COMMENT By Kunle Fayiga Follow on Twitter
2018 was arguably one of the worst years in Nigeria Professional Football League history, as the competition ended abruptly after 24 matchdays thanks to the incessant and needless power tussle in the Nigeria Football Federation.
Despite an abridged format consisting of 24 teams split in two groups of 12 being agreed upon to compensate for the mess caused by the previous incomplete season, with resumption due on December 1, there is no sign of kick off, one week after the deadline passed.
The hold-up has been due to the refusal of the Nigeria National League to hold its promotion playoffs which would decide the four teams that would make it to the NPFL. The eight teams are reluctant to contest and would prefer to just get automatic promotion to the top flight.
After all, no side from the top tier was relegated to the second tier.
NNL Congress proposes direct promotion for 3SC, #Remo, #Insurance, others, hopes on .@LMCNPFL ratification. The body scraps Super 8 play-off from its top agenda next season. #AGMmeeting #AbujaUpdate pic.twitter.com/8acsZPqToG— Shooting Stars SC (@Official3SC) November 25, 2018
The impasse could lead to an eye-watering 28-team NPFL for the new campaign.
The sprawling size of the league would be berserk, because for one, it destabilises the plan laid out by the League Management Company to return the NPFL to its 20-team format in 2020.
Logistically, it would also be a major headache, with a 24-team division already set to stretch resources.
Even though the LMC has ordered the NNL to find a date for the playoffs, the second-tier organisers have been thrown into disarray with NNL Chief Executive Officer Bukola Olopade – the man behind the proposed eight-team promotion, resigning, and Kada FC withdrawing from the league till the hullabaloo is resolved.
BREAKING: NNL CEO, Bukola Olapade, resigns over disagreements with NFF and LMC as regards the delay in NPFL resumption. pic.twitter.com/yGqepMMmVG— Frankie (@frankie_udara) December 8, 2018
With the Christmas period approaching, it’s obviously infeasible to start the league in December. Beyond that, national elections are set for February, and with more than 90% of the clubs being government-owned, very little attention will be given to football during this period. This could starve the teams of much needed funds and support.
The downside of this is that players who have not seen any league action since June will be denied match fitnessm while those involved in continental campaigns (Lobi Stars and Enugu Rangers) will have ample fixtures to remain sharp.
The NFF has ordered the NNL to get the playoffs done and dusted by December 16, offering financial and logistic assistance. It’s reported that the NNL board have decided to set the dates, but it's hard to seen how everything will be rushed through.
Surely there is more drama ahead.
Had the NFF averted its leadership crisis, there would have been normalcy in the NPFL. However, the refusal of the NNL to hold its promotion playoffs further highlights the lack of structure, vision and direction with club football in the country.
A lack of realistic financial incentives to make the game worthwhile means club sides will not take things seriously or even respect the authorities, who themselves don’t have enough power due to intricate political connections.
I said it months ago & I will say it again. The NPFL is unlikely to start before April next year. With elections coming, governors have no time or money to waste at the moment & as something that creates very little value, the league will take a back seat. It is what it is.— Babanla (@biolakazeem) November 14, 2018
Assuming there was a guaranteed jackpot for promotion, as there is in the English Championship with the £200 million playoff incentive, the story would have been very different in Nigeria.
However, even if the league was running well, consistent administrative hiccups would always slow things down.
Until things are cleaned up, there will be no meaningful change, and bad outcomes such as delayed league schedules will become even more commonplace.
If 2018 has been bad for domestic Nigerian football, then 2019 could be set to get a lot worse.