Brace up Nigerian football fans, you are about to read some very grim numbers on the country’s club football.

Since Enyimba won the CAF Champions League title in 2004, only one Nigerian club have reached the final. That was Heartland in 2009, who did so by beating another Nigerian club, Kano Pillars in the semifinals before losing to TP Mazembe on the away goals rule after a 2-2 aggregate over two legs.

In those years between 2005 and 2017, Nigerian clubs only made the semifinals four times. Two of those were by Enyimba. They have missed the group stages five times out of 12.

For the CAF Confederation Cup, the story is even more dire. Nigeria have never won that version of CAF’s lesser competition. Rivers United – in their previous incarnation as Dolphins FC –  came closest when they lost the 2005 title to FAR Rabat. 

Since then, no Nigerian club have reached the final. Bayelsa United and Sunshine Stars came closest to matching that achievement (if one can call it that), reaching the semifinals in 2009 anUdoh.11 respectively.

From then on out however, things get even more woeful. Between 2006 and 2017, Nigerian clubs have failed to make the group phase of the Confederation Cup an embarrassing eight times out of 12!

Attempting to unpack the numbers any further leads to more embarrassment, especially in the number of times Nigerian clubs have failed to go beyond the preliminary rounds and the teams they have lost to. 

Like 2015 Federation Cup winners Akwa United losing out to Vita Club Mokanda who finished 6th in the Congo Premier League or Wikki Tourists getting eliminated by RSLAF FC who had barely kicked a ball in anger for months and were then promptly hammered 9-1 by Club Africain in the very next round. 

This year, out of four clubs in continental competition, Rivers United were the only ones to get into the group stages.

Both United and champions Enugu Rangers were beaten in the first round of the CAF Champions League, Rivers United facing to hang on to a 3-0 first leg win by losing 0-4 in the return leg to Sudan’s Al Merriekh. 

Rangers then lost 2-5 on aggregate to Zesco in the playoffs for the CAF Confederation Cup group phase.

In the Confederation Cup, Nigeria Federation Cup winners FC Ifeanyi Ubah were beaten by Al Masry in the same preliminary round as the aforementioned Wikki Tourists, leaving Rivers as the country’s sole representatives in Africa.

Over the weekend however, their push for a place in the knockout phase suffered a massive body blow with a 0-2 home loss to Club Africain. Only the combination of an unlikely big win (minimum of a three-goal win) at FUS Rabat plus a home win for Cub Africain against Uganda’s KCCA can see them advance.

These are more than lamentable results and numbers for a league seemingly on the up. Since 2012, when the Nigeria Football Federation established the League Management Company to clean up a deteriorated domestic competition, there have been significant leaps in administration, broadcast and processes in how the domestic competition is run.

Those changes at the top of the pyramid have however failed to translate into how clubs are run. By far the biggest drawback for clubs in Nigeria is the ownership structure.

Of the 20 clubs in the Nigeria Professional Football League, 16 are government-owned. The exceptions being FC Ifeanyi Ubah, Remo Stars, ABS FC and MFM FC.

This structure accounts for the abysmal lack of professionalism in the way the clubs are run, including the hiring of administrators, coaches and players.

Club administrators are usually politicians or friends of politicians.

It is perhaps no surprise that the club wth the most success both in the league and continent has been Enyimba, whose chairman Felix Anyansi-Agwu has been in office since 1999. The club’s player recruitment strategy is also significantly different from other clubs, all of whom appear to have a standard template. 

This template is as simple as it has proven continuously and disastrously unsuccessful time and again. At the end of every season, out of a 35- to 40-man roster, anywhere between 10 to 30 players (depending on the club) are ‘dropped’, meaning they have been transfer-listed. 

That is followed by a ‘screening’ exercise involving hundreds of players some of which would be similar ‘dropped’ players from other clubs.

By the end of the exercise, these clubs would have returned to the same 35-40 player squad with little real improvement in quality.

By contrast, Enyimba identify areas of weakness in their squad, scout players during the season and recruit them in the off season.

These pockets of incompetent practices and poor processes are hallmarks of clubs in the Nigerian league. Not to mention lack of financial accountability that cuts across the board. Not a single club have published audited accounts or show transparency in their transfer dealings, both local and international.

And so, the little successes in continental competitions have derived more by accident than design. The solution is as simple as it is complex. That is to get government out of majority ownership of football clubs.

As it stands, the clubs are run like civil service parastatals. Eliminating government control eliminates the leakages which arise from a sense of entitled access (and little accountability) to state funds.

It forces the clubs to attempt to generate their own revenues which would lead rapidly to many clubs folding and only a few survivors. Those few survivors will ensure a league that is not only competitive but also truly professional and qualitative.

Fans may berate Rivers United till kingdom come. The headlines for the next few weeks will be all about the Port Harcourt club. But this was no isolated incident. And it will happen again next year.

Until Nigerian clubs shed government control, this hit and miss state of affairs will only continue.

Culled from Nigeria ⚽ Support Platform. Written by Colin Udoh. Photo credit: Sammy Wejinya.

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