“Maybe this is another opportunity to say that again because I had said that in Nairobi, Kenya.
“At this stage that I am now, I think it will be unfair for me to lie to my people, it will be unfair for me to be covering up if we are talking about getting better, if we are talking about improving, if we are talking about meeting up to our expectations.
“I think it is the right time we start telling each other the truth. You know. And I think, yes, I said that I would prefer to watch the Premier League on television than watch our NPFL (Nigeria Premier Football League) because we are not where we are supposed to be. It hurts to see that the effort that we all put in, that nothing has been built on it.”
In case you are wondering who the hell is giving such a damning verdict on our Premier Football League called NPFL, wonder no more. It is the legendary Austin ‘Jay Jay’ Azuka Okocha. The above are quotes from the interview he granted Nigeria’s pioneer sports radio station Brila FM, to reiterate what he had said earlier in faraway Nairobi, Kenya, about the Nigerian top-flight.
For those who don’t know, before he left the shores of Nigeria to play for some of the biggest clubs in Europe like Eintracht Frankfurt, Fenerbahce, PSG and Bolton Wanderers, Okocha had a brief stint in his home club, Enugu Rangers. I believe this is why he is hurt that Nigerian football administrators have failed woefully to build on the foundation some of them laid before leaving in search of greener pastures abroad.
Even before I listened to Okocha’s interview, I had decided that I was going to write about the NPFL clubs that have again performed abysmally in this year’s CAF inter-clubs competitions, the Champions League and Confederation Cup. Therefore, when I listened to the former Super Eagles captain, I became more motivated to do so.
When the draws for the CAF Champions League and Confederation Cup Group Stage were conducted last Friday in Johannesburg, South Africa, only one Nigerian club, Rivers United, was involved. They were drawn in Group C along with Tunisian giants, Club Africain, Dreams FC Ghana, and Angola’s APC Lobita. Considering how they struggled to overcome Etoile Filante in the second preliminary round fixture, many are not even sure of what would have happened if the ‘Pride of Rivers’ had started the competition right from the first preliminary round.
In view of their impressive performance in the 2023 Confederation Cup, Rivers United were drawn bye and entered the arena in the second preliminary round. However, the 2023 NPFL title holders, Enyimba and the runners-up, Remo Stars who began their campaign in the Champions League from the first preliminary round stumbled and crashed out at the first hurdle. Federation Cup winners, Bendel Insurance managed to reach the second preliminary round but fell to the superior power of RS Berkane of Morocco. So, that was how in quick succession, three NPFL clubs crashed out of the continent. Therefore, only Rivers United will be flying Nigeria’s flag in the continent.
The shambolic performances of the trio have far-reaching implications. Apart from the humiliation of presenting only one club in this year’s CAF competitions, Nigeria now stands the risk of having her continental slots reduced to two. The top 10 clubs in Africa by the ranking of CAF are Mamelodi Sundowns; Al Ahly; Wydad Casablanca; FAR Rabat; Raja Casablanca; Pyramids; FUS Rabat; Orlando Pirates; Simba and Young Africans. No Nigerian club made the list.
The implication is that next season, Nigeria may have only two slots, one in Champions League and the other in the Confederation Cup. If this happens, only the winner of the league will feature in the Champions League while the Federation Cup champions would take the Confederation Cup slot. So, the failure of Enyimba, Remo and Insurance might cost Nigeria two continental slots.
It will be recalled that after some underwhelming performances in the past, Nigeria’s slots were reduced to two till 2019 when Lobi Stars of Makurdi managed to reach the group stage of the Champions League. Unfortunately, what Lobi Stars achieved for the country by dint of luck is about to be lost again because NPFL clubs have become serial failures.
Of course, most of us are sad that our clubs have failed to deliver on the big stage of African club football again. But like Okocha said, this is the time to tell ourselves the truth no matter whose ox is gored. Since the introduction of professional football in Nigeria in 1972 and Nigeria Professional Football League in 1990, our league has been everything but professional. There is nothing to suggest that what we witness every year is professional football.
As if those entrusted with the responsibility are bereft of ideas to develop the domestic league, we keep moving in circles. It is a pity that in Nigeria we keep doing the same thing while expecting a different result. Every year, we find the same problems which were left to spill over to the next season. However, as prayer warriors, we believe things will get better without working for it. But the Bible has taught us that prayer without deeds is dead.
So, after many postponements, the 2024 NPFL season has started with the problems that threatened the survival of the past seasons still staring us in the face. It will take the special grace of God for the season to be completed. The NPFL board may wake up one day to end the league abruptly and declare the team on top of the log as the winner. And the current holders of the Federation Cup may be declared champions as happened in the case of Kano Pillars some years ago. Anyone who will cry foul would be told to ‘go to court’. In the end, Nigeria will be poorly represented in CAF club competitions.
Well, as long as the domestic league remains unprofessional in its organisation, Nigerians like Okocha who have reached a stage that they no longer shy away from speaking their minds will continue to shun the NPFL. Believe me, only few Nigerians will consciously leave a Premiership match between Arsenal and Manchester United to go and watch a sleep-inducing fixture in the NPFL.
Apart from amateurish performances by the players, it takes the special grace of God for one to visit certain match venues in the NPFL and come out unscathed. Of course, there is a slight improvement in security but some venues are still slaughter slabs.
Therefore, if the NPFL refuses to be become truly professional, some of us will remain on the side of the legendary ‘Jay Jay’ Okocha who knows that there is a limit to patriotism. It is hypocritical to call something white when it is actually black.