With the 2017/18 football season now ended and attention now on the biggest soccer fiesta – the FIFA World Cup in Russia, big money is already chasing after players around the world as clubs are keen on fortifying themselves. Kunle Adewale, in this report, asks when will the Nigeria Professional Football League (NPFL) produce players that would attract global attention in terms of transfer fee?
At the beginning of the ending season, the football world was agog with the news of Brazilian football superstar Neymarâ€™s Â£200 million transfer move from FC Barcelona to Paris Saint-Germain, and to some, â€˜football had gone crazyâ€™. This, however, raises questions on why Nigeria local footballers could not also attract some reasonable transfer to big European leagues and generate money to the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) vis-Ã -vis the country.
Up till the mid-90s, soccer fans in Nigeria looked forward to weekends, so as to watch their darling teams and favourite football stars, and the stadiums were always jam packed. It would take a miracle for a fan to get a seat at the UAC, as Teslim Balogun Stadium was then called, or the Onikan Stadium if the fan were not seated by 2pm for a game billed for 4pm, especially if the game involved clubs like Enugu Rangers, IICC Shooting Stars, Bendel Insurance, Abiola Babes or Leventis United. But not anymore.
Those were the days when a player would play in the Nigerian league this weekend and the following weekend heâ€™s donning the colours of an European league without going through trials.
It is on record that former Super Eagles winger, Finidi George, played in the colours of Ajax Amsterdam without going through trials, a week after he played for Calabar Rovers in the local league.
Many Nigerians were shocked at seeing Atlanta 1996 Olympic gold medalist, Dosu Joseph, in the colours of Italian Serie A side, Reggina, two weeks after staying between the sticks for Julius Berger in a league game in Lagos.
But for a Nigerian player to play for an average European club now, he must go through series of trials, because Nigeria league is little or nothing to write home about. Unlike before when it was at per with the Belgian league and close to the Dutch league.
Proprietor of second division side, AS Racine, Emmanuel Ibru, attributed lack of security, poor officiating and nonexistence of local rivalries as the bane of Nigerian league, which he said were also some of the reasons why fans had decided to shun league matches in the country.
â€œFor fans to return to the stadium, their security must be guaranteed. They must be sure of their safety such that one can bring his family to the stadium without any molestation from Area Boys (miscreants). Until then our league will still be in shambles.
â€œThe lack of local rivalries competing in league has also taken the shine off the league. Those days in Lagos, there were rivalries among Stationery Stores, NEPA, ACB and Julius Berger; in Ibadan, the city stood still whenever IICC was taking on Water Corporation and later Leventis United. So too in Benin, when Bendel Insurance and New Nigeria Bank confronted each other. Rangers versus P&T Vasco Dagama was always a cracker.
â€œAll these clubs had huge followership and therefore fans could not wait for the weekend to come and watch their idols play,â€ Ibru noted.
The bad state of our pitches has also not helped in developing the countryâ€™s football. Most of the pitches are in terrible shape due to lack of maintenance, which does not allow for free flow of football. What would be the end products of these kinds of pitches are quite obvious.
As a matter of fact, some states even resorted to using synthetic pitches, which analysts say are only good for television but not football.
In a chat with THISDAY, former Nigerian international Segun Odegbami berated the use of artificial field in various stadiums
â€œOne of the biggest problems confronting Nigerian football is the artificial pitches everywhere now. They are only good for viewership and television but they are not good enough for football and football development.
â€œWith artificial pitches you cannot play attractive football and you pick injuries very easily. If we don’t go back to the days when we had good lush green pitches, which allowed for good football and go back to secondary school football, which allowed administrators of football to pick from the very best, I’m afraid Nigeria would continue to struggle against small football nations.
â€œLook at the best football nations in the world you don’t find artificial pitches all over like you see here in Nigeria,” Odegbami said.
Another major problem confronting Nigeria football is the issue of poor officiating; teams could hardly go away and win. Home teams are almost sure of winning. â€œWhen we all know that it is the host team that would win, then why go to the stadium,â€ Ibru queried.
Nigeria football also lacks good administrators that could really drive the countryâ€™s football to where itâ€™s supposed to be. Administrators had been seen engaged in legal battles rather than concentrating on administrative business.
According to Odegbami, the foundation of Nigerian football was rock solid when he (Odegbami) was an active participant in football in the country from the early 70’s up till the turn of the ’80s.
“After the Moscow Olympics in 1980, then arise some avoidable and unnecessary developments which occurred that started to rock that solid foundation and it all started with the unceremonious removal of Mr. Isaac Akioye as the Director of Sports. He was the one with the training skills in sports that established the solid foundation.
â€œHe also trained and hired people who were to sustain the development. So, when he was removed in 1981 it set up a catalytic situation and those who took over from him, though tried to sustain what was on ground but the turnover of personnel in the administration of sports, especially football, in Nigeria became accelerated and it became more watery.
â€œBy the time we got to the beginning of 1990 it was so watered down, though the effect of that solid foundation was still strong to sustain sports development but by the early 90’s it became less in terms of human capacity.
â€œThough, we were still winning laurels but the fact remains that the administrators that came in thereafter did not have the original vision of the initial founders. And by the time we got to the late 1990 the new administrators that succeeded came in with their own shallow vision and so the quality of the game started to drop, so much so that we no longer could recognise the original foundation.
â€œThere is no longer any connection between the original foundation and where we are now. We are just drifting; there is no clear vision and direction again. All the things that were initially built are now lost,” Odegbami lamented.
The NFF also have no record of the number of football academies that exist in the country, hence, no proper monitoring.
That is why a player could leave an academy to be signed-on by a European club without the football governing body having any knowledge of it and therefore gets nothing on the player. All the financial gains go to the football agents.
“We don’t have football academies in Nigeria. The only academy I know in Nigeria that is coming up is the Kwara Football Academy in Ilorin. That is one of the reasons we are still behind in football today in this country. We should stop deceiving ourselves. The truth is that there is no football academy in country. Everybody isÂ claiming to have an academy and yet they cannot boast of ordinary camp. So you can see that we are not there yet,” former Nigeria international, Friday Elaho, noted.
Top North African clubs like Al Ally and Zamalek, both of Egypt, Raja Casablanca, Morocco and the likes boast standard training grounds and club houses, which are well maintained courtesy of money made from players they ship to European clubs.
Enyimba of Aba striker, Ezekiel Bassey, secured a loan move to the B-team of FC Barcelona in January, though he was shipped back to Enyimba after failing to make the cut at Barcelona. However, during the deal, nothing was mentioned on how much was really involved, how much Enyimba was going to get and how much would go the pause of the NFF.
Currently, the most attractive player in the Nigeria League is Kano Pillarsâ€™ marksman; Junior Lokosa, with 18 goals in 20 league matches and has gone off to BulgariaÂ to have his medical and fitness tests with Ludogorets. But by the time he finally joins the club, nothing would be heard about his sign-on fee, weekly earnings and how much accrues to his local club viz-a-viz the football federation.
Â â€œYou should know the mentality of Nigerian players once they are contacted by any European club. They and their agents will put pressure on you to allow them to go,â€ Chairman of Kano Pillars Tukur Babangida said.
Unlike when Neymar was leaving his boyhood club, Santos, for Barcelona for Â£48.7m, all the cards were put on the table, viz-a-viz when he left the Catalan club for PSG for a whooping sum of Â£200m.
It is a shame that in this clime, sports is still seen as recreation rather than big business. It is therefore not surprising that out of the 20 clubs in the Nigeria top division, 16 are owned by government.
State governors see these clubs as a way of greasing their political machinery and a way of compensating some of their supporters rather than making the clubs vibrant and turn them into money making machines.
Until football academies in the country are properly registered, managed and monitored, talents would continue to leave Nigeria to Europe without the federation getting a whiff of the money.