The year is 2000, The title heads to Lagos. New Millennium, same juggernaut. Peter Ijeh, formerly of NITEL had done the number, scoring 14 League Goals for Julius Berger, now Bridge FC confirming a second title in nine years.
In the regular season, Berger had finished third, two points behind Katsina United who finished top, one point behind defending champions Lobi Stars, and ahead of fourth-placed Plateau United. They had somewhat snuck in, with Wikki Tourists firmly placed ahead of them going into the final game. A narrow victory over Plateau United, already guaranteed a Super Four place would seal the ticket, with Wikki handed their backsides in Jigawa.
At the Super Four, they showed mastery, triumphing ultimately through Ambrose Duru’s late winner against Katsina United who were on course for the crown till that moment. Experience and a Winning Mentality shining brightest. Of that final lineup, they were the most experienced. It would ultimately be a fading away for the private clubs. A year on, Julius Berger would sack fifteen players after a poor outing in the CAF Champions League. Ocean Boys of Brass are the only private team to have won the Nigerian professional Football League since. MFM FC are the closest to challenge for the title after that falling under the sword of Plateau United in an electric title race. It is a stark contrast to what held prior.
Mighty Jets, privately established, were the first winners of the Nigerian Football League. Racca Rovers, Iwuanyanwu Nationale, Udoji United, New Nigeria Bank, BCC Lions, Stationery Stores, Eagle Cement, IICC Shooting Stars, and Leventis United, as well as Julius Berger, would subsequently sit on the throne as Nigeria’s kings, the ignominy that has followed is worrisome.
According to Football documentarian, and historian, Calvin Onwuka, the emergence of private clubs had its origins in company financing, “NEPA started out as ECN who were the forerunners of the organization. WNDC was the Western Nigeria Development Company that was later changed to the Industrial Investment Credit Corporation more popularly known as IICC Shooting Stars.”
However, as soon as these clubs become successful, they were absorbed by state governments. Onwuka believes this was partly due to the heavy influence of the Military rule on Nigerian football then. For the new generation, it is surprising that a club like Shooting Stars was once private. History in Nigeria is no sacred commodity. The Oluyole Warriors are a dysfunctional entity, overawed by the glories of its past, seeking refuge in it. They reside in Nigeria’s second division dogged by nepotism, infighting and gripped with desperation to return to the top flight. Lekan Salami and Alhaji Elekuru “Baba Eleran” will be rolling in their graves.
For those alive, it’s not much better, Chief Dr. Emmanuel Iwuanyanwu, the chief financier of that successful Iwuanyanwu Nationale, recently was called out by employees over welfare matters. The show of shame the mogul experienced is similar to the one currently at Heartland FC, the new iteration of the club he bankrolled. Fascinated by Nationale’s success, the Imo State government’s acquisition initially brought sustained success, culminating in a CAF Confederations Cup silver medal in 2009. However, the wheels have come off since. Relegation and return to the top flight have followed, with six months allowances being owed as the state tries to fish out ghost workers.
The Filipino-owned Eagle Cement has undergone a transformation since its title triumph in 1997. Six titles have arrived in the kitty since the first of two-name changes. The name Dolphins bringing more success. In 2016, it became Rivers United whose title assault is now on pause. The success quite moderate upon the unification of the two sides based in Rivers State. The name changed, the manager Stanley Eguma didn’t. He is currently the longest-serving gaffer in the league. A behemoth. It is downhill from here.
BCC Lions of Gboko, a product of the Benue Cement Company, dominated the pitches, clinching 6 titles at the peak of their powers, gifting Nigeria its saviour, Shuaibu Amodu, who led the Eagles to two Mundials, Idah Peterside, Moses Kpakpor, and Wilfried Agbonavbre. They are all but extinct at this moment. Aliko Dangote is the chairman of the Benue Cement Company, his arrival only bringing false hopes despite an early cash injection.
The New Nigeria Bank of Benin between 1983 and 1987 were the team to beat in Nigeria winning the league and back to back WAFU Cup trophies providing the nucleus of the National team during in this period. They would appear in the 1986 African Champions’ Cup where they fell to eventual runners up, Africa Sports of Cote d’Ivoire. Wilfred Agbonavbare, Stephen Keshi, Henry Nwosu, Humphrey Edobor, Sunday Eboigbe, and Augustine Igbinabaro were but a few. They became defunct upon relegation in 1989.
The success of the national team during the 1980 AFCON had driven more interest in the local game and inspired Leventis United founded in 1982 as an amalgam of clubs from Oyo State, backed by the Royal Nigeria Carpet company. Their ascent would be rapid, winning the FA Cup and third division in 1984, they’d conquer the top two tiers at the first time of asking in “85 and “86, sandwiching a run to the Arica Cup Winners Cup Final. It would prove the peak. Their descent as swift as their ascent, not even the Midas touch of John Mastoroudes could stop it. Ultimately, the land had become unbearable for Leventis.
The prayer of any farmer is arability, a subsequent lack of it will see him count his losses. That’s an easier route. A farmer knows that when he plants corn, he’d harvest likewise and not otherwise. Whether the analogy holds water is debatable. Onwuka however believes the real challenge that faced those clubs and still continues to plague Nigerian clubs is that football as a business rarely profits in the country, “The Banks and the likes of Leventis filed their clubs under CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility). There is only so much you can truthfully and financially spend under CSR. Football clubs can’t and should never be run under CSR.”
The Late Chief MKO Abiola’s ownership of Concord and Abiola Babes was a sole proprietorship and the perceived holy grail. However, Nigeria’s “president that never was” had challenges, it phased him out of the game soon enough. His investment was not yielding enough returns. In a tete-a-tete with the Mathematical Segun Odegbami in the 90s, he describes his experience following his “Abiola Babes” across the continent and the hazards that come with it, while proffering solutions to CAF. Most worrying for him was the financial implication and risk in the adverse conditions created by man and nature, Hard to see beyond his choice of rationality. No one in their right minds would fill a basket with water.
It was however not why Chief Patrick Osakwe jumped at the opportunity to cut ties with Flash Flamingoes. He’d bought them to rescue them from the shadows of Bendel’s two shining lights, Bendel Insurance and NNB. They’d achieve promotion at the first time of asking but the romance ended within three years, with Osakwe seemingly disinterested, Bendel State governor Tunde Ogbeha’s purchase a relief as they became rechristened Bendel United. The allusion to Osakwe’s disinterest being the failure to clinch trophies.
The questions as to whether he named his team “Flamingoes” after Stationery Stores remains somewhat debatable, but the club Israel Adebajo founded was almost unrecognizable at the turn of the century. A team that was the darling of all and the epitome of Nigerian club football was at its lowest ebb. Baby steps are only just being taken to restore her to its former glories. The rise of Stores could be yet significant in the story of Nigerian League football.
However, when the tunnel is hollow and dark, you doubt if there really is light at its end. Onwuka believes there is, but it would be a long-drawn process, the Nigerian economy as presently structured can’t handle the kind of change needed, “The Administrators of the state-run football clubs will rather die than allow these changes happen. Hopefully, Post Covid19 the state govts might decide to hands off football and we would have a chance at restructuring the whole thing.”
Of the two clubs currently in the top flight, MFM and FCIU, the latter is green with envy at the former. FCIU are currently owing their staff and are flirting dangerously in the bottom half of the league. seemingly a lack of interest from its owner, Ifeanyi Ubah may lead to this neglect. The Nnewi based side was the darling of the whole nation for a moment, going as far as bagging a deal with West Ham United, one in the water. Cup Champions only as recent as 2018, CSR has won again. They are heading the same direction as another Anambra side that temporarily enjoyed success, Udoji United.
Rome wasn’t built in a day, neither will Nigerian football. The inseparable ties that bind the government and football will be difficult to break. Corruption, ineptitude, and Narcissism still reign supreme. However, it is individuals who sit in the corridors of power. Football is a political tool and will always be, its why Sportswashing exists. This unwanted marriage of convenience can be made to work albeit. One made possible by the Ministry of Sports in emphasizing the clarity with which proper favorable policies would translate to a development in the nation’s football. The restoration of football in Europe’s top 5 leagues was primarily because of the value of the sport to the nation’s economy. Nigeria does have a unique ecosystem, but it is one that can thrive regardless. Only when we accept our shortcomings and abhor the vices that plague our football do we move forward.
Forward is the direction the West keeps heading, leaving us in the lurch. A 1billion naira industry is meaningless when the ecosystem is designed to only consume. It will die of hunger as CoVID19 and Government wishes have revealed. The motivation can come from the NCAA (the National Collegiate Athletes Association) in the USA who raked in a revenue of $867.53 million in 2019 alone. That is for kids in schools. Maybe the Grassroots Ownership should be the first port of call for private investors, after all there is a marker obvious to all.
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