bring people together. It is not the place of the regulator or the operator like the LMC, it is the club. But like I said, the clubs in Nigeria were not set up to function as professional bodies. And until they operate as professional bodies, the future of our football is in danger.

Why government must be eased out of our football

 

Football won’t stop rolling, as it doesn’t take any particular machine or skill to play football, some of us played fellele. But football growth in Nigeria, as a world contender would be stunted until we get government out and get serious people to run it. Nigerian businessmen, the wealthy members of our society should come in and invest.

They can make their workers happy and get involved in it. What we have done in the past two years is to give you something you can see. The framework on how you can manage the game; how to come in and go out is there, the template of the cost elements and everything you need to know is all there.


Disclaimer

Comments expressed here do not reflect the opinions of vanguard newspapers or any employee thereof.