It’s three match days to the end of the 2015/16 season and as usual, Nigeria Professional Football League (NPFL) clubs will be looking to start plans for the next football season.
One sure place to look at while planning would be the NPFL All-Star LaLiga tour as the lessons learned from that eight day experience would go a long way in determining how much forward club football in Nigeria moves.
Watching the games of the recently concluded LaLiga Tour by a select NPFL side, it was obvious that there was little that happened that Nigerians were not already used to.
How often have we asked the question, “Why can’t Nigerian clubs pass the ball up to five or ten times without losing it? Or why can’t we see a clear cut pattern in our play? Why, also can’t our clubs talk about a philosophy the way Louis Van Gaal would speak of Manchester United (last season), Arsene Wenger of Arsenal and how Brendan Rodgers would speak while at Liverpool?
The reason is simply that Nigerian clubs do not have a structure, philosophy or plan.
The Valencia CF model
I was privileged to have attended, alongside at least ten club administrators from Nigeria, a lecture in Valencia on how their club is run.
Firstly, it is important to note that their first team has only 25 players. Half of the number comes out of their academy; 35% from other clubs in the country and 15% are international players.
Because they want to maintain a style and philosophy, the Valencia CF Academy starts recruiting players from the age of six and they train them until they are 12-14 when they are first offered a contract. The players would go on to make the junior team from 15 years and those that make the cut join the first team depending on how good they turn out to be.
Now the Valencia people believe that if a game is being played by Valencia and the players do not have their shirts on, you’ll know it’s Valencia after watching for just ten minutes because they play the Valencia way.
So imagine children playing in a particular way and style from the age of six to twenty. There is no way that style will leave them. That’s why these clubs play the same way in spite of who coaches them.
Then again, at Valencia, before they recruit first team coaches they look at the style these coaches have exhibited previously and only go for those that will maintain what they already have on ground.
Now why was Valencia so compact against the NPFL All-Star side?
Education from infanthood
They have a culture of education from infanthood to professional cadre. The club has a history and a structure and the academy has a goal to build players to full professionals based on style.
The questions they ask as they sieve through academy players are:
1. What kind of players do we want?
2. What kind of football do we want?
3. What coaching type do we want?
These define how they sieve players who go through the ranks at Valencia.
It also defines how they get academy coaches which they usually get from their pool of ex-players.
Their reasoning is that these ex-players would be able to impart their style to children more easily since they also were taught and played that style.
From the age of six, the academy teaches creativity, positional specialization and how to be competitive. How to make decisions and enjoy the game as well as how to change from individual to collective creativity.
At infant level which is Age 6 and 7 they just let the children run around with the ball since it is a formative stage while they look for traits of what they really want.
But from eight years they begin to look at creativity and positional specialization.
By the time the kids approach 12 years they begin to imbibe the culture of bravery and winning since football is all about winning. Valencia’s philosophy is to attack, to be brave and to put up a good fight. So in recruiting national players and internationals too, they watch for those with these traits. They also search for smartness during games, self-sufficiency, high technical and tactical capability and they teach the knowledge of being a professional.
The training identity of the academy includes creativity, speed play with few touches and wide situations to make timely decisions.
The point is that these players are taught these things from age 6 until age 19 every training day of the week and by the time they graduate to the first team that style is part of them.
Is there any reason why they won’t pass the ball the way they do even when they have not trained together for a month?
Is there any reason why they won’t have a clear cut pattern of play?
Result on the pitch or wholesome approach
Another fact Nigerian clubs must know is that the result of a football game is only 30% of what makes a football club.
There should be lots of fan engagement; the media department should also be able to generate enough content on daily basis to keep the fans busy and interested; and once again the focus should be on development from within. There is also the fact that clubs need to make money for themselves.
If, say, Ikorodu United know they are on course with five year development plan, their fans would not get aggressive when they failed to beat Shooting Stars at the Onikan Stadium.
And the same applies to other clubs whose fans see winning as do or die. Winning is important but building a legacy for the club which helps to generate funds and having fans enjoy your game should be the ultimate.
At Valencia CF for example, they, the management and fans do not expect to win every time they play home or away against Real Madrid and Barcelona.
However, no matter the result, the fans applaud their side if they give them what they want- bravery, a good fight and if they play the Valencia way.
Looking at the positives
A lot of people still disagree with the League Management Company, LMC on a lot of things but no one can fault the giant strides the league has had since their emergence.
It’s now left for the club chairmen to begin to implement policies that will grow the game.
Against Valencia CF last fortnight, the Nigerian team just sat back, chased the game, won the ball and could do little with the ball after winning it.
That is not even a bad way to play but you must develop it and be a master of the style.
Can a Nigerian club develop counter attacking as their style? Just like Atletico Madrid and begin to train players to play that way?
General consensus is that Nigerian football is based on wing play but how many complete crosses are there in the average league game after the ball gets to the wingers?
Can a Nigerian side actually develop wing play as their style and perfect it?
Valencia must have learned a lot from playing against the NPFL All-Star team because they met a team that was difficult to break as the NPFL side refused to come forward and certainly they’ll meet teams like that in the course of the season this year and next.
Against Malaga, the team decided to come out and play expansive and attacking football and got punished for it, losing 4-1 but against Atletico Madrid that fielded most of the players who played in the UEFA Champions League final three months ago, the Nigerian side maintained their midfield and defensive shape that frustrated the Spanish giants.
Can a Nigerian side build on something and be known for it?
Nigerian club owners and managers should see this LaLiga partnership as a learning curve for all of them and begin to make changes in the general structure of their clubs. That way we would see better playing Nigerian sides from 2021.
While waiting for products of own academies to graduate into the main team, Nigerian league clubs must change their transfer policies by going for truly young players. Most of these young players can be sought from the 2nd and 3rd tiers of the league, the NNL and NWFL as well as the countless academies all over the country.
But clubs must begin to produce their own players. A popular Nigerian artiste had a hit song in 2015 that had a unique line, “After the reggae play the blues.”
The LaLiga Tour is over. After the tour, let us see changes in the way the clubs are run. This missive has not been exhausted.