As reactions continue to trail the recent dismal outing of Nigerian Professional Football League (NPFL) clubs in the ongoing CAF inter-clubs competitions, a former Super Eagles star, Garba Lawal, has said Nigerian clubs lack self-confidence to battle their North African counterparts. In this interview with Trust Sports, the ‘Mr Utility’ of Nigerian football spoke on what NPFL clubs must do to end the dominance of North African clubs, the proposed 2023 abridged league and the need to support the newly constituted Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) board.
Having played in Tunisia for Esperance, what would you say is responsible for Nigerian clubs’ constant failure against North African opponents?
Honestly, North African clubs are not invincible. Our clubs can beat them, if they believe they can do so. Unfortunately, most of our clubs lack self-confidence. It is all about the 11 players and self-confidence. North Africans are not whites. I mean they are not Europeans. We learn football from Europeans the same way the North Africans have done. So, there should be no inferiority complex when it comes to playing against North Africans. I think this is one of the things our players are yet to understand. They must change their way of thinking.
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It is said he who fails to prepare, prepares to fail. Don’t you think North African clubs are better organised?
There is no doubt about this. You may have self-belief and confidence but if you are not well prepared, you will still lose. This is the major difference between our clubs and their North African counterparts. Why they are well organised, our clubs still do things haphazardly. The North Africans are quite tricky as well. I played there for two years and I know how organised they can be when it comes to playing international matches. Like Esperance that I played for, they had a different approach for domestic competitions and for international matches. So, for our clubs to close the existing gap, they must do things differently. They must organise themselves and be more professional in their operations.
So, are you confident that with better organisation, Nigerian clubs will compete favourably with their North African opponents?
We are not North Africans. We are who we are. Even when our clubs organise themselves, they must learn to believe that the North Africans are not better than them. So, what is needed in sufficient quantity to end the dominance of the North Africans is self-belief. Our clubs must believe more in themselves and prepare very well whenever they are pitched against the North Africans. If this defeatist mentality is not changed, even if we put together the best of the best in our league, they won’t withstand the North Africans. Like I keep saying, we have talented players but organisation is a big problem.
It is true our clubs lack proper organisation but what do you have to say about the antics that North African clubs usually deploy against their opponents?
Our clubs must learn to live with the tricks and antics of North African clubs. This is because there is no way they won’t play clubs from that part of Africa. They are recurring decimals in CAF inter-club competitions. So, whether we like it or not, we must play against them. Like I said before, our clubs should know that if the North Africans can beat them, they also can beat them. Football is played mostly on the field. It is a game of ninety minutes plus extra time. Yes, our opponents can use any tricks to win but we must not resign to fate. It is true that North African clubs can frustrate you from the time you land at the airport to your hotel rooms but we must learn how to deal with their antics.
Don’t you think that the failure of the domestic league to resume for the 2023 season has contributed to the lacklustre performances of the clubs in the continent?
It is part of the problems that must be addressed for our clubs to perform better in the continent. But for now, it appears there is nothing anyone can do about this. Well, our league has not started but before the start of the CAF competitions, the clubs had some pre-season games. So, some of us expected something better from them.
The NFF has just inaugurated the Interim Management Committee (IMC) for the NPFL and there are talks about an abridged league…
It is a step in the right direction. We have to start from somewhere. Moreover, after the inauguration, the clubs will have an idea of what is going to happen next. It is good for the clubs, especially those that are not playing in the continent. They have been training but when you train without competitive football, it becomes beautiful nonsense. You may be forced to ask yourself what is really happening. About the proposed abridged league, I think they are trying to play catch-up. It is a double-edged sword because as much as it saves time, abridged leagues breed unhealthy competitions. There are usually fewer matches, so knowing that it is not going to be a marathon, every club tries to avoid defeat by all means.
A new NFF board is in place. What is your expectation from the Alhaji Ibrahim Gusau led board?
Well, we have to keep praying for them. We must continue to pray for God to give them the ability to execute their plans for Nigerian football. The president has been talking and I believe they have good plans for football. So, we as stakeholders or whatever must give them a chance. All hands must be on deck to move Nigerian football forward.
But PFAN appears to have axes to grind with the NFF…
Call Tijani Babangida. He is the one who can talk to you about the players union. He is the president of PFAN. He knows everything that is happening. Although a former international, I am not in a position to speak on what is happening between the NFF and PFAN. I can’t speak on behalf of Babangida.
What do you have to say about the impression that ex-players are not interested in leading Nigerian football?
Let me ask you if members of the Nigerian players union are included in the NFF congress. Are they part of the Annual General Assembly? Secondly, go and ask Peterside Idah. He will explain things to you. I wasn’t one of the contestants in the recent NFF election. Idah contested for the presidency while Ben Akweugbu aspired to be a member of the board. How did it go? Go and find out from them. I am sure they will share their experiences with you.