THE Nigerian Professional Football League, NPFL, for the first time since its inception in 1974, failed to produce a champion that would have represented Nigeria in Confederation of African Football Champions League, CAFCL, as use to be the case. Instead it selected Lobi Stars which topped the league table to represent Nigeria at CAFCL which is billed to take place in October. This measure, which was taken to ensure Nigeria’s participation at the CAFL was because of the crisis that engulfed the Nigerian Football Federation, NFF, which saw Amaju Pinnick, its president, battling Chris Giwa, another NFF factional leader, for the leadership of the federation. Because of the prolonged leadership crisis the league championship games was suspended while Pinnick took the Super Eagles to the World Cup in June. Prior to the crisis, the NPFL games had been on and were to resume on July 18 following a one month break.
The league went into recess after the 24th round of matches in June ahead of the World Cup, with Lobi Stars topping the table and enjoying a two-point lead over Akwa United. However, just two days before the resumption of matches, a letter signed by Salihu Abubakar, chief operating officer, League Management Company, LMC, to all participating 20 clubs, cited the current administrative challenges as a reason for the setback.
The crisis climaxed on July 3, when Giwa with the backing of Solomon Dalung, minister of Sports, seized control of the NFF headquarters, Abuja, with the former still battling to have his election to the post of NFF president recognized in court.
This made the LMC to postpone the resumption of the Nigeria Professional Football League NPFL indefinitely.
After all deliberations, the League Organizing Company, LOC, scheduled a meeting on August 23, to discuss how the outstanding fixtures will be played on Wednesdays, with the proposed revised schedule slating Match Day 25 fixtures on September 2. Going by the schedule, the league games is supposed to end on October 28, with the Match Day 38 fixtures.
But League football watchers were convinced that such fixtures would require substantial resources to be executed.
Chibuzor Etuemena, chairman of Heartland Football Club of Owerri, said in an interview with News Agency of Nigeria, NAN, that the new schedule of matches would not only impose financial burden on the clubs but also reduce competition.
“Apart from the financial constraints which the clubs will face, any crash programme now in terms of the rescheduling of outstanding matches will not produce quality champions,’’ he said.
Etuemena noted that the leadership tussle in the NFF has adversely affected the league competitions in the country. “The crisis has already taken its toll on everyone, particularly the clubs which mostly depend on monthly subventions to prosecute their games.
“Now, it is practically impossible to meet the schedule of fixtures released by the LMC in financial terms that he found it foolhardy to subject players to such a rigorous schedule in view of the likely medical implications.
“They are human beings, so the quality of games to be witnessed in the NPFL will be undesirable. My humble suggestion is that the LMC should declare an emergency ending of the 2017/2018 league season and nominate the three leading clubs on the table to represent Nigeria in the CAF Champions League and Confederation Cup,’’ he said.
Agreeing, Paul Bassey, general manager of Uyo-based Akwa United FC, said an early ending of the season would even be more beneficial than expected. “Ending the league season now will afford the continental representatives for next season ample time to reorganize their squads, prepare technically and register properly before November ending,’’ he said.
Bassey added that if the domestic leagues were ended now, participating clubs would use the available time for preparations for the 2018/2019 season which has already kicked off in other countries. “Clubs in the NPFL, Nigeria National League, NNL and the Nationwide League One, NLO, will use the opportunity to prepare for a new season, and the 2018/2019 season has already kicked off in other countries as we all know,’’ he said.
He also contended that Akwa United presently lacked the financial and technical ability to play three matches within eight days across the country. “Playing matches from Sunday to Wednesday to Sunday and then Wednesday will be difficult for us, and criss-crossing Nigeria is an added problem. “Let us not forget that clubs which go to Maiduguri and Damaturu on Sunday usually cannot make it back home till Tuesday evening, and if you add that to the Aiteo Cup which will soon begin, then it is herculean and killing,’’ he said.
Perhaps, this is why Lobi Stars, the Makurdi-based club, was unanimously choosen to represent Nigeria in the next year’s CAF Champions Leagues even though
Lobi Stars was choosen because it was on top spot at the right time and will now feature in continental competition for the second time in its history.
The Ortom Boys which had remaining 14 matches to play before the decision was taken racked up 13 wins, claiming two away victories in a duel with Enugu Rangers and Heartland, and won all but one of their home games.
A 43-point tally was good enough to see them hold a two-point advantage to nearest rivals Akwa United by the time the league took a one-month hiatus for the World Cup.
Also favoured in the decision of the LMC is that no teams will be to relegate in the division, with the bottom four of FC Ifeanyi Ubah, Sunshine Stars, Yobe Desert Stars and Heartland saved from dropping to the second tier.
Heartland, in particular, was eight points off safety and looked destined for a return to the National League.
The quartet will now get the chance to improve their fortunes in the top tier again next term.