For the umpteenth time, Nigeria Professional Football League (NPFL) clubs that have qualified to represent the country in the 2021-2022 CAF inter-clubs competitions, the Champions League and Confederations Cup, are going into their respective competitions before the commencement of the domestic league.
At a recent parley with sports journalists in Abuja, the Chairman of the League Management Company (LMC) Malam Shehu Dikko, said it was not possible for the league to resume before the start of the 2021-2022 CAF club competitions.
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Instead, he assured that everything was being done to ensure that the 2021/2022 NPFL season would kick-start in either October or early November. Considering when the 2021 season ended, his declaration didn’t come to many as a surprise.
After a hat-trick of inconclusive league seasons, the 2021 NPFL season, which started behind schedule, was literally rushed but all the 38 matches were played with Akwa United winning their maiden title in style.
However, the season did not end without controversy as the boardroom points awarded to Rivers United by the NFF Organizing and Disciplinary Committee completely altered the final league table to the dismay of football stakeholders.
At the end of the season, Rivers United who were completely out of continental football as far as results of the final day matches were concerned, ended up as runners up to Akwa United while Enyimba finished in third position and qualified to compete in the Confederation Cup along with Bayelsa United who won this year’s Aiteo Cup at the expense of highly favoured Nasarawa United.
Unfortunately, two of the four NPFL clubs that have picked continental tickets will start their campaign in the Champions League this weekend even as the league organizers or anyone else can’t say for sure when the 2022 season would commence.
On Sunday, September 12, Akwa United will be up against Algerian giants CR Belouizdad in the first leg of the preliminary round match at the Nest of Champions Uyo while Rivers United travel to East Africa to face Young Africa Africans on the same day.
Enyimba and Bayelsa United who are participating in the Confederation Cup will wait a little longer to start. Enyimba who were drawn bye are yet to know their opponents but Bayelsa United are pitched with AS Golden Boys for a one legged affair in Yenagoa on September 19 due to the political crisis in Mali.
As Akwa United and Rivers United get set to confront their opponents this Sunday, there is apprehension among Nigerian football stakeholders because recent experiences have shown that the NPFL clubs hardly last the distance due to late commencement of the domestic league.
It will be recalled that last season Plateau United, Enyimba, Rivers United and Kano Pillars represented Nigeria in the continent but it was only Enyimba that dropped from the Champions League to Confederation Cup managed to reach the quarter-finals.
Despite the pessimism among football followers, the four NPFL clubs have been busy in the transfer window trying to beef up their squads. For instance, the reigning champions, Akwa United recently unveiled 11 new players. The other clubs too have shored up the various departments in their teams.
However, when he spoke to Trust Sports on his team’s preparations for the Champions League debut, the Technical Adviser of Akwa United, Kennedy Boboye, didn’t hide his fears.
He said Akwa United do not have the kind of experience other teams like Enyimba, Enugu Rangers and Kano Pillars boast of, insisting he would take one match at a time.
So even as Akwa United will be propelled by 10,000 home fans as approved by the Confederation of African Football (CAF), Boboye chose to tread cautiously as he maintained cautious optimism.
“One thing we seem to forget in this country is that, if it is Enyimba or Kano Pillars, we might be asking what should be expected from them. People will expect much from them because of their experience in the competition but Akwa United will be going for the first time even though they have played in the CAF Confederations Cup in the past,” he said.
He also conceded that the delay in the NPFL kick-off will play a negative role in Akwa United’s performance. The coach reiterated that despite one month of closed camping, the desired match fitness will be lacking against the Algerians whose league has since started.
“Those that are playing competitive games have match fitness. They are in better shapes than those who will be going up against them but are yet to play competitive football. It is not going to work. Nigeria should key into the FIFA calendar as it will help everyone, since we will all start the league at almost the same time.
“Why our league has just ended, others have started the new season. By the time we start, others would have gone far so how do we compete with such teams? We will only try and pray and if God helps us, then good,” said Boboye.
Similarly, Rivers United the ‘Pride of Rivers’ as Rivers United are called have strengthened their squad with the signing of the trio of Mutiu Ogundimu, John Lazarus and Ebube Duru from Lobi Stars just as Sochima Victor joined from Heartland. The club also renewed the contracts of Sunday Adetunji and Lookmam Binuyo.
Without doubt, Rivers United are faced with an uphill task in Jangwani, Dar es Salaam on Sunday. They must do something extraordinary to beat their opponents or earn a point in the preliminary round clash.
However, considering the Nigerian club’s continental experience, it won’t be a stroll in the park for the East Africans who recently rounded off their camp in Morocco, preparatory to Sunday’s fixture.