You need to see my face as I type this end of season review of the Nigerian Professional Football League after making so many awkward calls at the start of the season. I must tender my unreserved apology to both Kennedy Boboye and Fidelis ”The Working One” Ilechukwu for rubbishing their credentials and condemning their teams; Plateau United and MFM respectively to relegation even before a ball was kicked. To my utmost surprise and that of many, both teams finished first and second respectively; now that’s an Epic story.
In a season that a lot was expected of the established order; it was the turn of Nigeria to provide its own fairy tale, where two teams who avoided relegation the previous season finished as Champions and Runners up; before you say only in Nigeria, the Leicester City story comes to mind; these things happen only in movies, well in my lifetime I have witnessed it three times in the space of three years. Plateau United founded in 1975 are the 19th different winner of the league in Nigeria and for the first time in their history; no one saw this coming.
I must admit that the so called established teams in the Nigerian Domestic game truly disappointed this season; appalling domestically, even worse on the continent and then you start to worry about coefficients for future CAF Champions League and Confederation Cup participation especially considering losses to teams from Zambia and Uganda. The entire domestic season can be summed up as follows:
Redemption vs Opportunity
If you read my preview to the season you would get a clear picture as to why I am hard on the likes of Kano Pillars, Enyimba, Rangers, Rivers United and Shooting Stars. Interesting to see that three out of the five teams mentioned struggled against relegation from the top tier. Enyimba under Gbenga Ogunbote finished third on the table, qualifying for the CAF Confederations Cup; the Aba Elephants were the only team among the elite teams to cover themselves in some sort of glory. I continue to say that Gbenga Ogunbote is probably one of the most underrated tactical minds in the NPFL; especially when he isn’t at the center circle rubbing some creamy substance on his hands, his teams play some really good stuff and are always well setup.
Khadiri Ikhana and Imama Amapakabo both departed Kano Pillars and Rangers in varying controversial circumstances, whilst Stanley Eguma and Fatai Amoo struggled and stumbled all season trying to keep their teams afloat. Stanley Eguma was particularly disappointing as I had tipped Rivers United for the title considering the amount of investment and quality of recruitments they had made; unfortunately I failed to consider the tactical deficiency of the manager in question. All through the season, you had a manager who complained about his team’s poor marksmanship without doing anything about it. Rivers United were so difficult to watch this season, wherever it was home, away, even on the continent; you struggled to find what their tactical approach was; little wonder their best performance for the season came against already relegated Remo Stars in Sagamu.
In the general context of this season; the ”upcoming” coaches seized the initiative and grabbed it with both hands; whilst the big guys were either distracted by infighting and continental engagements, the smaller clubs grabbed the opportunity to position themselves at the top early, building consistency at home whilst grabbing the odd point here and there away from home; the Opportunist carried the day.
Some months back, I was at the Sport Vision office; where I saw a 1998 copy of Sport Souvenir which was the Bible of the Nigerian Domestic game. The headline read something like ”Officiating has to improve”; now this was almost twenty years ago, interesting we are still faced with the same problem. Every match day, there is one controversy or the other across match centers, on the penultimate week to NPFL Final Day; 14 penalties were awarded across the country, you had two to three penalties awarded in a single game, now if these games are reviewed there are chances that 80-90% of these penalties may be justified and deserved calls; however, the frequency and the lateness of these penalty awards is what creates the controversy. Some teams have become particularly notorious for getting penalties especially with the clock winding down; justified or not, referees assessments need to be stricter with more punitive measures in place.
Now lets not get things twisted that the award of penalties is the only problem; the problem covers a wide spectrum of the overall handling of games. Poor or wrong offside calls, lack of assertiveness of the referee, poor communication with the Assistant Referees, determining and legislating additional time; we can go on and on about where the referees fail the game; but our administrators and referees’ assessors fail the game more when punitive and disciplinary measures are not effectively and efficiently melted out to erring referees. The Refereeing situation is the biggest killer of the Nigerian game; it has a wider than envisioned effect on the overall growth and development of our domestic game.
Broadcast Rights and Coverage
The expansion and general acceptance of most top leagues in the world is stimulated by its availability on different broadcast media. Television, be it Terrestrial or Satellite remains a pivotal part of showcasing our product; the NPFL. The damage done to the League brand is unquantifiable with its absence from our TeeVee screens; it is widely believed that with the presence of Television Cameras in all ten centers across the country on any given Saturday or Sunday will aid in reducing controversy associated with refereeing decision, crowd violence and control. Television provides a veritable window to showcase the NPFL to a larger cult following that would catch the consciousness of Corporate Nigeria. If the viewing numbers of the league continues to grow, sponsorship would be easy to attract for the league and the clubs individually; the need for Television coverage cannot be overemphasized.
The League Management Company (The LMC) have responded to the breakdown of the previous broadcast rights agreement with SuperSport by signing a broadcast production agreement with the Nigerian Television Authority (NTA) utilizing the government agency’s large presence and coverage across the nation. Whilst, on paper this is a good initiative as it provides the LMC greater control over its content, potential of increased broadcast rights proceeds as the NPFL may be made available to more than one platform, hence eliminating any form of monopoly. We cannot speak of the potential positives without knowing what the projected outcome of this agreement is; Are the NTA ready and well equipped for this new frontier? Big question; production has moved light years away from what we are used to viewing from our dear NTA; can we look forward to HD quality production? Can we look forward to engaging and viewer friendly programming? What is the potential and anticipated financial implications of this switch to independent production as against overall broadcast rights sales? It would be good to know the potential pros and cons before we shout Hooray!!!!
Lack of overall quality should not be mistaken for Competitiveness
Some will say that for teams that avoided relegation from the previous season to finish first and second this season speaks to the overall competitive nature of the Nigerian Professional Football League, but when I disagree you would point me to Bidvest Wits and Cape Town United in South Africa or even throw the Leicester City fairy tale at me. Truth is the overall quality of the league is poor, this is not to say that the players are poor, even though I feel there’s so much work to do their and this particularly has to do with the coaching. I believe the coaching can be better and well thought out; I can count on my fingers coaches in the NPFL who you can see a clear cut tactical approach to their teams play by just looking at the team sheet.
This coaching problem has even made some come out boldly to say that there are no tactics in the NPFL; all we have are coaches who roll out their team list and then back it up with prayers; little wonder when you attend post match briefings in the NPFL, all you hear is I want to thank God for giving us this victory today; Oga what did you do to win? How did you set up your team to make it difficult for your opponent? Basic stuff, instead they go on a religious crusade. Don’t get me wrong all glory and honour must go to the Lord God almighty; but even the Bible says ”watch and pray”.
How do you explain a team been so good one season and absolutely abject the following; just take a look at Rivers United; can we ascribe coming second last season to ”luck”. The likes of Abdul Maikaba, Gbenga Ogunbote, Imama Amapakabo, Kadiri Ikhana, Fidelis Ilechukwu and Kennedy Boboye are a few of the exceptions in terms of their overall approach and tactical direction; the rest have too many questions to answer.
From a statistical perspective; it leaves you quite worried, the champions of the league lost 10 times (the worst if you review leagues in Egypt, Ghana, South Africa, Morocco and Algeria), the team with the most wins won only 19 times; the demarcation between the top and the bottom is so slim it’s unbelievable; imagine the points difference between Nasarawa United in 5th Position to Shooting Stars in 17th Position was merely 6 points, Can you beat that? The Champions, Plateau United scored 49 Goals in 38 games averaging 1.30 goals per game; there’s nothing dominating in that stat even though a search across some of Africa’s top leagues show slightly better numbers.
Decisions and Indecisions
The viability of the Nigerian Professional Football League will largely depend on the decisions or indecisions of the League Management Company; its ability to take decisions, punish erring offenders, provide a feasible and workable framework for all stakeholders in the Nigerian game. Issues of unpaid salaries continues to rear its ugly head in our league with the LMC showcasing more of a bark than a bite as it affects erring clubs. Crowd violence and control, refereeing, selection of referees and their posting continues to be a problem; this has to be looked at closely. Player’s suspension, siding with certain clubs due to the presence of power brokers in the NFF Board is another issue that could tarnish the hard work to get the league thus far; favoritism won’t get us anywhere. If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime.
Team of the Season
Selecting a team of the season, is truly a difficult task, just picking a team of the week alone is tough. I can just imagine the reception this line up of Eleven will get and the potential backlash as I left out one or two crowd favorites. Its a tough job, but somebody has to do it. Here’s my team of the NPFL 2017 season in a 3-5-2 formation:
End of Season Awards
Halftimeng NPFL Player of the Season: Ibrahim Al Hassan (Akwa United)
Halftimeng NPFL Manager of the Season: Kennedy Boboye (Plateau United)
Halftimeng NPFL Goal of the Season: Sikiru Olatubosun (MFM FC) vs Rangers
**Pictures Courtesy: Complete Sports, Nationration, Premium Times, National Daily, Score Nigeria