Nigeria’s Nation-Wide League One (NLO) is the third division amateur league that opens its doors widely to a plethora of budding football players at the grassroots level. In this exclusive interview with Trust Sports, the Chief Operating Officer of NLO, Mr. Shola Ogunnowo, explained why the NLO is the hub of football business in Nigeria, plans to kick-start the 2022/2023 season and revive the partnership with the Spanish Laliga. The astute football administrator also spoke on plans to start an U-19 youth League and curb the excesses of unruly fans at NLO match venues.
As the Chief Operating Officer (COO) of the NLO, how far have you gone with preparations for the kick-off of the new season?
As a normal ritual in the NLO, before the commencement of the season, we do stadium inspection. We try to do some sort of workshops or seminars for clubs. Last year, we did for coaches, this year we are taking a holistic look at some of the anomalies in our grassroots league and see how we can control or eliminate them. We want to tame hooliganism at match venues. Those who are engaged in this are the so called supporters’ clubs. So, we will try as much as possible to organise a seminar for the supporters’ clubs, like an orientation for them to let them know the right things. They must be made to understand that they are not supporting the clubs to cause mayhem. Rather, they are supporting to create a brand and good name for the club. We cannot over-concentrate on coaches’ and administrators’ training without looking at other sensitive areas.
But when exactly is the league going to start?
We are waiting for the forthcoming elections to be held. So, after the elections, we would start our league in April. The reason is that we don’t want our players to be used by unscrupulous politicians during the election period. Therefore, once elections are over, we would start the league. By the grace of God, we would finish by September and it is good for us because European leagues would end around May/June so they will be able to scout for players in our league. So, these are the ways we have strategically positioned our schedules to meet up with the tasks of the year in Nigeria football.
Is it true that NLO is also planning to organise a Youth Football League?
Yes, we are putting everything together to start the first ever Youth League in the country. It is going to be for truly U-19 players. We discovered that football is not growing in this country so we decided to organise a dedicated league for young lads to showcase themselves, so that professional clubs can see them and pick them up. We know it is going to be a big task for us but that is what we are going to do. Interestingly, the NFF has given us the go ahead and we must be strict, if we are doing it because we need the data of every upcoming player in the country.
What would you say is the impact of NLO on football development in Nigeria?
I must tell you, NLO is the only league that should be given adequate attention. Look at almost all the players playing for the national team- Super Eagles, U-23 and U-20. Most of them only played for clubs in the NLO before jetting out of the country. The likes of John Mikel Obi, Kelechi Ihenancho, Victor Oshimen, Taiwo Awoniyi and a host of others did not play in the NPFL. They only played amateur league- NLO and that is the huge impact that nobody can deny. This tells the complete story of the huge impact the NLO has on Nigeria football ecosystem. Undoubtedly, NLO is the hub of football business in this country.
What is the present position of NLO’s partnership with the Spanish Laliga?
In 2015, we had an agreement with Laliga. We were the first to bring them into the country but they asked us to give them time to establish a relationship with the NPFL. Having seen what they have done so far with the NPFL, we had a meeting with them early this year and they assured us that they will be working with us. So, we are working to strengthen the relationship that is going to be mutually beneficial. We are going to revive it because they know exactly what they can benefit from. The NLO is too big to focus on only one area. We are planning to go into partnership with other elite football leagues around the world. This is because the volume of young lads playing football in Nigeria is huge and can be compared to the population of some countries. By the grace of God, we will ensure that we do the right things.
Last year Madiba FC were crowned champions of the NLO. Apart from the trophy what other benefits did they enjoy?
Madiba were worthy champions because they didn’t lose a single match throughout the season. They were unbeaten even in the Super 8. Presently, Madiba have two of their outstanding players in the present National U-20 men’s team, the Flying Eagles. So, it was a very big exposure for the team because we invited the national team coaches to watch the Super 8. It has definitely raised the profile of Madiba FC. They can boldly approach anybody for support or partnership because of what they are doing. And the club’s relationship with the Nigerian Police Force is cordial and rewarding. The leadership of the Nigerian Police recently wrote to appreciate us for giving the club the opportunity to play because some of the players live in the Police barrack in Ikeja. Some of the players are children of top police officers and they are seeing the benefit of the NLO. So, by the grace of God, Madiba FC will get more support now that they will be playing in the National Nigeria League (NNL).
How successful is the management of the NLO in its sponsorship drive?
Although NLO is still struggling to get corporate sponsors, we are not relenting. We are hoping that before we kick-start the new season in April, we would have got the final nod of those we are talking to. We are not going to give up. Like I said, we are talking to a lot of people. We have shown them our brand, they acknowledged everything but the economic situation in the country is holding them back but we just pray that one or two companies will be bold enough to come and partner with us.