When Nigeria’s premier league season did not kick off as scheduled, I took more than a passing interest in the organisation of the league. After two postponements, I contacted my friends and colleagues who are sportswriters, asking them hard questions on the Nigeria Professional Football League (NPFL).
Meanwhile, the second leg match between Bendel Insurance, Nigeria’s representatives in the CAF Confederation Cup and the Moroccan club, RS Berkane, was played last Friday. The Moroccans won 1 – 0 and advanced to the group stages on 3 – 2 aggregate. The first leg at the Samuel Ogbemudia Stadium ended 2 – 2 two weeks ago. Bendel Insurance – the Edo Arsenal – has been eliminated from the competition.
According to a report by Nurudeen Obablola in Naija Times, Nigeria’s premier league champion, Enyimba and runners-up Remo Stars, had earlier been eliminated from the CAF Champions League in the first qualifying round.
The only Nigerian club left in the continental competition this season – also in the Confederation Cup – is Rivers United. Hopefully, the Port Harcourt-based club will progress to the group stages by beating Burkina Faso’s Etoile Filante at the Adokiye Amiesimaka Stadium in the second leg of their final qualifying tie. The first leg played at the Municipal Stadium in Yamoussoukro, Côte d’Ivoire, ended 0 – 0.
These results provided additional context to interrogate the status and quality of our domestic football which is completely broken – that was not surprising – and characterised by greed, bad faith, dishonesty, intrigues, thuggery, blackmail, back-stabbing and subterfuge.
How can it be explained that referees and players are being owed for more than three years? What kind of league is that? It has been widely reported that referees and club administrators fix matches – a criminal act that reinforces our culture of dishonesty.
The NPFL models its league after what we have in mainland Europe with regular football seasons and fixtures. On the face of it, it is not a bad idea. Football fans in Nigeria and other places feast their eyes on these leagues and other competitions every week. La Liga in Spain; Serie A in Italy; Bundesliga in Germany and the English Premier League (EPL) are some of the elite leagues in the world.
Most Nigerian fans run commentaries of their own on these leagues, especially the EPL, where they are able to memorise the names of teams, players and managers. If you wake these fans up in their sleep, they will reel out these names without breaking any sweat.
These leagues are well-structured, efficient, productive and commercially viable. Ask the experts, they will tell you that football is big business but because personal ambitions have been prioritised over a sense of higher purpose, our local league has refused to grow.
The leagues in mainland Europe run from August to May whereas in the Scandinavian countries (Norway, Denmark, Finland and Iceland), their leagues run from March to November because of the cold weather; these countries are practically snowed under during the other months of the year.
Every effort – in as many seasons as we can remember – to elevate and brand the league through a marketing programme that would attract sponsorship is often resisted by a tiny cabal for their selfish interests. They are not interested in the progress and development of the game, and this is precisely why the league is unable to attract sustainable sponsorship.
The League Management Company (LMC) that used to manage the professional football league was scrapped last year on the orders of the federal government because a court of competent jurisdiction declared LMC an illegal body.
“To avert further chaos in our domestic football,” Ismaila Abubakar, permanent secretary of the Ministry of Youth and Sports, wrote in a press statement in September 2022, “the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) is hereby advised to withdraw the licence given to LMC, and in the meantime, set up an Interim Management Committee (IMC) to include the current Chief Executive Officer and Chief Operating Officer of the LMC to oversee the affairs of the league until a professional league board is constituted in accordance with the statues of the NFF.”
LMC’s office in Maitama, Abuja, was sealed off.
But LMC tried to fight back, claiming in a response to the press statement that it was a “legal” body that was fit and proper to manage the league. The LMC was a successor-in-title to the Nigeria Premier League Limited and it was alleged at the time that NFF set up LMC to “avoid and evade existing debts and other obligations owed by the organisation it succeeded.”
Prior to the scrapping of the LMC which was first headed by Nduka Irabor and subsequently by Shehu Dikko, the organisation secured a N5.1 billion ($34 million) deal with the South African broadcast company, DSTV, through its sports channel, SuperSports, to beam “match-of-the-week” live. The deal was for an initial period of four years (2015 – 2019).
After one season, DSTV pulled out of the contract due to “irreconcilable differences.” I would say no more on what actually transpired based on credible information from insiders, but it was the league, football fans and the clubs that were the biggest losers.
Another issue was that the league could not keep to a proper schedule of matches while the season’s calendar of fixtures was scrappy and unreliable. I am aware that live coverage of the league by DSTV requires a production plan that cannot be aborted at anyone’s whim. Usually, the crew would have arrived at match venues well ahead of the game.
At short notices, league matches were either postponed or the teams never showed up. For example, in the game between Akwa United and Warri Wolves in Warri, Delta State, in the 2015-2016 season that was being beamed live by SuperSports, Warri Wolves did not turn up for the second half, alleging intimidation from the visiting side during the interval.
The IMC eventually berthed the NPFL Board which is headed by Hon. Gbenga Elegbeleye as Chairman. But what has changed between then and now? From the time that Bolaji Abdullahi was sports minister to Sunday Dare’s tenure, there have been attempts to raise the level of the game, but each outcome has been more of motion without movement.
When I spoke to Hon Elegbeleye, he said most “stakeholders” in the football system do not cooperate with the league management for selfish reasons. “In spite of our best efforts, we are blackmailed regularly by bad characters who do not want the progress of Nigerian football,” he told me in a frustrating voice.
“A lot of people want to cut corners, and they will fight you if you are doing the right thing by blackmailing and maligning your name. As chairman of the professional football league board, my name is at stake and I will do everything to protect it. I am happy to serve and I do not have any regrets. My colleagues and I will never succumb to blackmail.
“But we also have good people around us. When the former sports minister, Sunday Dare, asked me to chair the professional league board, I declined the offer but he insisted.
“Eventually, I accepted the offer and once I take up any assignment, I serve to the best of my ability in a transparent manner. We have challenges, including finding sponsors for the league, but they are not irredeemable.”
However, in what appeared to be a new lease of life with fresh opportunities for the league, there was a pre-season tournament boost from Dozy Mmobosi Foundation last December to showcase the top four teams. The Foundation paid N140m to NPFL. Enyimba, 3SC, Rangers and Bendel Insurance received N10m each to participate in the pre-season matches while the winner, 3SC, was paid N100m.
Elegbeleye praised Alhaji Ibrahim Gusau, the President of NFF. “Without Gusau’s total support, the league would have been a tough nut to crack. The NPFL Board appreciates his commitment and dedication.”
The new season (2022-2023) began in January this year but due to the missed period from August to December, an abridged version of the league was adopted. The abridged league is when the league is shortened. Instead of the regular nine months from August to May, NPFL ran the league from January to July.
The 20 teams in the league – 17 clubs are owned by state governments while three (Sporting Lagos, Remo Stars and Doma United) are privately owned – did not play each other on a home-and-away basis, totaling 38 match days. The abridged format divided the teams into two groups of 10 teams each. The 10 teams in each group played each other on a home-and-away basis, and the top three teams from each group qualified for the championship play-offs.
The six teams in the play-offs played a mini-league in Lagos, and the team with the most points after five rounds of matches, won the title. Enyimba were the champions and received N100 million as cash prize. Remo Stars finished second and Rivers United clinched the third position.
Although Elegbeleye told me NPFL does not have any issue with club owners/administrators, there are disagreements over the sticky matter of full disclosure of all revenues coming from GTI and details of the streaming deal with Propel Sports Africa. The league which kicked off on September 30 will be streamed live via android mobile phones, and it is being sponsored by MTN, the telecoms giant. Clearly, the streaming service will enhance the visibility and engagement of the league, and it will be a new and exciting experience for football fans across the country.
GTI is an asset and investment management company, and they are the corporate partners of NPFL. Their brief is to act as an intermediary financing warehouse for the league, and to look out for sponsors jointly with NPFL.
As an intervention agency which offered to support the league, GTI will take 10 percent (brokerage fee) of all revenues, according to the NPFL chairman. It was GTI that paid N10 million to each of the 20 teams (that’s N200 million) in the league last season, and the N100 million paid to Enyimba for winning the league.
In addition, GTI cleared the backlog of over N300 million of referees’ wages. GTI will repeat this largesse in the new season (2023-2024) with each club being paid N10 million while the league champions will receive N150 million at the end of the season.
Clearly, GTI cannot be a Father Christmas, splashing millions of Naira on the league continuously. What’s their special interest? How do they hope to recover their investment? These are the questions being asked by some stakeholders and they are demanding answers.
All the 20 clubs, according to my sources, had a meeting and insisted that the NPFL Board should inform the clubs details of the streaming deal with Propel Sports Africa, including the revenue chart and how much each club will receive. They also want to know the nature of the relationship that exists between GTI and NPFL, otherwise they won’t start the league. This disagreement delayed the kick-off date of the league season.
As at the time of writing, the club owners, after several meetings, are still awaiting confirmation on the revenue inflows of the league, but they have been told that the new season – which is three weeks behind schedule – will go on regardless. Elegbeleye said that the league was also delayed for another two weeks because Propel Sports Africa had to sort out the configuration required to stream the league matches on the appropriate tech backbone.
In the absence of DSTV, a star match is being taken live weekly by NTA for N5 million. It is looking like there would be additional revenue for NPFL if the broadcast rights deal goes through with Star Times TV.
Elegbeleye does not agree that the league’s revenues are shrouded in mystery. He complained that there are petitions by some people claiming that they own broadcast rights to the league. These petitions are aimed at stopping MTN’s deal with Propel Sports.
From all indications, the league has exciting prospects, but most of the bottlenecks have to be removed by NPFL with the support of NFF. As an icing on the cake, the best 11 players in the league will form a team that would play friendly matches in Spain next year. They will be supported by five reserve players.
Another good news is that referees will receive a 30 percent increase in their emoluments this season as additional incentive but they must constantly uphold the integrity of the game. Referees should learn to say no to bribery and corruption and match fixing.
These acts of extreme perfidy tarnish the image of their profession.
-Braimah is a global public relations and marketing strategist. He is also the publisher/editor-in-chief of Naija Times (https://ntm.ng) and Lagos Post (https://lagospost.ng), and can be reached via email@example.com.