Saving Nigerian Domestic football leagues!

There is a recent scramble by sponsors to unscramble their relationship with the different national leagues. For the second season running, the Nigerian Premier League does not have a major title sponsor. The battle for the most prized possession in domestic Nigerian football at a time in the country fought between MTN and Globacom, two telecommunication giants has evaporated into thin air.

Football failed to fulfil its promise of unprecedented followership in the country’s domestic league reflecting the same level of fanatical followership of the European leagues. The LIVE television coverage of the European leagues has created almost 5 million viewing centres (and still growing) all over the country and viewership of over 50 million per match. The same thing cannot be said of the domestic league. Supersports stopped its sponsorship and coverage of LIVE broadcast of selected Nigerian Premier league matches in order to get away from the endless shenanigans in the game’s organization and administration. NTA, Africa’s largest television network, is handicapped by limited technical as well as financial capacity. So, with television out of the picture, the Premiership becomes worthless to any sponsor, particularly where the grounds are also not thronged by spectators the way they used to be in the early days of the modern game in Nigeria when match venues were major weekend social event centres all over the country. Even the second-tier of domestic Nigerian football, the Nigerian National League, NNL, that also celebrated its first major sponsorship deal last season by Bet9Ja, Nigeria’s biggest betting company, has been hit by the sudden withdrawal of the sponsor for ‘unknown’ reasons.

Since the withdrawal, everyone can now see why it was done. Bet9Ja has switched its interest and now sponsors the reality TV show, Big Brother. That speaks volumes. Even sponsors of the most attractive sports brand in Nigeria, the Super Eagles, have been threatening to pull out of their deals with the NFF as a result of the present rather unfriendly atmosphere around Nigerian football. The NFF leadership is going through difficult times with the EFCC on its tail. The leaders are being hounded by the EFCC following a stream of petitions by individuals accusing them of all manner of fraudulent deals and deeds. Naturally, the sponsors, by extension, cannot be immune from the side effects. They have also been entangled in the mess, harassed by the same dreaded agency of government and asked to provide evidence or information about their sponsorship deals with the football body. This is not good at all for sponsors. The risk is that they will pull out, and leave the NFF prostate and unable to attain the financial independence it requires for the game to grow to the zenith.

Amongst several issues that have plagued the domestic game two stand out. The first and major one, of course, is the exit of LIVE television coverage. No football league can succeed financially without television money. It is the oxygen that gives life to the game globally. Without it, football will ‘die’. That’s what is happening now to Nigerian domestic football. The game is on its death throes.

The second is even worse because till now not many people still appreciate the full impact of quality of turf on television coverage, technical development of the players and the game itself, and the power to attract people to grounds to watch matches. The full extent of damage done through the years by the conversion of major football grounds from grass fields to astroturf and artificial plastic surfaces is now just dawning on even the most experienced stakeholders.

Many years ago, led by a top ministry of sports official without a solid grounding in football, the game’s administration was taken over by a ‘Mafia’ within Nigerian sports. They misled several State governments by selling the idea that artificial surfaces were a better alternative to grass in this part of the world, cited FIFA’s approval of the surface as justification, and fed fat on the project by doing the ‘destruction’ themselves or through surrogates. The consequences of those decisions many years ago are here for everyone to see and measure. The leagues have not grown in stature or quality. Technically sound and talented players with expressive skills on the ball have become rare commodities. Matches are no longer as attractive to either spectators or even television as they used to be, because of the low quality of players and low standard performances. The spate of serious injuries to players has increased tremendously, prematurely terminating many football careers. The migration of players abroad has increased to torrential levels.

These are the ills associated directly with a bad pitch for football matches. Last Sunday, I decided to go and confirm my worst fears by watching a promoted big Premier league match in Lagos. It was my first live domestic match in many seasons (outside of television) of Nigerian football. I wanted to also experience the atmosphere around football grounds these days even though I knew Agege Stadium, where I went, may not be typical of the best of what is offered in a few other places like Kano and Aba where football (not minding the quality of play) would be followed by some of the most fanatical supporters of football on earth, undoubtedly, here also in Nigeria.

It was a Premier League match between MFM FC and Bendel Insurance FC. On the night, apart from the different beautiful jerseys that both teams wore, and a flattering final score-line (2-0 to MFM) that did not actually reflect the quality and standard of play, there was nothing to separate the two sides. I am thinking even as I write this that I may have watched one of the worst displays of modern or ancient football I have ever seen. Had I paid to watch that match I would have gone back to the organisers and demanded a refund of my hard-earned money! That was just how bad the match was. Neither side could do anything with the ball that was played more in the air than on the surface of that rubber pitch. Players could not string together passes. Players did not even attempt to dribble with the ball. No player did anything exceptional with the ball even as they all knew they were being watched that evening by the two most important persons in their football careers – the President of the Nigeria Football Federation, Amaju Pinnick, and the Technical Adviser of the Super Eagles, Gernot Rohr. One would have thought that this was the match to play and impress those two for a possible call up to any of the national teams.

Bendel Insurance FC, a team with a rich history and reputation, was a big disappointment after all the hype and encomiums showered on them by many purists of the game for returning to the top hierarchy of Nigerian football after many years in the doldrums. They did not put one foot right in 90 minutes. They did not create even one remote chance at scoring a goal. MFM FC, on the other hand, played as poorly but managed to score two goals to their credit. That match was a very poor advertisement for the current state of domestic Nigerian football.

Having said that, the officiating was fair, the players were very physical and competed well for every ball. I could clearly see what some of the major problems are. There is nothing new. They are the same old problems of not appreciating the importance of the small details that make the major difference in football matters, one of which is the issue of playing surface. Artificial grounds as alternatives to grass fields killed the development of Nigerian football and footballers! The turf is the single most important item in a long list of requirements for proper development of the player, the game and the business. It is what makes the biggest difference in the quality of a game! Excellent grass fields will make the players play and express themselves better, make the match easier to watch, easier to officiate, friendlier for television coverage and less injurious to players. forth. Play good football on good grass fields and television will come begging. So, let us go back to the drawing board and get all our football grounds lush green, flat and rich with grass, and watch the all-round transformation in record time.