Why Nigerian clubs struggle in continental competitions

Why Nigerian clubs struggle in continental competitions

As the CAF Champions League and Confederations Cup resume this weekend with Rivers United, Enyimba, and Bayelsa United representing Nigeria, it is apt to ask if football is developing in Nigeria.

The strength of a football league is reflected in how well its representatives do in continental competitions. Based on that simple yardstick, how has the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) impacted the league since Amaju Pinnick assumed its control in September 2014?

Dismal

The record does not look good. In the last seven years, no Nigerian football club has made it to the final of either the CAF Champions League or the Confederations Cup.

At the international level, the Super Eagles failed to qualify for consecutive editions of the Nations Cup in 2015 and 2017, although they took third place in the last edition in Egypt in 2019.

This brings the question: what is the NFF doing to promote Nigerian football?

Rotten Tree

In this Special Report, Premium Times puts that question to players, past players, coaches, referees and administrators.

Their responses betray a common fear that an NPFL side cannot win any club competition in Africa because the league is like a rotten tree and no amount of fertilising and pruning can make it produce good fruits.

Most of the respondents identified three problems.

First, is the poor organisation of the league as it pertains to the calendar and non-existent professional structures of the clubs. The second is the non-professionalism of contracting players, and the third is a pot-pourri of administrators’ inefficiency, games not on television, and the absolute lack of faith in home-grown players by the NFF.

Ferdinand Udoh, a referee, said, “First, we look at structure in other countries like South Africa, Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt-all those North African countries that have been dominating African football, especially at the club level. The most important factor is that they have a very good structure.

“Second, they don’t have the issue of not paying players and players ending their contract halfway. Their plan involves buying the best players in West Africa. For example, Enyimba just sold one of their best legs [Anayo Iwuala] to a North African team [Esperance]. What do you expect from that North Africa team? They will become better! They seek the best leg from us and then we sell to them, but we still expect to compete with them. We cannot! If we are interested in winning, we cannot continue to sell our best legs to those we are competing against.”

YearCAF Champions LeagueCAF Confederations CupCAF Nations Cup

2013No Nigerian side made it into the group stageNo Nigerian side made it into the group stageChampions

2014No Nigerian side made it into the group stageNo Nigerian side made it into the group stage

2015No Nigerian side made it into the group stageNo Nigerian side made it into the group stageDid not qualify

2016Enyimba came third in Group B No Nigerian side made it into the group stage

2017No Nigerian side made it into the group stageRivers United came last in Group A that contained Ugandan side KCCA.Did not qualify

2018No Nigerian side made it into the group stageEnyimba made the semi-final but were beaten 3-1 on aggregate by Raja Casablanca

2019Lobi Stars finished third in Group ARangers came third in Group A while Enyimba made it into the quarter final where they were beaten 3-1 on aggregate by Horoya of Guinea.Third place

2020No Nigerian side made it into the group stageEnyimba advanced into the quarter final where they were beaten 5-2 on aggregate by Pyramids of Egypt.

2021NPFL champions, Akwa United have been knocked out with Rivers United in the last qualifying stageQualified

Poor Economy

For Fisayo Dairo, a football commentator, the naira and the Nigerian economy are salient factors holding back the NPFL sides from doing well on the continent.

“The strength of any league is determined by the economy and financial strength of the country. Look at one of the strongest leagues in the world, England’s EPL, the quantity of monies pumped into it by the government, clubs and owners.

“Our naira is in bad shape; it cannot even compete with itself, let alone the other currencies in the continent. How much is the highest paid footballer earning in Nigeria? Nobody is earning more than N1 million per month. How much is one million when you convert to dollars? Just over $2,000 while Anayo Iwuala (a former Enyimba player) is being paid $25,000 (about N10 million) a month in Tunisia.”

Anayo Iwuala

Mr Dairo added, “Yes, the organisers have not done well enough in some things they should do, but it is part of the economic challenges they have to battle with. Now, we don’t know when the league will start. The excuse is that there is no money to start, they are owing a backlog of indemnities, payments from last season.

“The shape of the Nigerian economy has taken a huge toll on our sport, especially football. That’s why in this dispensation, Nigerian teams can never excel in club competitions in Africa.

“When you face the Al Ahlys of this world, Mamelodi Sundowns, the Esperance Sportifs, they play with top players from across Africa being paid huge amounts of money. But here you pay a player N400,000 and you expect ‘Burnley to beat Manchester City now and then’. Not possible-that’s the reality. It is as simple as that.

“You need money to put facilities in place. You need money to put human capital in place,” Mr Dairo added, “and you need to pay people very well to be happy, to impact greatness from the very young stage of football.”

Akwa United

The champion of the just-concluded NPFL season, Akwa United have already been knocked out of the CAF Champions League.

The NPFL season ended on August 5 and they played Belouizdad of Algeria on September 12, when the players should be on break. Ultimately, they lost 2-1 on aggregate, though it has to be added that the Algerian league was also on break.

Paul Bassey, Akwa United Chairman, says the league not having sponsors causes more damage than can be calculated.

“Without sponsors, the league struggles… late start… poor remuneration…poor officials’ indemnities, etc. The league trudges to an end, most times too late for adequate preparations for the continent. A league without sponsors is a poor league and players are just too eager to run to greener pastures, leaving clubs depleted at the end of every season with little or no time to recruit suitable replacements,” Mr Bassey says

The new NPFL has no start date, which wreaks confusion and uncertainty on the teams and the players.

“First of all, the challenge we have with our NPFL teams is the players we recruit to play continental competitions,” says Isaiah Egbe, a referee.

“The way we are looking at it in Nigeria differs from the way the experienced sides in Africa are looking at it. We recycle old legs thinking it is experience and we sell our quality players to these African teams that we play in the same competitions like Al Ahly, Al Hilal, etc. We sell our quality players who would have helped our own teams and our league does not start before the competition – these affect us,” Mr Egbe adds.

Mr Egbe also accused football administrators of being impatient and playing politics with their appointments by looking for quick results when adequate preparations are absent.

“Some of the management [administrators] see their appointments as jobs from either the APC or PDP government. They will have to stay four years or eight years and so they will look to cut corners so as to deliver quick results.”

Teslim Balogun Stadium

Meanwhile, a former league and Champions League winner who has had stints in Europe, is angry at how NPFL teams are run.

“Let us look inwards. A team playing in the NPFL, when the players come for training, they change to the pitch like a common school team. There is no standard training pitch, no locker rooms, no showers for after training and we expect to keep our best players in the league? We are not semi-professional, not to talk of being professional,” he adds.

The last NPFL outfield player to break into the Super Eagles team was Iwuala but he was immediately poached by Esperance of Tunis, when his former side, Enyimba, are also competing in Africa.

The Enyimba international stadium, for example, also does not have a standard training pitch or changing rooms.

“We cannot expect the best from our players when we are not giving them the best,” Adebayo Gbadebo, a coach in Thailand, says.

“Why should it be said that clubs in Thailand are better organised than Nigerian sides? Matches are not on TV; they do not pay the players well; good medical services are almost non-existent.

“Scouts don’t travel all around the world seeking talents like they used to do in the 80s and 90s. Every serious league is online, ready to be viewed by anyone, anywhere in the world. We cannot delude ourselves. We do not have a professional football league, and the blame lies squarely on the shoulders of the administrators. They know what is not right, but they are not willing to change,” Mr Gbadebo says.

Foul Play?

A fan of the league, Sola Kayode, who supports MFM FC of Lagos, adds another dimension to the riddle as he believes the League Management Company (LMC) rigs the league and the winner is the highest bidder, which means there is no fair competition.

“The question you should ask; do the best teams represent Nigeria in all competitions?
No! We can’t say they are the best. Let me tell you what happened in the last league. Nasarawa United were second on the log until two or three games to the end of the league when they lost two matches, drew one and lost one of the important matches.

“The LMC knows who they want to represent the continent. They prefer the big ones, the ones who can sponsor them, who can spend money, who can send large delegations to this competition and the one that can dance to their tunes, at the expense of the teams who can prepare very well. That’s it.”

Akwa United [PHOTO CREDIT: Official Facebook page of Akwa United FC]There may be some truth in this because it is often said that the NPFL starts in the 30th week of the 38-week league. This alludes to money coming into play with desperate machinations introduced into the algorithm that ultimately determines the winner of the league.

Suraj Ayeleso, a player with Plateau United, gave a damning verdict on the NPFL.

“The issue of clubs, our clubs, they are very far apart in terms of organisation. Look at Ghana, they are much more organised than us,” he says.

“How can the club be in match form (talking about teams representing Nigeria on the continent)? To be able to cope with these teams that are playing in the league week in and out, it will be very difficult for us. We are still very far away in terms of the organisation of the league,” he adds.

Examples abound around the continent that adequate and commensurate player remuneration leads to titles but more is the organisation of the league and the professionalism brought to the fore by the administrators.

The NPFL is like a primary school pupil who is five foot five inches tall and the parents believe he is ready to do JAMB.

That child will continue to fail until he is taken through the stages and properly schooled.

The Nigerian league is still in the primary stage but the administrators, because of short sightedness and greed, are pushing it for entry into the university. It cannot work!

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