Yaaaay! The EPL Returns, Give Me a Break!

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I watched Wednesday’s friendly game between Spanish La Liga side Valencia and the Nigerian Professional Football League’s All-Star team on tour in Spain at a public place and all I could think of was that we needed to wake up from our slumber in this country.

Football is big business and we need to get ours right if we want it to contribute richly to our quest for economic success. At the club where I was, it took my personal intervention to switch the channel to the one where the game was being aired as nobody seemed to know such a match was going on. Part of the problem was that the publicity was not exactly larger than life, the other part was that many who were exposed to the adverts were not sufficiently interested enough to store the details in their minds as we tend to do when the subject turns to the English Premier League.

A pleasant young barman, on discovering that the NPFL side were locked at 1:1 with Valencia in the second half was incredulous. He had apparently expected something more like a 5:1 scoreline, and he proceeded to draw the attention of every one of his coworkers that came by to this. In the end, impressed though he was, he was convinced that had this been ‘his’ club Barcelona, the scoreline would have been more to his expectation.

This game has come courtesy of the recent partnership between the managers of the NPFL and their La Liga counterparts, and more games are planned in the coming days against Atletico Madrid and Malaga. So in an age when investors around the world are pumping billions of dollars into football annually, shouldn’t our leading minds see this as a golden opportunity to come together to advance the business of Nigerian football? For a country with our football pedigree, that can mean lots of foreign sponsors and investors sinking millions of dollars (billions of naira) annually into our game. However, that can only happen when we throw our weight behind the NPFL, because no one is ever going to put money in our sport when they see our interest is elsewhere.

Were we top businessmen, big dreamers and innovative people for instance, now would have been when our titans of industry would smell the coffee from Spain and leverage on the global La Liga brand to make big gains in their share of the global spend on football. This is when we would have been asking about how to partner global clubs to develop our own league so we can have a platform to build players – like we invest in building real estate – and selling them at a huge premium.

Al Ahly of Egypt recently sold 19-year-old Ramadan Sobhi to Stoke City for about two million pounds (almost a billion naira if not more). Manchester City snapped young Brazilian star Gabriel Jesus, who some wise marketing men have christened the new Neymar, for 27m pounds, and we are sitting down in Nigeria and clapping for them, while expecting President Buhari to wave a magic wand and somehow make us rich. Keep waiting.

We are a country of 180 million people, with a rich pedigree in the game. We have produced giants like Austin ‘Jay Jay’ Okocha, Nwankwo Kanu and Mikel Obi and we can produce more, but we have to get off out couches and self-important worlds and actually invest in our clubs and leagues to attract foreign investments and make us all richer. Even if you need government to facilitate with the right policies, you would still need to believe in what is possible, come out and push for the change you want to see.

The La Liga has offered us a shop window to sell Nigerian enterprise in football. It is as good a platform as we are ever going to get, but where are the big Nigerian investors who can see beyond opportunistic openings in oil and gas, real estate and the next piece of government largesse. Where are the builders who are thinking of upgrading our stadiums or building new ones? Where are the medical practitioners, lawyers, groundsmen, media practitioners, IT companies, farmers, brewers, advertising agencies, etc, who stand to benefit from the popularity of our league?

Are we the world’s biggest cheerleaders?

In many ways it is shameful that our ‘real’ league starts this weekend. Around Nigeria today, from illiterate bus drivers and conductors to Harvard-trained captains of industry, we will all lose ourselves in the English Premier League. Consequently, rather than money coming into our league from overseas, we will start paying our TV subscriptions, buying visas and tickets to travel to England, spending heavily on club merchandise and generally further pounding our stricken economy to grow the British economy.

What is it about us that makes us put other people’s businesses ahead of our own? Even if we are not happy with the quality of the NPFL, why are we not jointly holding the people responsible for running the game to task? One thing is certain the mentality behind not having a thriving sports industry is a microcosm of the Nigerian problem.

Just as the Nigerian sponsors opt to throw their money behind the ‘popular’ EPL, Nigerian footballers, administrators and other sportsmen also opt to buy foreign goods because they are better quality. Even the industrialist calling for local support is on Facebook or Twitter howling about how he is a Chelsea or Manchester United die-hard fan. Recently I asked a tennis player who was complaining about a lack of support from Nigerians what his favourite football club was and he quickly said Arsenal. He simply did not get the irony. So exactly where does this foolishness end?

We are not the only ones in the world who know what ‘good quality’ is. As I have said many times here, the Scots do not have a single world-class player in their league, yet the Scottish Premier League, not the EPL, is front and center for them. Let’s not kid ourselves, what is missing is not the quality of our league, but the absence of a shared sense of purpose and the failure to understand that we are an ecosystem that is only as strong as its weakest link. The Nigerian economy is in recession, everyone is preaching diversification, and looking to government, yet the very people who should be our leading lights are the ones who will be leading the chorus of support for the Arsenals, the Manchester Uniteds and Chelseas from this weekend. That, my friends, is our tragedy.

Right now we hardly notice the consequences. Today, for instance, the English national team is more popular among Nigerians under 30 years than the Super Eagles, and these are the people we hope will someday burn with national pride and lead Nigeria out of the doldrums. There was a time our forebears sold our future to slave masters because of the simple pleasures they derived from gifts of mirrors and tobacco, today we appear to be not too far off, trading the future of our children for the simple pleasures from a sport.