Verily, Nigerian football needs salvation and that’s an opinion held by many. As I write today, I feel rather despondent that the ranking of our national team is still stuck somewhere in the mid-thirties, according to the pecking order of the international governing body of association football, Federation Internationale de Football Association, (FIFA). Not bad you might say, considering the fact that over 200 countries are so ranked and we are so far ahead of our closest neighbours that are so dismally rated: Chad is no 180, Niger 121 and Cameroun 54. And if you might not mind stifling a chuckle, our perennial rival on this coast, Ghana, is no 52.
But when you learn that we once were holding our heads high and rubbing shoulders with great footballing nations of the world, Brazil, Argentina, Italy and were even ranked 5th in the world in 1994, then you would admit that today’s position in the mid-thirties is indeed a let-down. To rub salt into the injury, in the FIFA Africa ranking, we hold the 5th position while our small African neighbour, Senegal, leads in the 1st position. Other countries such as Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria all precede us.
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But that’s not all. Our national team over the years had consistently never gone beyond a certain stage in the most important universal competition, the World Cup. In 1994 we tantalizingly went as far as the group of 16 but fell off. We went back to that group stage twice but have not been able to get around to the quarter finals. Cameroun had been there. It is only in the continental competition that our national team has stamped our presence by showing prowess and picking the Nation Cup thrice. However, since 2013 in South Africa where against all odds we picked the cup for the third time, it has been downhill going for our national team. Since then we have even failed twice to qualify for the competition. Even now, in the group, stage our performance is rather uneven. We might recall the disgrace the team suffered when an unfancied Central African Republic team came to Nigeria and gave us a good drubbing. It is no consolation that we beat them in the return match in Cameroun.
The national team should be a reflection of the home league but it is not, due perhaps to the fact that all the best players are out of the country playing their hearts out in other countries’ leagues. It is perhaps in the home league that the deterioration and stagnation of our footballing ability is manifest. From the highs of the eighties and nineties when our home leagues were the talk of weekends and were well known to all who cared about football, to the present, where you hardly recognise which team is which.
I once cared passionately about the home league, listening to live commentaries of matches over the radio, as television was a rarity then, and sometimes paying to watch the matches in the stadiums. I recall being part of the crowd in the National Stadium, Surulere, Lagos, in 1976 as a young NYSC member to watch the FA finals, in which Alyufsalam Rocks of Ilorin lost 2-0 to Enugu Rangers. Even earlier than that, I recall the epic encounter in the FA finals of 1972 between Bendel Insurance and Mighty Jets of Jos. I was a young undergraduate in ABU Zaria then and could remember how the whole campus was thrilled by the match and wherever you went that evening, you found students grouped around a radio set listening to the live commentaries. The match ended 2-2, but in the rematch a week later, Mighty Jets, which I passionately supported, sadly lost 2-3. Now, hardly anyone cares to go to the stadium to watch home league matches and I can’t remember when I last watched a home league match on TV. I doubt it if any of our league teams can fill its stadium to capacity these days. Or can any team attract any moneyed advertiser these days?
The fact is that the teams in the home leagues need an infusion of serious funds to upgrade to the next level, to attract and retain talented players and coaches and have sufficient extra to maintain their stadiums. It is only in this way they can attract advertisers whose funds will help to keep them going. Football today has become a very expensive game and amassing sufficient funds is the first in the ground rules of survival and hoisting up. We have seen what infusion of funds has done to European football, particularly the Premier League of the UK in the last 20 years. It translated into attracting the very best players and coaches in the world, having the most watched matches in the world, and the best TV ratings as well. We have lately seen what the Saudi Arabian £300 million investment has done to Newcastle United FC. The whole coal city was agog with excitement for days. The same kind of magic wand touched Manchester City FC and Leicester City FC not so long ago to propel them to what they are today.
The Minister of Sports and the President Nigerian Football Association will leave a lasting legacy if they would work together to attract such Midas touches to our ailing home league.