Plateau United made history last Saturday when they became champions of Nigeria for the very first time. A deserved 2-0 home win over defending champions Rangers at the Rwang Pam Stadium in Jos ensured they converted 34 weeks at the summit of the Nigerian Professional Football League table into their most important piece of silverware ever. Winning the NPFL title is always a close race, and for back-to-back seasons now the champions were decided on the final day. Lagos-based MFM FC were just a point behind going into the last round, meaning that Plateau needed to win to be certain of the crown. Having been virtually invincible at home all season; winning 16 times and drawing twice, it was expected they would get the job done. Against arguably the biggest club in Nigerian football history however, none would have been surprised if there were some late drama. In the end a truly special opening goal by Emeka Umeh and a late finish by substitute Benjamin Turba made certain that the trophy would return to the beautiful highland state for the first time since Might Jetsâ€™ triumph 45 years ago.
Congratulations to the Peace Boys and to the governor of Plateau State Simon Lalong for the support the team received throughout the season. As far as our league goes, triumphant teams have usually been those heavily backed by state government resources, and Lalong did his fair bit. The club showed their appreciation, maybe a bit too much, when Lalong led the victory celebrations. Not only was his Excellency quickly handed the trophy to hoist, he left the arena with it shortly after; largely denying most of the players the joy of posing for photographs with their long-awaited prize. It also meant the TV viewing audience missed the raw emotions in the celebration of the players which helps make moments of triumph a huge deal in international sports.
The governor must however note that we are extremely poor at dealing with success in this country. Success quickly gets into our heads and we begin to misbehave until we fail. Last season Rangers practically fell to pieces after their first league triumph in 32 years. Rather unwisely, they sold their best player Chisom Egbuchulam for peanuts to a backwater league in Europe and unsurprisingly finished 13th on the table this year, even flirting with relegation at some point during the season. Imama Amapakabo, the coach that snapped the spell, was shown little respect before being sacked. Not only was he owed a backlog of wages (N58.7m by his own account), his pleas for the strengthening of the squad fell on deaf ears. 2015 champions Enyimba suffered the same fate, finishing 10th in 2016. Plateau may want to learn from the duo or they could just be battling relegation next year. So Plateau, keep your best players and coaching crew, and give them significant raises for a job well done. Not only do they deserve it, they need the motivation for bigger battles to come.
The biggest of such battles will be their maiden campaign in the CAF Champions League next year. Prize money for winning the continental competition currently stands at $2.5m or N898.7m at todayâ€™s exchange rate. That is good cash for a club like Plateau, in addition to the invaluable promotional value playing in Africa would give the beautiful state. But those rewards have to be labored for. Rather than sell the clubâ€™s best players there would be a need to add a few top players to strengthen the squad. If the club can get to the group stage of the Champions League, that would mean a prize money of at least $550,000 (N197.7m). That kind of money should cover whatever additional costs go into strengthening the team. It would also make the club even more competitive in the new NPFL season.
Good job NTA and Supersport
Courtesy of national broadcaster NTA and longtime league broadcaster Supersport, the country got to see the season finale live as Plateau and MFM dueled openly for the crown. NTAâ€™s involvement in the live broadcast of the league after over a decade is a development that must be encouraged as this means an explosion in the number of eyeballs watching the league. This would further pressure owners, officials and fans into doing the right things, and this can only be great for the league. If this is continued next season, and I believe it should, it would also make the league more attractive to fans and sponsors.
Those pitches, dang!
The downside to beaming the finale live was the quality of the pitches on display. Neither the Jos pitch nor the El-Kanemi pitch looked any good for the grand finish to the season, and thatâ€™s putting it mildly. In a manner of speaking, pitches are like the clothes people wear to an occasion; no matter how good-looking and brilliant they are, they must be properly dressed. You donâ€™t have to dress expensively, just decently. Those pitches looked like Baba Sala straight off the set and into a cocktail party at the Transcorp Hilton. This is not so much a maligning of those behind these pitches, but a call to action. Ours is an insanely competitive and increasingly shrinking globe and we need to raise our game; invest in dress it up a wee bit.
Continental football comes to Lagos!
Just two seasons ago, MFM joined the premier division for the first time, alongside city rivals Ikorodu United, and ensured that top-flight football returned to Lagos for the first time in a decade. The church-backed side battled relegation in their maiden season, but bounced back this year to go within four points of the title. Their reward is Champions League football, and our reward is that the continentâ€™s finest are coming to Lagos. It cannot be a day too soon.