Nigerian Football: Vibes, Prayer And Excellence In The Digital Age

Nigerian Football: Vibes, Prayer And Excellence In The Digital Age

“Somebody said that football’s a matter of life and death to you. I said, ‘listen, it’s more important than that’…” – Bill Shankly, former Manager, Liverpool FC, May 1981.

This quote certainly applies to Nigeria. Football has a special place in Nigeria. It is one of the very few things that binds us together. Despite our diversity, differences, and divisions – and all the wahala that brings – when the Super Eagles are playing Nigerians are united. Ironically, it doesn’t matter if we’re winning or losing, a common emotion permeates the country – sadness or joy, depending on the result.

In a nation where practically every aspect of national life is viewed via the lens of ethnicity, religion, or region of origin, I’m pretty sure that if a Super Eagles team made up exclusively of players from just one single region of the country won the World Cup, no one will mention the ethnic, religious, or regional makeup of the team. We would all be celebrating in joy as Nigerians.

So, football is really, really important to Nigeria. Another fascinating aspect of football and its culture is that every football fan is an expert – an armchair expert, literally. Every fan, in their own mind, can manage their team (club) much better than the professional manager/coach (CEO and Board) – who have years of training, education, mentorship and practical experience of playing the game at professional level (or in business or a professional career) – especially whenever their team lose a local derby.

This is the nature of fandom – essentially, there’s a huge aspect of irrationality to it. Diehard fans support their team through thick, thin, or nothing at all.

And as Nigerians are archetypical football fans – and like with most things, we do this in extremis, too – the irrationally plenty.

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But, Nigerians will ‘Nigerianate’, as I like to say. And the forthcoming Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) Congress and Executive Board elections – scheduled for Friday 30th September 2022, in Benin City – certainly provide great illustrations of Nigerianating for both the seasoned and casual observer.

First, as is now almost ‘tradition’, there is on-going legal action, and an Abuja High Court, on 15th September, granted an ex parte motion to halt the elections – on the argument the NFF itself is an illegal and unrecognised body in Nigerian law.

Secondly, to further add to the drama, a hitherto unknown group – Nigeria Football Stakeholders – has gone as far as threatening to bomb the Congress venue, if it holds without their views accommodated. So, it is a matter of life and death, to some at least.

Finally, the usual suspects of ‘Football Experts’ – retired players, journalists, sports marketers, and other ‘interested parties’ – who incidentally all feel they should be running or deciding who runs our football – are cheerleading from the sides.

In other words, a right old mess. Classic Nigerianating. The crux of their gripes, as far as one can work out, is they feel that participation and membership of the congress should be broadened. Not necessarily a bad idea, to be honest. Though one suspects it really comes down to them thinking they should run our football.

Regardless of their motivations, any changes or additions to the eligible voters at the NFF Congress must be made within the ambit and in accordance with the current NFF Statutes, and by the current NFF Congress as presently constituted. That’s the rules. No need for VAR.

As things stand, the actual electorate is 44 people. These are the 37 state FA Chairs (36 are men inevitably, apart from Hon Margaret Icheen, the Benue State FA Chairwoman) plus Abuja FCT FA Chair; and seven other voters representing the Players Association, the Nigeria Professional Football League (NPFL), the Nigeria National League (NNL), the Nigerian Women Football League (NWFL), the Nigeria Referees Association (NRA), Club Owners (Chairman of Chairmen), and the Nigeria Football Coaches Association (NFCA).

As you can see, the State FAs mostly decide who becomes NFF President, as they’re the largest voting bloc. And they are essentially political ‘appointees’ of their governors, who fund the state FAs in the main – though ostensibly, they are ‘elected’ by their Association members. So there are certainly political considerations and permutations. But it is mainly a football affair.

From what I understand, some hold the somewhat sentimental view that the NFF electorate should return to what happened under the Nigerian Football Association (NFA) – which had a voting Congress of just 14, including just one representative for all the state FAs; plus former players, the armed forces, youth and university football, and others. One of these ‘others’ was the Federal Minister of Youth and Sports as a representative of the Federal Government (FGN) with full voting powers.

This simply will not fly in football. FIFA, for extremely cogent reasons, does not allow direct government control of football, or interference in football matters by civil courts anywhere. There is the Court of Arbitration for Sports to do this.

The NFA Statutes needed to be amended (in 2009 to become the NFF), to align with the standard insisted on by FIFA. Plus, this NFA arrangement really happened under the military – hardly a period we should be wistful for, regarding anything.

Proponents of another view, mostly actively cheerleading the situation, highly anticipate the intervention of FIFA – via a Normalisation Committee parachuted in to run our football – if the NFF Congress as constituted does not hold on the 30th.

Though perhaps the biggest sentimental view – held interestingly by a majority of Nigerian football fans – is that somehow a former Nigerian International will emerge to run our football, leading us like Moses to the Promised Land at the same time.

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My views, informed by my education, knowledge and experience in football, are different. And I am not completely inexperienced. I co-founded the SCORE4africa Awards – the first ever awards for sports and development in 2008. I invented the concept of LivingFootball, owned that trademark, and sold it to FIFA in 2018 – for their global CSR programmes.

I also was an Agent licensed by the FA in England from 2010 (till being an agent was abolished in 2015) – then a professional qualification which entailed passing an extremely difficult exam about the laws and rules of football, player transfer, arbitration and dispute resolution – and both the FIFA Statutes and the FA Statues. It had a failure rate of about 95%.

So I’ve worked in the football business for over a decade now – including with some former Super Eagles – in a professional capacity. And I have over a decade of media experience prior to that. Plus, I run an online social community for football fans, with an audience of over 300,000 – 70% of whom are Nigerians. So, I’d like to think I have at least an informed view.

And my view is the NFF Congress will most likely hold as scheduled on the 30th. There will likely be a compromise reached, and the court case dropped. Or a higher court will set aside the ex parte motion granted in Abuja.

The reason being is that the ONLY alternative will be a full FIFA ban of Nigeria, if the court order is enforced. National civil courts, according to Association football rules, have no jurisdiction to judge football governance matters. You must agree to this as an absolute conditionality to be a member of FIFA.

This current 44 person NFF Congress is recognised by FIFA, and that is all that matters. The end result is any ban will only be lifted when the current status quo ante bellum – the current NFF Congress – is reinstated to vote on the board composition; and any changes to the NFF statutes. FGN seems to have finally received sense, with President Buhari only ‘advising’ on this matter.

Agro-industrial processing: From consumption to production (4) With regards to the FIFA Normalisation Committee route, that’s just wishful thinking – given the circumstances. Amaju Pinnick, the current NFF President, is also a member of the FIFA Board. As such, it is highly unlikely that Pinnick could support any other action by FIFA than a ban plus return to the status quo ante bellum.

The alternative would be Pinnick, personally named a defendant in the court case, admitting that the process that made him NFF President (and thus FIFA Board member) was essentially illegal and illegitimate. I seriously doubt he would ever do that. Would he survive on the FIFA Board if he did?

As for the populist sentiment that a former international must run the NFF, that is simply misguided; and born from an ignorance of what the job is, or rather, what it should be. Perhaps because we saw Cameroon qualify for Qatar 2022 under Samuel Eto’o’s leadership, but for whatever reason, Nigerian fans are convinced that only one of our former internationals can successfully run Nigerian football back to glory.

Well, without being disparaging, let me state an unavoidable truth – very few of our former internationals are actually qualified to run the NFF. They certainly have the capacity to study and qualify themselves – but must put in the work. And so far, precious few have.

The job itself isn’t about running a football team or gingering up the players or even, heaven forbid, being chief scout, chief selector, chief commercial officer, player Intermediary, and ‘God of Football’ all rolled into one. Something Nigerian football has perhaps experienced enough.

It’s essentially a job running a big, complex organisation; in a role akin to being Chairman of the Board of a large multinational corporation. It’s quiet work when done properly. You never hear of the English FA Chairman in the news unless there’s a scandal. There’s a reason for this.

And to be an effective NFF President you NEED a decent formal education to at least degree level (preferably higher); plus business experience in the corporate world (not just paddy paddy Naija-style business); also required is an understanding of global corporate governance norms; and experience of managing a Chief Executive (the Secretary General) and senior management team who run the NFF day to day.

And that’s just part of the ‘management’ side of the job. Plus there’s financial oversight, and several other hard skills required. So let’s be honest, very few of our former international players have this skillset, no matter how silky their touch on the field was.

The NFF President should also set and drive the strategy for Nigerian football in its entirety – as a means of social cohesion, education, economic development, fitness and leisure; as well as a professional game – which should be a commercial enterprise with sporting integrity that provides entertainment and joy to Nigerians. And jobs and economic activity.

Also, they must deliver a structured plan to develop our football – that is data driven, flexible, and aims for excellence at global standards from grassroots, to amateur, to professional, to elite level – at club and international settings.

Then you have all the national teams that need to be run effectively – an overall technical director and the team managers to appoint and oversee; plus a professional scouting system to build. Basically, a pyramid of football from casual play and the grassroots through to an elite ultra-professional bubble at the apex. This is a bit beyond having the dribbling skills to go past four defenders.

A massive part of the job is also diplomacy, relationship building and management. The NFF President has to be able to communicate effectively to an incredibly broad spectrum of people – from boys under the bridge in Ikeja and on the streets of Kano, to foreign heads of state and government. And everyone in between. Sometimes all on the same day.

The list of necessary qualities goes on. The role requires both gravitas and approachability, knowing or being able to learn the proper mannerisms and customs in any situation anywhere. Can any of our former internationals do all this, in all honesty?

Related: Players Union Task Force Calls On FG, FIFA To Stop NFF Elections

Not that there’s any specific reason against former players running a national football association if they posses all the necessary skills and qualifications. Some have done, to varying degrees of success. Though it hasn’t always ended well.

For instance, Kalusha Bwalya ran the Football Association of Zambia (FAZ) quite successfully – Chipolopolo won their only African Cup of Nations (AFCON) title under his leadership in 2012. Though if you know who his wife is, you’d likely understand one of the main planks of his success – she’s one of the most capable, respected, and connected football marketeers in Africa, indeed the world. Kalusha was defeated after two terms in the 2016 FAZ, then he was banned by FIFA from all football activity for two years in 2018 for unethical behaviour.

Let’s be honest with ourselves. Prayer, vibes, and ‘Federal Character’ do NOT win trophies. And CANNOT win trophies. The English tried their version of this a few decades back to spectacular failure – as did the French, who had to field a team comprised of about 80% immigrants from Africa to win the World Cup. So, perhaps Nigeria should try prayer, vibes and excellence?

If Nigerians want to go to the 2026 World Cup (in the USA, Canada and Mexico) to support a Super Eagles team that is competitive; utilises all assets available to us – WizKid, Burna Boy, Tiwa and all our creatives and artists are all fans o! – with the best, most professional team with Naija vibes; and compete globally like our music and movies do, then things really have to change. The prayers of Nigerians will be the 12th man, the jara.

There are really no shortcuts. Being successful at elite global football is not something we can ‘Nigerianate’. The modern game is a strictly merit based, professional, scientifically grounded, data driven, astute commercial and cultural enterprise. And elite international competitions are approached as a ‘great national enterprise’ that utilise all available national resources – a bit like a war.

The question is, are we ready to compete at that level again? Will zoning or competence determine who is the next president? Are we finally going to get the changes to Nigerian football that we all seem to crave?

The potential prize is so great, it’s worth trying something new to achieve. Currently, the NFF costs FGN about N6b yearly – about N8b if we qualify for AFCON or a World Cup. A recent Nigerian Economic Summit Group (NESG) report on the potential economic value of a functioning sports industry and ecosystem estimate this would generate about two trillion Naira (N2t) in revenue per annum (plus generate N150b in direct taxes, increase our GDP by 1.5%-2%, and create 300,000-500,000 jobs per annum – as it would also require a massive, asserted sporting infrastructure build).

Even if football were only responsible for 50% of this, that’ll be N1t for the Nigerian football ecosystem. And if the NFF were getting even just 5% of this revenue directly, it’s still N50b – about 8x the current FGN subsidy of the NFF. I’d suggest football will actually be generating about 70% of this, about N1.4t per annum.

But this isn’t possible with a dysfunctional NFF, and no football industry ecosystem. The writing is on the wall about the direction of travel. The Minister of Youth and Sports, Hon Sunday Dare, recently published a Nigeria Football 10 Year Masterplan – after consulting widely.

It basically says that FGN money for the NFF will dry up. The country is broke, so everyone can expect a funding cut. More importantly, this document proposes a reorganisation of the NFF – in line with global best practice – where the Secretary General becomes more of a CEO running the organisation. So we will no longer have an all powerful NFF president.

This is something that should be welcomed, in my view. In fact, I’d personally go further. No FGN funding except for National Stadium. Football can and should fund itself. Afrobeats and Nollywood have become world class perhaps because they had no government funding. And despite the concerns the thought of this may cause to football stakeholders now, there is a much bigger cake at the end of the road. We just need to bake it.

The good news is that there does seem to be a consensus in the Nigerian football family of an urgent need for reform. No one is happy with the situation as is. The ‘how’ is the burning question that divides opinion. Perhaps there is a way forward.

I am an interested party. Like every Nigerian, I am also a stakeholder in football – though not a voter in this election. I have decided to endorse a candidate – based on knowing the current favourites in person, by proxy, and reputation; and the evidence of their experience and achievements in football; and the plans they’ve articulated in their campaigns.

I am supporting Barrister Seyi Akinwunmi. And putting Football First! He is the only candidate that has a strategy that makes sense to me and could, if properly supported and executed, transform Nigerian football. And set the foundation for a continual transformation. His record in football development at the grassroots and schools as Lagos State FA Chairman speaks for itself. And he focused on development as first Vice-President of the current NFF Board. And delivered tangible outputs here.

Also, he’s an insider who knows how to get things done within the current system – and has a cogent and deliverable vision for our footballing future. He has the formal education, corporate business experience, and football experience to get things done.

Plus, he is a natural diplomat and conciliator – and a gentleman with ethics and values who is firm but fair, and keeps his word. Basically, he ticks all the boxes – and would win any merit based exercise in a landslide.

Most crucially, he’s the only candidate talking about utilising technology to develop and enhance our football – and would key into our globally recognised tech talent base (most of whom are football fans) to help deliver a football ecosystem where we are not just competing, but leading globally.

The NFF could, for instance, collaborate with our tech talent to develop app that links into a national scouting system that all academics and schools can key into – and collect data on players at all levels, to produce a talent map and identify potential elite players at 16. There are so many possibilities if the NFF has the right leadership. Then maybe for once, Naija football go carry first.

By Ayo Ambrose Alli

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  • A good write up, hooe the government will stop funding football asap and all state sponsoring football clubs should stop. Let then go private. Football is big business and Nigeria is missing out.

  • benakay 2 years ago

    Wow. By far the most comprehensive writeup regarding football as it pertains to Nigeria.
    Nigerian football has been highjacked by imbeciles (like the sports minister) and illiterates (including ex internationals) who lack the basic intelligence to move our football forward and take advantage of the opportunities abound that the football industry presents.
    I agree with Kim regarding letting the NFF run as a business, void of constant and undue interference from the govt. Its the only way forward, else, imbeciles would continue to interfere and hijack and forward progress.

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