30 December 2012

Nigeria: Poor Teams Do Not Win Trophies!


Welcome to 2013!

I read Johann Cryuff's comments last week. It was reported in the media that the former Dutch national team captain and coach was lamenting the state of the la Liga, about how the second best league in the world has been effectively and systematically reduced to an annual two-horse race between Barcelona FC and Real Madrid FC, two of the richest and biggest clubs not just in Spain but also in the world. He lamented that this unfortunate development may have produced two of the best football playing teams in the world, but it also has gradually eroded the excitement of the rest of the league. How true?

In the EPL a similar situation exists. The race for the Barclay's League trophy has now almost been reduced to an annual contest between Manchester United FC and any of the other two biggest and richest clubs in England - Chelsea and Manchester City. Arsenal FC, with its unique but unwritten philosophy that provides the club a robust annual financial account and an empty shelf of silverware, do not come into the equation. They have not won anything in the past few years as result of their limited annual expenditure on ready-made players as a business strategy.

The rest of the clubs in the Premiership, limited by funds, are simply unable to compete effectively. They are thus 'condemned' to the lower rungs, jostling for other positions except the Barclay's trophy. In this marathon race most clubs are happy to escape relegation every year, and even once-upon-a-time giants are contented to limit their ambition to fighting for one of the places that qualifies them to any one of the European club competitions. That's where teams like Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspurs, Fulham, and even Newcastle United now find themselves these days, crippled by limited funding and mounting debts.

A similar situation exists in virtually all other countries with a strong domestic league - in Italy, Series A is now a race between with Juventus, AC Milan and Inter Milan; in Germany it is between Bayern Munich, Borussia Munchengladbach and Borussia Dortmund.

The best players are bought by the few top rich clubs leaving a few players stupendously rich, the majority of the clubs unable to compete for them, the leagues less exciting and competitive, the same few teams winning every year, and the rest of the clubs frustrated in the middle or bottom rung of the league table without a chance of winning any trophies!

In Africa, it is surprisingly not different too.

The recent phenomenal success of T.P Mezambe FC of DR Congo is a good example of what money, splashed well, can do to a club with ambition. In a few short years T.P. Mezambe has joined the league of elite clubs in the continent that continue to dominate the African club championship as a direct result of massive financial investment in the clubs.

In the space of two years after the club was financially re-invigorated it bought the best players in the region, won the Africa Champions league and got to the finals of the World Club championship!

T.P Mezambe FC are now regular champions in DR Congo, and regular front-runner at the annual African club championship.

Egypt and Tunisia in North Africa have become second to Europe only as favourite destination for many of Africa's emerging best football talents. That's why Al Ahly FC and El Zamalek FC of Egypt have been very dominant in African club football. Putting together the combined success of the two clubs, no other country in Africa has won more continental trophies at club level.

In Nigeria, in the past few years the apex of Nigerian football has been dominated by a few clubs. These are those that have splashed some money on acquiring the best local and a few foreign players.

The real contenders for the Nigerian Premiership have been Enyimba FC of Aba, Dolphins FC of Port Harcourt, the Pillars of Kano, and, of late, Sunshine Stars of Akure and Heartland FC of Owerri. All the others, including old giants like Shooting Stars FC of Ibadan and Rangers International FC of Enugu have been playing second fiddle, unable to win the highest trophy because of their relative limited funding.

There are even the more tragic cases of some of the 'big' clubs of the past languishing in lower leagues, buried under the rubble of poor funding. These include clubs like Calabar Rovers and Bendel Insurance. Many clubs have disappeared completely from the football radar - BCC Lions, Stationary Stores, Julius Berger, etc.

The important realization, as Jahan Cryuff observed, is that money rules the game of football now. Only the clubs that are financially buoyant enough to invest in the best players can win trophies!

So, as we enter a new Year and a new football season in Nigeria, the message should be clear to the State governments that have been paying lip service to the clubs they run and have been expecting results at the end. Results come only with a good injection of funds to take care of the wages of players not the tokenism that is prevalent everywhere littered with stories of unpaid players' wages and unfulfilled promises.

There must be some fresh thinking and appreciation of the realities of the professional league where investment in the clubs has not matched the passion and expectation of the people. That's why there is an annual migration of the best players to more lucrative leagues abroad.

In Nigeria, State governments that sponsor most of the teams in the Premier League, must start to provide much better funding for the clubs to increase the level of competition and halt the frustrating and boring dominance by only a few clubs in the domestic league.

Indeed, poor teams never win trophies! That is the most important message for all club owners as we enter this new season of football!

I wish all a happy and prosperous 2013!

'Skippo' Victor Oduah passes on!

I saw him a few months ago in Benin when I went for the 80th birthday celebrations of Dr. Samuel Osaigbovo Ogbemudia. He was very slow and looked frail. We even had dinner together lamenting the poor condition of most retired football players that have been hammered into life in obscurity by the circumstances of a country that has no provision or place for its retired international athletes.

For most sports heroes their end is marked by retirement into neglect, penury, poor health and early death.

Even as we appreciate that governments should not be held responsible for the state of affairs we also believe that governments should do something to help the situation as the number of our dying heroes keeps rising amidst the picture of hardship and pain by the players.

The reality is that we answered our nations call to service by devoting our youth to bringing the country honour, glory and laurels. We took to heart the words of our national anthem that inspired us to go into 'battle' assured that 'the labour of our heroes past shall never be in vain'.

As we age and inevitable physical decapitation sets in as a direct consequence of over-use of our bodies in our youthful days, we find ourselves forgotten, disregarded by the football system that should have room for us within it, and left to die sad, lonely and poor, never even celebrated in one form or the other to serve as inspiration for the next generations!

Victor Oduah's sudden death on Christmas day, earlier this week, serves again as another reminder that something needs be done now. We must come together as the most important persons in planet football, raise our voices to be heard and seek ways of taking care of ourselves with the help and support of governments.

Victor's death adds to a startling statistic of his compatriots that have also prematurely passed on at much younger ages - Segun Olumodeji, Sam Opone, Samuel Garba, Layiwola Olagbemiro, Yakubu Mambo, Haruna Ilerika, Cyril Okosieme, Inuwa Lawal Rigogo, Gideon Njoku, Yomi Bamiro, Tunde Abeki, Austine Ofokwu! There must be others, probable also languishing, 'dead' but living, who require that we bring their plight to the world and provide some alleviation before they also die.

I commiserate with the family of Nigeria's former national football captain, former captain also of the great Bendel Insurance at 'birth', the first and only Nigerian to captain an African Selected XI team in the early 1970s. Victor was a born leader, a hard but very elegant central defender, and a complete gentleman. We shall miss him dearly.

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