In August when a select side of the Nigerian Professional Football League heads to Spain for a playing tour, we would witness one of the rewards of the recently-signed partnership between the leadership of the NPFL and the Spanish La Liga. The team would play friendly games with top-flight sides Valencia and Malaga and our players would basically be on the shop window of one of the best leagues in the world. Who knows, one or two might get some life-changing offers, while more clubs in Spain may want to partner clubs from a country that has gifted the world talents like Austin Jay Jay Okocha, Kanu Nwankwo, Mikel Obi, Finidi George, Emmanuel Amuneke, Sunday Oliseh, Kelechi Iheanacho etc. This could see much-needed foreign direct investments in Nigeria at this time. For the businessman in Nigeria who owns a club or an academy or the banks or other businesses that would benefit when football creates jobs, now is the time when they must look at the Spanish League and think “how do we profit from this?” My guess, though, is that we would stay committed to a league from which we get nothing in return. For the people who work hard for their money and those who want to see this country flex its considerable muscle in African football, the first step is to understand where our bread is buttered. The time has come not just to celebrate the potential of the partnership with the Spaniards, but to ask that – for all our support of other leagues, what, in naira and kobo terms, have we received in return?
The time has come for us to push for quid pro quo relationships with the foreign clubs that Nigerians, from the ordinary to the well-heeled, passionately support. From the start of the new European season next month, the English Premier League is going to be awash with cash from TV rights. Even in dirt poor Africa these guys make money from us. In Nigeria we pay obscene amounts in TV subscriptions and football tourism to feast on the EPL, yet it is curious that we are doing so without any care about whether we are getting a penny from the financial windfall other than salaries to Nigerian players in England. This week I read about Everton FC going to invest in Kenya to look for the next Victor Wanyama and I scratched my head. If Everton can go to Kenya that has produced only Wanyama and his brother MacDonald Mariga, then surely half the teams in the EPL should be in Nigeria scouring for the next Kanu, the next Jay Jay, the next Mikel, the next Yak, the next Iheanacho. Let us at least benefit in some way to justify the considerable investment of our time, emotions and financial resources in that league.
I walked into an eatery on Wednesday in Ikeja GRA where European football is staple TV entertainment for guests and was sad to see how empty it was. Sad, but not shocked, because that has been the way of things in our country for some time now. Nigerians are not spending much anymore. At one of the recreational clubs where I spend some time, and where our one-sided investment especially in the English game is huge, the atmosphere is the same. Where I once complained about our seeming insatiable desire for parties, I now wonder where the party promoters have gone. Fact is, poverty is rife in Nigeria today and government is not to blame for everything. Disposable income has simply crashed and everyone is minding their every naira. With the oil sales bleak and the Niger Delta Avengers cutting their nose to spite their face, our lack of innovation as well as poor support for local industry has left us poorer. Yet, you feel lessons have not been truly learned. Still we hunger for foreign football at the expense of the local game, continuing to drain our thinning pockets because we do not yet see how our individual actions are hurting us all. Sponsors whose businesses need success in local industry to survive and thrive will continue to bring European football to our homes without balancing the picture by supporting the NPFL. The jobs our leagues would have created if successful would continue to be created overseas instead. Sadly we blame all our woes on government.
Many times when you talk to elite Nigerians about supporting the local game, they dismiss you and say stuff like “I cannot support poor quality because of patriotic reasons, let the NPFL clubs and players follow the standards in Europe and we will support them”. We talk this way because we are largely individualistic people who most times cannot figure out that we live in an ecosystem and as such making Nigeria the country of our dreams would only happen through our individual contributions. The argument I used to have in the days when it was reported that Africa’s richest man Alhaji Aliko Dangote wanted to buy Arsenal FC, was that the wealth of our very rich is made in this country. The vagaries of the Nigerian economy, and not the UK economy, determine the valuation of their wealth. In recent times we have seen billions shaved off our rich – not because of problems in the UK economy, but because of the abject state of the Nigerian economy. I have no doubt the valuations would rise again when there is news to cheer in the Nigerian economy. Bottomline, it is simple logic to see that if we don’t build together, we will fail together. We all must know where our bread is buttered.