Barring last minute hitches, the 2022/2023 Nigeria Professional Football League (NPFL) season will commence today at the Godswill Akpabio International stadium in Uyo where the official opening match of the season is to be played between Akwa United and Bendel Insurance of Benin City. It promises to be a cracker on one of the best football playing turfs in Nigeria.
However, for inexplicable reasons, the remaining Week one matches will be played next weekend when the other clubs would take to the field in the abridged league that many of them have accepted to feature in grudgingly. The league is kicking-off six months after Rivers United were crowned champions of the 2021/2022 season.
Indeed, it has been several weeks of unending drama as the new league organizers, the Interim Management Committee (IMC) for the NPFL kept trying to restart the domestic league as mandated by the Federal Ministry of Youths and Sports Development and supported by the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF). While striving to carry out the responsibilities assigned to it, the IMC incurred the wrath of club managers alias Club Owners who thought they would be allowed to run the show in the absence of the sacked League Management Company (LMC). The Club Owners who had imagined that they were being liberated from the tyrannical grip of the LMC are no longer comfortable with most of the pragmatic decisions that have been taken by the IMC.
Without any doubt, the main reason for the face-off between the IMC and the Club Owners is the decision of the former to introduce the abridged league format for the current season. Of course, following the failure of the domestic league to restart in time, the only way to catch up or harmonise the NPFL calendar with the big leagues in Europe is to abridge the local league. Therefore, the IMC believes fervently that if the abridged format is adopted, the current season would end in May and resume in August along with the rest of the leagues in the world.
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Unfortunately, due to reasons their critics consider to be selfish, most of the Club Owners are vehemently opposed to the abridged league. After the clubs met with the IMC and it was decided that only the abridged league was the way forward, most of them declined to participate in it. As a matter of fact, the Club Owners said 17 of their members had voted for a full league so the IMC must listen to them.
When both parties refused to shift grounds, the future of Nigerian professional football league became gloomy. Many then concluded that there would be no NPFL this season. However, after days of persuasion and coercion, the clubs soft pedaled, thereby making the way for the new season to commence today.
However, most of the clubs are still grumbling that they were forced to accept the abridged league. Therefore, even after today’s match in Uyo, football stakeholders will have to wait till next weekend to know if the rest of the clubs would be part of the abridged league.
For those of us who are familiar with the administration of football in Nigeria and how the Club Owners run the state owned club, those opposed to the abridged league are only fighting to protect their selfish interests. They know that playing the abridged league will deny them of some of the ‘careless’ money they usually obtain from their respective state governments. Of course, they know that the abridged league comes with fewer matches so there will be no reason for them to submit bogus budgets for nearly 400 matches. In addition, the clubs know they stand the high risk of being relegated when the league is abridged. When matches are fewer, it leaves little room for manipulations. The more the matches, the easier it is for clubs to recover lost grounds. Therefore, the decision of the IMC to organise an abridged league is like tucking a bitter pill down the throats of the Club Owners.
Well, the time has come for all to sheathe their swords for the good of the domestic league. It should be a case of no victor, no vanquished. For now, the IMC has demonstrated commitment to its responsibility and deserves to be given a chance. Therefore, it is heartwarming to know that despite distractions from different quarters, the IMC was able to bring in a formidable sponsor in the name of GTI Investment which recently splashed N200m on the 20 clubs as take off grants. So, apart from the hundreds of millions of Naira that will accrue to them from their respective state governments, each of the clubs will receive N10m grant from the GTI Investment’s largesse.
And unlike what was obtainable in the time of the defunct LMC, the IMC is allowing its sponsors to deal directly with the clubs in almost all financial transactions. The future is also looking quite bright for the referees and other match officials whose indemnities and allowances are to be paid directly to them by the new sponsors. This is good news because we are all living witnesses to how the league suffered poor officiating in the past years simply because unpaid and poorly motivated referees saw their appointments as opportunities to make quick money. It was so bad that at a stage clubs were saddled with the responsibility of paying referees’ indemnities. Questionable officiating became inevitable because he who pays the piper dictates the tune.
It is against this background that the Club Owners must bury their pride and cooperate with the IMC to get the NPFL running again. So much time has been wasted already. Therefore, there is no need to continue to chase after shadows. Anything being done legitimately to harmonise the NPFL calendar with those of the advanced leagues should be encouraged without much ado.