With constant calls for diversification of the economy, and another election season serving as a potent reminder of how polarized the country remains along ethnic lines, football holds a lot of untapped promise for the future of Nigeria.
On 18 December 2022, Lionel Messi’s Argentina defeated Kylian Mbappe’s France and won the FIFA World Cup in Qatar. The biggest game of the year lived up to its billing and about ten thousand kilometres away, millions of Nigerians followed the competition religiously for the entire month. However, unlike the 2018 tournament, there were no flamboyant Nigerian jerseys donned by supporters of this football-obsessed country.
As post-World Cup celebrations wrapped up and club football competitions worldwide geared to restart, the resumption of the Nigerian Professional Football League (NPFL), due in December after a break since July 2022, was postponed. Not unlike several other aspects of contemporary Nigerian life, expectations are at an all-time low. As a result, despite the importance of football in the Nigerian social fabric, the country’s failure to qualify for the World Cup was vastly unsurprising.
Like its music and food, football is one of the unique lenses through which the Nigerian story is best told, and this really is where we are as a nation. From its introduction during the colonial period to its pivotal role in Nnamdi Azikiwe’s ideas on nation-building during the struggle for independence, football has always been more than a sport in Nigeria. I grew up hearing my parents reminisce about the glory days; when the likes of Segun Odegbami and Rashidi Yekini brought joy to Ibadan indigenes and legendary musicians such as King Sunny Ade and Salawa Abeni released songs to celebrate Stationery Stores FC of Lagos. For every story about filled stadiums and infamous rivalries which transcended football, cash-strapped football clubs and defunct grounds now exist. For every story about the Olympics ‘96 greats, there are a dozen embezzlement and corruption cases.
Nigerian football is in shambles, both at club and national team levels. Beyond its undisputed role in community-building and national identity, football has evolved into a burgeoning business globally, contributing billions of dollars to countries’ economies—$10 billion annually in the United Kingdom for example—and supporting millions of jobs. Unfortunately, local engagement with the Nigerian football league is rapidly declining and as a result, Nigeria and Nigerians are missing out on a significant income-generating opportunity. With constant calls for diversification of the economy, and another election season serving as a potent reminder of how polarized the country remains along ethnic lines, football holds a lot of untapped promise for the future of Nigeria.
THE EVOLUTION OF CLUB FOOTBALL IN NIGERIA
The Nigerian Football League, as it was previously known, began in 1972 with the inaugural season featuring ten teams, most of which have since oscillated between existence and extinction. The following decade, coinciding with the ‘oil boom’ years, would come to be heralded as the golden years of club football in Nigeria, with clubs routinely selling out 20,000 capacity stadiums and star players widely revered by the public. In 1990, several new regulations were introduced to a rebranded ‘Professional League’ with 20 participating clubs, which were now required to be governed by a board of directors, present independently audited accounts, develop youth academies and own their stadiums within five years.
These changes, coupled with the economic downturn at the time and intense competition for viewership from international football leagues due to the introduction of satellite television in the 90s, reduced the incentive for profit-seeking private investors to participate in football and led to the domination of government-owned clubs which continues till date. Tellingly, 12 of the 19 government-owned clubs participating in the current NPFL season were created after 1990.
In addition to stifling innovation and hindering sustainability in clubs, the atypical involvement of state governments in Nigerian football has seen multiple corruption scandals and statistical anomalies.
Uzo Okonkwo, former general manager of Sporting Lagos, a football club recently acquired by Shola Akinlade, co-founder of Paystack, explained:
Having over 70, 80 per cent home wins should not happen in any league…after incurring a lot of travel costs to play away matches in other states, you often don’t come out with a fair result due to suspicious officiating. Many of these things happen because clubs want to justify the investment to their government owners.
THREE BIRDS, ONE STONE
In spite of Nigeria’s national team and professional club football performances, the past two decades have seen significant developments in youth football, evident in the creation of several football academies across the country. The strict enforcement of the Regulations on the Status and Transfer of Players of FIFA, which prevents the international transfer of players under 18 years, has seen the establishment of several football academies across the country since 2009. Some of these academies are owned by the world’s biggest clubs (e.g., FC Barcelona, AS Roma, Juventus etc.) to create and identify talented young players early instead of paying hefty sums of money for them down the line.
Paradoxically, these developments have not translated to visible success in the domestic league.
Victor Obinna Edeh, FC Bayern Youth Cup director, explained:
The main goal of the young players, and the academies, is to get transferred to European clubs at a good price once they turn 18…when domestic league clubs make offers to these players, they prefer to find their way to Europe because the economics are better, even if they end up in other jobs besides football.
The football industry in Nigeria mirrors the larger society; transferring talented young players to European clubs is akin to the exportation of crude oil and importation of its refined products without making investments in oil refineries. In 2017, striker Victor Osimhen moved from Ultimate Strikers Academy in Lagos to VfL Wolfsburg in Germany for about 4 million euros. Three years later, he was transferred to S.S.C. Napoli in Italy for 80 million euros. Unlike the quantifiable price of importing refined oil products, the price we pay for inadequate football infrastructure is the underdevelopment of the domestic leagues and dwindling success of our national teams.
Unlike club football, where players train together daily and instructions are refined to the finest details for a 40-week-long season; national football, due to the limited time spent together, often comes down to grit, passion and collective spirit. Though there are some exceptions—like Senegal, a strong domestic league is often the foundation for success at the national level, thus the success (or in this case, failure) of the domestic league and the national team are intertwined. For instance, this was seen in Nigeria’s starting line-up at the Men’s African Cup of Nations 2013 final—the last major victory for the men’s team. The line-up included nine players whose early careers were spent in the NPFL while none of the players fielded against Ghana in the decisive qualifying game for the 2022 World Cup ever played in the Nigerian league.
Although the regulations introduced in 1990 mandated all professional teams in the league to have youth academies, very few teams currently have functioning academies. One of these teams is Remo All Stars—the third-placed team in the previous NPFL season, owned by Kunle Soname, chairman of Bet9ja and Portuguese club Feirense. Beyond Limits Football Academy, the youth development program of Remo All-Stars, has produced several players for the first team since its inception in 2016 and is well positioned to be the cornerstone of the team’s development in the future. In Brazil, a similarly football-obsessed nation, European clubs routinely pay huge sums as much as 60 million euros for young players directly from the domestic league before they turn 18, providing local clubs with revenue which can be reinvested in player salaries, club operations, and overall development of the domestic league.
Earlier this year, 18-year-old Remo All-Stars player, Ebenezer Akinsanmiro, was signed by Inter-Milan for an undisclosed fee, a portion of which could be reinvested into their Beyond Limits Academy.
Victor Obinna Edeh says:
The focus is mostly on senior teams, but youth academies are really the cash cow…there is no reason why Nigerian clubs should not be able to command high transfer fees for talented young players in a couple of years if they have good academies. Beyond the financial impact, keeping the most talented players until their late teens will also raise the profile of the league.
With 45 per cent of its population under 14 years of age, Nigeria has one of the largest child populations in the world. Unfortunately, the majority of these children reside in underserved communities. With NPFL clubs spread across the country, adequate investment in youth teams by each club has the potential to provide education and create tangible opportunities for these children. Even at youth level, football involves travelling across the country and interacting with people from different ethnic groups and communities. This can promote national unity at the grassroots level where it is perhaps needed the most.
A FOOTBALL ECONOMY: WHAT WILL IT TAKE?
The challenges in the NPFL are so multi-faceted and deeply entrenched, it would be foolhardy to suggest that there is one answer, or that reform will be an easy task. Nonetheless, football leagues close to home—in Egypt, South Africa and DR Congo—provide examples of nations that have been able to navigate similar challenges to varying, but admittedly superior, degrees of success. South Africa’s Premier Soccer League (PSL) has become one of the most valuable leagues in Africa by mobilizing private sector capital from large companies such as ABSA, Nedbank and MTN. While PSL champions typically walk away with about $850,000 at the end of the season, the most recent winner of the NPFL won about $150,000, which allegedly remains unpaid.
In recognition of the dire state of the game in Nigeria, the Presidential Committee on Football recently released a 10-year masterplan for the development of football in Nigeria. While admittedly a step in the right direction, it will certainly require more than verbose and ambiguous frameworks or strategic goals to significantly improve the current situation. Beyond acknowledging that ‘the funding and sponsorships in use are sporadic, unsustainable, and short-termed’, the masterplan makes no mention of concrete plans to create an enabling environment for the private sector to inject the league with much-needed capital.
While countries like Egypt and South Africa have been able to secure large broadcast deals of up to $20 million annually, driven by high fan engagement, the NPFL remains without a significant broadcast deal since SuperSport pulled out of an annual deal worth $8 million over alleged mismanagement of funds. This makes it surprising that the plan does not mention the mass media, which has a key role in reforming prevailing narratives about the domestic league and bringing fans back to stadiums and in front of their televisions. Understanding that fan engagement is the seed from which revenue sources and markers of success sprout, popular football leagues globally have strategically engaged the media to package an attractive product to their potential customers.
Recent success stories suggest that the herculean task of reforming Nigerian football can indeed be done, but they have been almost solely dependent on the efforts of zealous individuals. Most notably, between 2000 and 2010 Enyimba FC dominated the domestic and continental league and attained a large following due to strong financial backing by Orji Kalu, a former governor of Abia State. Building a viable and sustainable football economy requires concerted, simultaneous efforts by a wide range of stakeholders across the entire country. If this can be done, then maybe this beautiful game will save Nigeria⎈
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