Apart from the obvious waste of state resources, government ownership of football clubs encourages a bloated and possibly insolvent league. Anyone that believes a revival of Nigeria’s fortunes in soccer is around the corner must live dreamland.
A few months ago, I visited the Dipo Dina Stadium on a fine Saturday afternoon. There were about three thousand people in the stadium and seemed normal, except the occasion was not a football match. It was a reception held after the funeral of my friend’s grandmother. During the party, I decided to visit Winston Churchill, and found my way to the main bowl. That was when I realized a Premier League match was going on; Sunshine Stars was playing against Gombe United. I asked the elderly man at the gates how much it cost to get in, but he waved me in nonchalantly. After several minutes of decent football, including the second goal for Sunshine Stars, I went back to the party. What struck me was the crowd at the stadium; the party I returned to had more than twice the number of spectators at the match.
It took me three months to visit another stadium after my Ijebu-Ode experience. This time, it was to see my beloved Manchester United. The economic potential of football hits you from Euston Station. On a Saturday morning, it is filled with thousands of fans dressed in replica jerseys, travelling across England to support their favourite teams. This is the first sign of the commercial giant soccer has become. At Old Trafford, it was easy to see how Manchester United generates over £4 million every match day; from the pristine hospitality boxes for the infamous 1% to the full megastore, the atmosphere is designed to ensure a fan and the contents of his (or her) wallet are soon parted. Manchester United makes about £100 million (N25 billion) from ticketing and other match day activities annually, while the biggest revenue inflow into the Nigerian Premier League (NPL) till date (a sponsorship deal signed with Globacom) is less than 5% of this amount. The gulf between the Haves and Have-Nots cannot be wider.
The first step to bridge this gap is the divestment of government interest in football clubs. Apart from the obvious waste of state resources, government ownership of football clubs encourages a bloated and possibly insolvent league. Anyone that believes a revival of Nigeria’s fortunes in soccer is around the corner must live dreamland. Our inability to groom footballers in their youth has led to a persistent habit of fielding over-aged players at age group competitions. This year, Ocean Boys, the Bayelsa State team, was expelled for not appearing at two league matches due to lack of funding. The cry for change cannot be any louder.
The NPL can organize an open bid for state owned clubs, and act as an intermediary between current owners and potential investors. To make the sale of clubs attractive, the states can also offer long term leases on existing stadia to investors with buyout options at the expiration of such leases. The commercialization of soccer will drive a focus on talent discovery, one of the main drivers of successful clubs. If this is supported with investments in stadia, we might return to the glory days when the likes of Rangers, Leventis United, Stationery Stores and Shooting Stars filled their grounds every week. The dots can be connected easily; good players and full grounds will increase the attractiveness of the Nigerian league to television, ensuring more revenues from the sale of broadcasting rights. This will give clubs a better platform to negotiate attractive advertising and endorsement deals.
The story of Ivory Coast proves that a strong correlation exists between the strength of the domestic league and the performance of the national teams. In 1989, Roger Ouegnin was elected as chairman of the leading Ivorian club, ASEC Mimosas, and his relationship with Phillipe Troussier (who later coached Nigeria) and Jean-Marc Guillou revolutionized Ivorian football. Apart from dominating the domestic league, and winning the CAF Champions League in 1998, ASEC has been the major source of players for the Ivorian national team. The club’s alliance with Belgian club, SK Beveren, was the catalyst for developing famous players like Gervinho, Emmanuel Eboue, and two of the most famous brothers in football today, Kolo and Yaya Toure.
My visit to Old Trafford was well timed; I saw Robin van Persie and Shinji Kagawa score on their home debut in front of almost 80,000 people. Sadly, it was also a reminder that I needed to travel eight hours to experience a feeling that can easily be replicated at Onikan Stadium.
Op-ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija.