Foreign football leagues and their Nigerian fans

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The Nigerian football league for sometime has been recording a very low patronage as local fans prefer to patronise viewing centres to follow the European brand. Stakeholders, including politicians at the upper chamber of the Nigeria’s legislature, feel they can help out. Dipo Ogunsola traces the causes and consequences of the multi-faceted factors affecting the game so much loved in the country.

IN the 1970’s national television service brought foreign football to the homefront of Nigerians as a means of entertainment, cultural exchange and globalisation.

A popular German network, Transtel, sponsored telecast of German Bundesliga and names like Harold Schummacher, Karl Heinz Rummenigge, Gerd and Anzi Muller, Klaus Fischer rang bells in the ears of Nigerians who are football-loving.

From Brazilian channels, Nigerians followed the exploit of Socrates, Zico, Serginho and Junior with their respective teams and games played at the legendary Maracana Stadium between traditional teams like Santos and Fluminense dominated discussion days after they were concluded.

From England came phenomena like Steve Bruce, Chris Waddle, Kenny Dalglish, Pat Jennings, John Barnes and Glen Hoddle.

In those days, it was common for Nigerian kids to adopt nicknames like KK’ after the England forward of Hamburg, Kevin Keegan, Socrates, the former Brazilian captain and Allan Ball.

To satisfy the yearnings of the Nigerian public, football administrators invited Brazilian teams, Fluminense, parading the exciting trio, Zeze, Marinho, Pitinho, one-time English champion, Brighton and Radniski from the former Yugoslavia to the country so that the fans could see or meet live heroes they saw on television.

Despite this affection for the foreign league, Nigerians then had a special place for their own football heroes.

The image of the Nigerian players like Segun Odegbami, Christian Chukwu, the late Haruna Ilerika, the late Muda Lawal loomed larger than those of the foreigners.

A Shooting Stars versus Rangers match or Raccah Rovers versus Bendel Insurance game was a sellout.

Players like Chukwu, the late Alloy Atuegbu, Emmanuel Okala of Rangers drew mammoth crowd when pitted against Odegbami, Lawal, Moses Otolorin, Phillip Boamah, Sam Ojebode and Nat Adewole of the Shooting Stars.

Blessed are those who witnessed this era, they are nostalgic when those days are recalled.

The situation is no longer the same. The ecstatic chant ‘Flaming’ the nickname of the  boisterous Lagos City team, Stationery Stores of Lagos has given way to ‘Up Blues’, Barca for ever in honour of Chelsea of England and FC Barcelona of Spain.

The advent of Digital Satelittes Television (DStv)  has won over many Nigerian fans and has kept them out of the stadium to the detriment of spectatorship at Nigerian League venues.

‘’I am not a big fan of European football but I prefer going to the viewing centres  to watching our local league games,’’ said Lanre Williams, a fitness specialist.

“We don’t get to see the better teams winning Nigerian league games because the outcome of the game is been mostly predetermined. There are too many ‘win-at all cost’ home games in Nigeria.”

Lawrence Ayoola, who runs a viewing centre, observes that the exploits of George Finidi and Nwankwo Kanu in the 1995 UEFA Champions League with Ajax Amsterdam, sharpened Nigeria’s appetite for the foreign stuff.

“This batch of fans also followed Kanu to Arsenal and you will agree with me that the Gunners commanded a lot of following in the country between 1999 and 2002.’’

Today, the devotion to foreign football has taken an unexpected course as overzealousness, fanaticism and fatalities reach a rampant dimension.

The question often asked is why do most Nigerian youths climb on the bandwagon when matches across Nigerian League venues suffer lack of patronage?.

“I am a fan of Sharks of Port Harcourt and Arsenal of England,’’ says former Nigeria international, Idah Peterside.

“If the timing of the games of these two teams clash, I have to consider economic implication.The amount of money I will spend to watch Sharks will be enough to watch three English Premiership games the same day.’’

Mamadou Geye, Ivorien sports journalist, believes that African leagues are poorly marketted.

“A Mamelodi Sundown game will always attract fans because the Premier Soccer League has branded and marketted their games so well. No top class foreign fixture could keep fans of Kaizer Chiefs, Orlando Pirates and Mamelodi Sundowns at home,’’ he explained.

Most of Nigeria’s finest players are abroad and those at home are discouraged by inadequate motivation by club owners.

Also, players in the League are owed backlog of salaries and bonuses which adversely affect their performance on the pitch.

Most of the top football clubs are financed by state governments and in such cases, release of funds does not enjoy the promptitude it deserves.

Then, there is problem of title sponsorship.

The Nigerian League is without a sponsor and Deputy Chairman, House Committee on Sports, Abdulahi Ningi, feels there will soon be an end to this problem.

He affirmed that the days of national sentiment are over as the sponsorship deal will be given to the highest bidder.

In November last year, a foreign communication firm offered  the Nigerian Premier League the sum of $17million to brand the league, but the deal failed to see the light of the day because an indigenous rival company, even with a lesser package, was in contention.

“Football is a business and any firm regardless of its roots will be protected by Nigerian legislation provided it brings the right money,’’ Ningi explained.

“It is a clear message and no one can intimidate us; if we get a foreign company that brings the money and the offer is right, we will protect them. Football is a business and we don’t care if it is a Nigerian or Korean that is bringing the money. Anyone that wants to sponsor our league should show commitment by action,” Ningi added.

Granted Ningi and his men succeed in convincing investors for the Nigerian league, the lawmakers should be poised for the likely cold war in the disbursement of hand-outs.

There had been a time when each club gained N10m from sponsorship fees  at the end of the season, but it was later revealed that the NPL used N50m as expenses for running the League.

Certain club owners grumbled over this but their agitation was watered down by the  sentiment expressed in the saying ‘’half a loaf is better than none.”

Apart from title sponsorship, clubs also need aggressive drive for branding to augment whatever they receive from their owning governments.

Kit manufacturers like Spanish outfit, Joma, Dutch designer, Masita Sportswear B.V, indigenous Owu, Cone sponsor some of the NPL clubs.

Tribunesports gathered that what some of these outfits offered clubs are nothing to write home about, but the clubs are encouraged to carry on so as not to ‘’despise the days of small beginnings.’’

For Peterside, the publicity campaign by the NPL is not enough to take the crowd back to the stadium.

“In Warri Township stadium, when I was playing for NNPC and later Delta Steel Company, Aladja, we had billboards and town criers announcing upcoming games.On a Saturday, we had about 15,000 fans packed in a small stadium.It was indeed a lively scene to play football.’’

Technical Director of Dolphins FC of Port Harcourt, Zakari Baraje says Nigeria must revive the tradition of local rivalry in order to renew interest in the League.

‘’In those days, Jos fans trooped out to see Mighty Jets versus Plateau United, Ibadan fans liked to see Water Corporation and Shooting Stars, Bendel Insurance versus Bendel United was a war in Benin, it was a tough one when the BCC Lions of Gboko faced Hawks of Makurdi and in the East, there were heavy fans as Rangers tackled Vasco Da Gama in Enugu.’’

Baraje explained that this is no longer the case as petty jealousy had come to displace what was known as healthy rivalry among clubs in the neighbourhood.

Winning coach of the 1995 League title, Godfrey Esu called for a collaborative programme for all stakeholders of the game in the country.

‘’We need a workshop for coaches, players, referees, administrators  and the media on how to make the League attractive again. We are the ones who watched the old, glamorous amateur system, we should be able to suggest way forward.’’

Esu further explained that the NPL had to look into the issue of fixture congestion and devise a means of producing fixtures which would be comfortable for stadium attendance.

Technical Adviser, Kaduna United, Dahiru Sadi, disagrees that the fans are no longer coming to the stadium.

‘’If Kano Pillars were to face Kaduna United and Real Madrid were to play against Barcelona same day, I bet it Northern-based fans will watch the Pillars-Kaduna United game. I understand that there are some match venues especially in the South West part of the country where we have sparse attendance but that cannot be said of the situation in the entire country.’’

Sadi called on clubs to make the league attractive by luring Nigerian players back home after spells in Europe.

He cited the instance of South African Bennie McCarthy who has returned to Orlando Pirates after adventures in the Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese and English Premier Leagues.


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