NPFL: Dwindling weight, woes of Nigeria’s Apex league

Nigeria’s 23-man list to the World Cup has only one home-based professional in the squad. But as ALIYU USMAN VULEGBO has noted, only seven players out of the 23 have ever represented at least one Nigerian Professional Football League Club. Currently, the country’s apex league has come to a halt till after hostilities in Russia.

Coach Gernot Rohr’s final 23 man list to the world cup is hardly a contestable one but ever since it was released, commentators have been making their observations. So far, star focus has been on the goalkeeping department where Francis Uzoho has cemented the number one position.

The Deportivo goalie is a promising keeper and surely deserves his moment in the sun. The problem is how the Nigerian Professional Football League’s influence on the national team has waned. It may not be a surprise to many that only one player from Nigeria’s professional league made it to the World Cup but it is a challenge to the league that sixteen (16) out of the 23 have never laced their boots for any of the 20 professional football clubs in Nigeria.
Historically, foreign based players have always dominated the national team because they are exposed to better competition and are more professional as a result. However, recent developments seem to have pushed the league from its periphery to a point of almost oblivion in terms of player development for the national team.

In Nigeria’s last two friendly matches before the ongoing World Cup, only two ‘home grown professional’ players, Abdullahi Shehu and Odion Ighalo made it to the starting line-up. By this, I mean players who started professional football with a club side in Nigeria.

Developed by the league.

The widening gulf in quality between the NPFL and European leagues was obvious in final list of players to the 2018 World Cup as only seven (7) out of the 23 players going to the world have played in the Nigerian league. Goalkeeper Ikechukwu Ezenwa is in his 12th season in NPFL. He made his debut in 2006 with the Ocean Boys FC of Brass. Before leaving for the South African Club, Chippa United in 2015, Daniel Akpeyi spent 10 years in the league appearing for Gabros Int’l, Nasarawa United, Heartland and Warri Wolves.

Outfield players, Ahmed Musa and Abdullahi Shehu who spent two years each with Kano Pillars, Odion Ighalo came through the ranks at Prime, before moving to Julius Berger, Elderson Echiejile who spent three years at Bendel Insurance and Oghenekaro Etebo who spent two years at Warri Wolves are the only players in squad who cut their professional teeth at home.

According sports journalist, Isaac Omidiji, the quality of the league has been on a downward spiral for years “there is no doubt that the quality of players in the league cannot be rated high. This is evident in their display week in week out. This is no fault of the players, rather the human and physical facilities needed to groom them into a standard worthy of challenging at the highest level is absent.

Presently, the players in the league are very poor technically. Football academies that would have instill this in them is largely ineffective. An obvious of this come to Play when our clubsides engage their counterparts on the continent in duels, the difference in the technical quality especially from the North African teams cannot be compared. He said.

Ten years ago, the only ‘Oyinbo’ in the super Eagles was unmistakeable. Osaze Odemwingie was unmistakable but these days, at least three members of the squad will answer to the name. It is indicative of how much has changed in the team and one would say it appear that gone are the days when Nigeria lost some of its best players to dual their countries of residence, or birth as allowed by FIFA. These days, it is easier for Nigerians born abroad or who moved abroad as kids to choose Nigeria over such countries.

These players have practically moved in and picked their positions almost unchallenged. There are six of such players in squad to Russia and all of them have played in the last two matches with 5 of them in the starting 11. Williams Troost Ekong from the Netherlands, Leon Balogun from Germany, Bryan Idowu from Russia, Tyronne Ebuehi from the Netherlands and the duo of Alex Iwobi and Victor Moses who represented England at youth level.

Specifically, in the game against England, goal scorer Alex Iwobi of Arsenal and Victor Moses of Chelsea both featured for Nigeria against their countries of residence while another player of Nigerian heritage, Dele Alli was booed by Nigerian fans for choosing England over Nigeria. If Ali had chosen Nigeria, there is no doubt he would have worked straight into the team. Yet all of this ‘foreign’ legion could be on the starting line up at the World Cup when you consider how much progress Tyrone Ebuehi has made in the team.

Scouting them young

Going by the sheer number of players (10) in the list who were born and raised in Nigeria but did not grace the league before jetting out to Europe, it is clearly obvious that more of the countries brightest prospects continue to leave for Europe at younger ages. Some of them like John Obi Mikel who was at Plateau United and Chidozie Awaziem, Elkanemi Warriors were involved with youth ranks of professional sides.

The rest, Simeon Nwankwo, Joel Obi, Kelechi Iheanacho, Wilfred Ndidi, Francis Uzoho, John Ogu, Ogenyi Onazi and Kenneth Omeruo all went from Amateur football to Professional careers in Europe after spending final part of their cadet years in the various teams’ Academies and youth teams. Some of them like Joel Obi left as early as 14 in 2005 when he joined Inter Milan.

NPFL content

Earlier in the campaign, Ikechukwu Ezenwa put superb displays in the qualifying rounds of the world with eye catching performances against the Indomitable Lions of Cameroon. When the provisional 30 man list was named, Kano Pillar’s Junior Lokosa who is the league’s highest scoring player in the current campaign was the stand out NPFL player but in the end only Ikechukwu Ezenwa was selected in the final list.

In 2014, there were four home based players on Coach Stephen Keshi’s list to the world cup. They were Kunle Odunlami, Azubike Egwuekwe, Chigozie Agbim and Ejike Ezoenyi.

Isaac Omidiji opines that if NPFL clubs do not establish their own academies where young talents could develop, the situation could get worse “If our clubs have functional academies that can catch these players young, most of them will not have thought of leaving for Europe at a very young age in search of better facilities. It is sad that at under seventeen level, players already see the local league as not good for them. Holistic reforms in facilities and human resources are needed to correct this trend.

Pinnick kicks

While speaking recently, NFF president, Amaju Pinnick says the organization of the clubs in the NPFL is a major inhibition to their development. He said reorganization is necessary for development adding that it would be treated as a matter of priority in his next term. “I have said it openly that when we get re-elected by the grace of God, the first thing I will do is to ensure that all the clubs are independent of government and run like true professional club like it is done in Europe and North Africa,”

Pinnick, while reacting to the development that has seen all three out of the NPFL representatives in the CAF champions league and CAF confederation knocked out before the group stages admitted that the clubs need to refocused and establish professional structures.

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