Any hope for a hitch-free 2022 football season in Nigeria is fast disappearing following the raging crisis that has ensued over the recent decision by the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) to ‘secretly’ nominate Kwara United as the country’s second representative in this year’s CAF Confederation Cup.
At the conclusion of the 2021/2022 Nigeria Professional Football League (NPFL) season, Rivers United and Plateau United picked the two tickets to represent Nigeria in the CAF Champions League while Remo Stars who finished in third position settled for a place in the Confederation Cup.
Based on their rankings, it is permissible for Member Associations to field four continental representatives in CAF’s interclub competitions so football federations usually reserve the last Confederation Cup ticket for winners of the FA Cup.
Interestingly, based on her improved ranking, Nigeria is also among countries that are eligible to feature four clubs in the CAF elite competitions.
In Nigeria, the last club that won the Aiteo Cup and qualified to represent the country in the continent was Bayelsa United who were bundled out of the competition in the preliminary round.
However, this year’s edition of the oldest club competition in the country which is the 75th edition has been thrown into confusion after clubs discovered that the NFF had already registered Kwara United for the 2023 CAF Confederation Cup.
Amidst the hullabaloo and ballyhoo, the football federation offered explanations. According to the NFF, CAF had drawn a line against all nations that did not finish their competition by July 31, including Egypt. The NFF explained further that for the first time, CAF refused to offer the anticipated two weeks’ extension to allow nations to finish their competitions.
Based on CAF directives, the highest-ranked team from a domestic league that has concluded or has a ranking arrangement that has not yet qualified for a CAF competition may be submitted by a federation, or the previous Cup Winners may be submitted, if the competition has been canceled or has not yet begun.
So, in the case of Nigeria, there were only two alternatives available to the NFF which was to either cancel the 2022 Aiteo Cup and nominate Bayelsa United as Cup holders, or nominate the highest-ranked side in the league that was not qualified for a CAF competition. The NFF decided to go with option two by picking Kwara United.
The decision, however, didn’t go down well with other participating clubs, especially those in the NPFL who had hoped to use the competition to play continental football.
Consequently, on Monday, August 8, the chairman of NPFL Club Owners, Isaac Danladi expressed displeasure over the manner in which the NFF submitted the name of Kwara United to CAF without the knowledge of the clubs, describing the Amaju Pinnick led board as being ‘insensitive’.
“In as much as we are not against the nomination of kwara United FC, we however express our displeasure over the nomination because the slot is designed for the winner of the Aiteo Cup,” Danladi, wrote in the statement.
“Again, if such a decision was to be taken, clubs needed to be informed earlier to avoid a waste of resources and energy playing the Aiteo Cup.”
In view of the above, quarter-final matches scheduled for Wednesday, August 10 didn’t see the light of the day as the aggrieved clubs had left the match venues.
According to the fixtures, Lobi Stars were to slug it out with Niger Tornadoes in Jos, Pillars against Kogi United in Makurdi, Wikki Tourists were to square up with Nasarawa United in Kaduna while the last quarter-final match between Heartland and Katsina United was scheduled to be held Ilorin.
However, a new twist in the saga unfolded on Thursday, August 11 when the Director of Communications in the NFF, Ademola Olajire, issued a press statement to announce that semi-finalists had emerged in the 2022 Aiteo Cup.
According to the statement, Niger Tornadoes had walked over Lobi Stars in Jos, Kogi United also walked over Kano Pillars this time in Abuja while Wikki Tourists and Nasarawa United failed to show up in Kaduna.
Consequently, Heartland who defeated Katsina United 4-2 on penalties in Ilorin on Thursday will battle Tornadoes in the first semi-finals in Ibadan on Sunday, August 14 while Kogi United who were to play the winner between Nasarawa United and Wikki Tourists automatically qualify for the final slated for Wednesday, August 17 in Yenagoa.
Asked why his team’s quarterfinal match with Heartland was played in Ilorin, captain of Katsina United, Usman Bara’u told Trust Sports that they played because there was no official communication from the NFF.
“We heard about the issue of Kwara United but our bosses here said we should go ahead with our fixture with Heartland in Ilorin. In fact, we met Heartland ready for the game.
“Our management said since there is no official letter from the NFF, all other news is rumour. So that is why we played our game even though we lost,” he said.
Other football stakeholders who spoke to Trust Sports expressed shock and disappointment in the NFF’s handling of the situation.
The Technical Adviser of Rangers of Enugu, Coach Abdul Maikaba, said it was unfair for the clubs to be ignored after they spent huge funds travelling round the country.
The former Kano Pillars, Akwa United and Plateau United coach also urged the NFF to find ways of factoring in the competition into the regular season.
“The clubs have wasted a lot of money going round to play in the Aiteo Cup for that one position not knowing that the NFF had submitted the name of the team that will represent Nigeria.
“It is not good for the game. The clubs should have been called to decide on the way forward and not just send the name.
“And as teams are playing league games, time should be allocated for the Aiteo Cup so that all competitions will end simultaneously,” he advised.
Assistant coach in Plateau United, Tunde Adedara also toed the line of Maikaba while urging the NFF to align cup competitions with the regular season.
“I have nothing against Kwara United but the other clubs should have been carried along. We start things too late in this country and that is what affected the organisation of the Aiteo Cup.
“Nothing stops us from playing this competition during the season as it’s done in Europe. I hope we will get it right going forward,” he said.
Similarly, Nasarawa United player, Adamu Hassan, said the team was demoralised when the news broke that NFF had already settled for Kwara United
“We were on our way to Kaduna when we saw the news on our phones. We thought it was a joke until it turned out to be true. Remember, we lost last year’s finals and we were determined to make amends this year especially as we weren’t in the top four last season.
”The decision is painful but as players, there is nothing we can do about it. We just urge our administrators to find solutions to these problems,” he stated.
Meanwhile, the sports ministry has expressed dissatisfaction over the football crisis generated by the Aiteo/FA Cup imbroglio, as well as degradation of domestic league football in the country, due to inconsistent calendaring and other attendant problems.
The Ministry in a statement said “It is unacceptable that teams were treated against the rules but according to other considerations not in the rule books. Our league has never sunk this low.
“Several times, through writing and verbal discussions, the Ministry has brought this to the attention of NFF and persons in charge of the Domestic league.
“Unfortunately, things are getting bad, instead of getting better. The Federal Government will be left with no choice than to act to save the crumbling system in place and bring about desired changes.”