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Why Nigeria’s Domestic League Should be More Standard, Competitive, Challenging

Local league
Local league in action
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The Nigeria Professional Football League (NPFL), which has been renamed the Nigeria Premier Football League, is set to mark its 11th anniversary. However, the league has been faced with several challenges in recent years . The challenges include indiscipline, haphazard schedules, paucity of funds, lack of investments, upended standardisation and the corrupt practices of the handlers at the level of administration and at the club levels.

In 2012, the League Management Company (LMC) took over the management of the league, which was then considered one of the very best in Africa and rated higher than the Scottish league. Eleven years later, the league is struggling to fix a realistic calendar of matches, is unable to retain top talents, and the coaching has devolved into a bygone era . Now, we have administrators who have little or no knowledge of what a modern day football club represents, let alone helping these clubs to challenge for honours domestically and on the continent.

To address these issues, the Minister of Youth and Sports, Sunday Dare, constituted an Interim Management Committee (IMC) after the LMC was declared an illegal body last year. The IMC has now announced a partnership with GTI Group, as a strategic partner for the NPFL, in an effort to revive the league.

NPFL

GTI Group, a Nigerian corporation, has invested N200 million in the league to bring liquidity and energize the league to start generating reinvest. Nelson Ine, the project director for GTI, who explained the nature of the investment remarked that the partnership was not a sponsorship, but rather a strategic partnership for the development of the league and football in general.

He emphasised the importance of ethics and corporate governance structures, transparency in the system, and accountability in driving sports and business all over the world and insisted that GTI was primarily focussed on making the reality of viable sports investment a possibility in the NPFL.

The NPFL hopes to follow in the success of the English Premier League, which was rebranded in 1992 and saw significant growth in domestic broadcast revenues and the ability to bring top players to the league. GTI and local investors aim to improve the image of the NPFL and make it an entertainment venue. This, they hope to do by replicating the successes of Nigerian music acts and increase the value of the major ingredient-the players.

The cash inflow of N10m to each club from the N200m injection into the NPFL is intended to check corruption among administrators even if it will need to be followed through with stricter oversight and accountability measures.

Additionally, more funding can now be allocated to sports programmes in the participating teams in order to improve infrastructure and provide better resources and improvement in the quality of training and coaching for the players and technical staff. Also, the IMC can emphasise and reward those who display more discipline and a strong work ethic among athletes and coaches during the period of the 2022/2023 season. Topping all of these will be plans to increase visibility and promotion of sports as well as engaging with fans, all of which can help to build support and enthusiasm for domestic football in Nigeria.

These plans will reflect in the 2022/2023 season, which, for the first time ever in Nigerian football, will be abridged because of time and circumstances. The time factor has to do with the entire process of wresting control of the League from the LMC, proscribing its existence in response to court judgements and transferring the responsibilities of managing domestic club football to the IMC.

By the time the interim body was settled to handle the business of the 2022/2023 season, time had been expended far into the calendar for football and all the parties involved met and agreed to enter into an abridged football season rather than completely lose out on the entire season.

The circumstantial reasons for the abridged arrangement point to the fact that Nigeria is currently in her political season and much of the focus that ought to go to football will be unfavourably split with following events in the political space which may not augur well for a full-blown calendar of domestic games.

Yet, an initial start date in December, to ensure that it truly reflected the 2022/2023 calendar, did not materialise due to inadequate planning, logistics and coordination.

The decision to push back the start date for the league was made by the IMC, which has been working with key stakeholders for the projected improvements in a domestic league that has been struggling in recent years due to poor management and lack of funding. The IMC held regular meetings with key stakeholders to discuss concrete ways and means to improve the league. In the aftermath of these meetings, the IMC announced that the draws for the 2022/2023 NPFL season will take place on December 28 and the league will begin on January 8, 2023.

The IMC also revealed to all 20 participating teams in the 2022/2023 NPFL season, that they will each receive N10m as takeoff grants ahead of the new season. Additionally, the IMC and the clubs agreed to go ahead with an abridged league format to make up for lost time.

All parties involved have turned their attention to claiming the title from Rivers United, the defending champions.

As THEWILL previously reported, Rivers United won 23 games, drew 8, and lost 7 of their 38 league games, to finish the 2021/2022 campaign 10 points ahead of their closest rivals, Plateau United. It was a daring feat which the state governor, Nyesom Wike, handsomely rewarded in a dollarised windfall for coaches and players. And, although it was a disappointing experience for Nigerian representatives in the continent as all but the heavily incentivised Rivers United were eliminated from the CAF Inter-clubs competitions at the early stages.

The other three clubs were Plateau United in the CAF Champions League and Remo Stars and Kwara United in the CAF Confederation Cup, were unable to keep their places in the respective competitions.

The disappointing performance of Nigerian teams in the continental competitions highlights the need for the NPFL to improve in order to compete at the highest level. The partnership with GTI Group and the efforts of the IMC aim to address these issues and bring the league back to its former glory. The investment from GTI Group will bring much-needed liquidity to the league and help to generate revenue. This will be crucial in attracting and retaining top talents, as well as improving the overall image of the league. The league will also have to invest heavily to improve the standard of coaching and bring in modern practices to keep up with the changes in the game.

The NPFL has touted plans to improve the viewing experience for fans, with focus on improvements in the standard of the stadiums and facilities. However, this is not the first time that such promises have been made without concrete evidence to demonstrate that these promises have been delivered in reality.

Yet, if truly the domestic league intends to enter the modern age of football and be as competitive and productive as domestic football is in South Africa and north African countries such as Morocco, Egypt and Algeria, a lot will have to go into stadium improvements and standardisation. These will not only make the league more attractive to fans, but it will also be beneficial for the players, who will have better facilities to train and play in.

One of the key areas that the NPFL will focus on is youth development. The league will, of necessity, have to invest in Youth Academies that will produce young talents that can take the league to the next level. This will also help to ensure that the league has a steady stream of young talents to replace the older players as they retire or as they are scouted for clubs abroad. As these Academies groom the next generation of stars, it will be to their benefit that they are given as much visibility as their talents demand so that a wider audience can appreciate local artistry in football.

This ties into plans by the NPFL to improve the broadcast rights and expand the league’s reach through digital media. This will help to increase the league’s visibility and attract more fans and sponsors. The league will also look to increase its international exposure by participating in more international tournaments and friendly matches. However, beyond the avenue of domestic footballers to get the much-needed limelight that the the Championnat d’Afrique des Nations (CHAN – African Nations Championship) provides, the Nigeria Football Federation owes it to these players to enforce it on the coaching crew of the Super Eagles to pay particular attention on the local league and populate the senior national team with talents from the NPFL rather than the vexatious practice of chasing after footballers abroad with some negligible Nigerian heritage to play for Nigeria, which has become too common recently.

In conclusion, the NPFL is facing major challenges in bringing domestic football up to a realistically respectable level to compete favourably with continental giants in South Africa, Egypt, Morocco and Algeria. It will take more than just a cosmetic renaming to make this happen. The new partnership with GTI Group and the efforts of the IMC, demonstrate that the league is hoping to turn things around and bring back the glory days of Nigerian football.

The league is turning its focus on improving the standard of coaching, facilities, youth development, broadcast rights, and international exposure and these efforts can elevate the NPFL to become one of the top leagues in Africa and compete with the best in the world. It will take the herculean efforts necessary, on the part of all relevant stakeholders, to make this objective a reality. Time will tell if this will come to pass.

For now, the NPFL season will be played in the aforementioned abridged format, with all 20 clubs divided into two groups, A and B, each containing 10 teams. The top three teams from each group will then proceed to a super six tournament to determine the eventual winner, who will receive a prize of N100 million. The groups are made up of the following clubs:

Group A: Plateau United, Gombe, Enyimba, Akwa United, 3SC, Remo Stars, Kwara, Nasarawa, as well as newly promoted El Kanemi Warriors and Bendel Insurance.

Group B: Wikki Tourists, Abia Warriors, Dakkada, Rangers, Sunshine Stars, Niger Tornadoes, Doma United, Lobi Stars, and Bayelsa United.