Football is a big business in the developed world, with immense contributions to national GDP. It is also positioned prominently to wage war against unemployment and social vices, which idleness and poverty promote.
In Europe, where the English Premier League, German Bundesliga, Spanish La Liga, Italy’s Serie A and French Lique 1 are heavy employers of labour, the management and promotion of football are carefully planned in such a way that the game always throws up fresh stars, who ensure that it never loses its appeal to its connoisseurs.
In Africa, North African countries including Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria and Libya, as well as sub-Saharan African countries like South Africa, Congo DR, Zambia, Uganda, Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana have structured the sport in such a way that it not only serves as a good source of entertainment but also a big source of revenue for their economies.
However, that cannot be said of Nigeria, where the government still sees the game as a form of entertainment, with its administration fit for only political cronies.
In Nigeria, football, and indeed other sporting disciplines are used as “settlements” by party members and cronies, some of who don’t understand the intricacies of the sector and are therefore not equipped to handle it effectively.
For more than two decades, talented young men and women see going abroad to practice their sport as the only way of survival because they are better remunerated.
But things are about to change. Recently, the Federal Government endorsed a Football 10-Year Development Masterplan to change the way the game is structured and managed.
The master plan is the outcome of a 16-man committee set up by Sports Minister, Sunday Dare, to change the country’s football architecture to make it more effective and professional.
While receiving the report, President Muhammadu Buhari said that his government is interested in developing a football culture that will accommodate global best practices and “also helps the nation to lay a solid foundation for domestic football and to put in place, professionally and efficiently run leagues.”
He added that the masterplan “will also help in entrenching a consistent and stable football calendar and create a value chain, which will boost the sports ecosystem.”
Since the committee submitted the master plan to the president, there have been subtle resistance from some stakeholders, who feel that the Sports Ministry wants to usurp their jobs through the back door.
The stakeholders believe that the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF), which is the custodian of football in Nigeria, should be in charge of any reform in the game and not by “outsiders.”
However, members of the Masterplan Committee said that the stakeholders’ stance was borne out of the misconception of the Federal Government’s intention.
According to Mr. Yemi Idowu, who is the vice chairman of the 16-man committee, the master plan will strengthen the country’s football architecture and help the NFF to run the game efficiently.
Idowu said that the general feeling is that government interferes with the football administration, with some stakeholders stressing that there should be a better approach to the government performing its oversight function.
Explaining the need for a well-defined masterplan for Nigerian football, Idowu said: “The Ministry of Sports’ role is to have oversight of sports and within that sports, we have various activities – hockey, football, athletics and others, but each of these activities has a federation that exists.
“Now, because of the way Nigeria is, many people do not understand things like the architecture of sports from the administrative side; the regulatory side and the stakeholders’ side, as well as the operative side.
“We have recreational sports, amateur sports, competitive sports and then elite sports. The elite sport is really what we will be having at the international level, which should be handled by the federations
“Competitive sport should be handled at the state level by the FA or state associations and then the amateur football league, which should be at the divisional level, where people just play competitively and do not get paid.
“For each of these, there is some sort of administration for these functions. We have the divisional league management, which would manage fixtures, the state, which manages what happens within the state, and of course, the people selected by states to represent Nigeria will then be managed at the federation level because all 36 states cannot be there and that is the way it is supposed to be.
“But over time, especially with military and other interventions, what happened was that we cannibalised the states and we have YSFON, Nigeria Schools Sports Federation (NSSF) and the NOC doing its own thing. Everything became a mess.
“Now, the one that is more recognised is the NFF, which was formerly NFA.
“We had regions in the olden days and the government wasn’t structured to have a football unit, so we had the Northern Football Association, the Western Football Association and the Eastern Football Association.
“Over time, when the military came into power, the NFA came up and became the structure. Fast-forward to where we are today, the situation is that we have an ideological struggle and this struggle is as a function of the approach that you take to football in the country.”
Idowu said many countries have adopted the bottom-up strategy in their football development leading to a football pyramid where at the bottom, they have the base, which is the local government from where they build up their structure.
“Technically, you should not be playing for your state team if you are not good enough at your local government, just as you should not be playing for your regional team if you are not in your state team and you cannot be in your national team if you are not in your regional team,” he said.
Using Jamaica and Kenya to illustrate his point, Idowu said, “no matter how popular you are, if you do not make the qualifying time, you are going nowhere and it’s very straightforward. This ideology is a function of what you choose. Jamaicans have chosen athletics; Kenya has chosen long distance, Nigeria naturally favours football, even though we are good at other things, football is the strongest.
“So, this ideology to drive our football has two sides, the top-down and bottom-up strategies. The top-down strategy is when you give prominence to the national teams, focusing on U-17, U-20, male and female teams, with 90 per cent or the entire budget spent there, while ignoring the local councils and other grassroots levels.
“This was okay when we had ACB and Bendel Insurance football clubs, but over time, there was nothing left, contractual obligations were not met, so the players left and when they all left, the national team suffered,” he said, adding, “we ignored the grassroots and then messed up the U-17 to the extent that we have found ourselves nowhere. So, what we now have at NFF level is officials going to Germany, Holland, Russia, Britain and others to look for players of Nigerian descent. Now, we have found ourselves in a situation where we are begging people to come and play for Nigeria. Of course, some people will come demand payment if they are to play for the country and the whole thing became a total farce.”
He said that in some climes, people are desirous of playing for their countries, no matter the state of the national infrastructure.
According to Idowu, officials of progressive countries do not demand business class tickets when they travel because they want to serve their country.
“We have reached a point where officials will demand that you buy business class tickets for them, just as you bought for the players and so 90 per cent of the budget was being spent on just the national teams. It is an ideology that is unsustainable as the NFF continues going to the government for subvention.
“Over seven years, they have looked at the matrix, N15 billion was spent directly, excluding the indirect spending.
“When I say indirect spending, I mean when you want to do a football match at a place, police will write a memo to the Inspector General of Police (IG) to provide police at the event, the IG will approve N10 to N20 million, which is not captured in the final budget. Customs, aviation and host state governments will spend money, which is not written down.
“You ask yourself, what are we getting in return? What is the proper strategy? Since we do not know, instead of the government always interfering, let us come together and find out what would be best.
“The NFF says they are the ones that will decide, but NFF is not the only stakeholder here. There are referees, schools, coaches and players union. So, instead of fighting, let’s create a neutral ground and on that neutral ground, let’s invite former players, the players union, and everyone to discuss and come back to the government with a report of what they want.
“The committee was set up and we invited everyone to come and submit their thoughts on the way the game should be run. The Nigerian Olympic Committee, NFF and everyone submitted their thoughts, which resulted in the 10-year Masterplan document.
“Everybody agreed that we must have competitions at the grassroots level, develop from grassroots to build U-13, U-15 and U-17 competitions. They all agreed with every single thing.
“So what is the problem? The problem is the Nigerian problem… if a man is working at the local government or state level, he will be complaining but once he gets a job at the federal level, he becomes a changed man and starts saying the opposite of everything he had said and complained about earlier.”
Idowu described the state football associations as empty shells, adding that the Masterplan will make them productive.
He said that for the U-17 World Cup, Nigeria would not have any junior footballers today.
“In Abuja now, they bypass the local councils and other grassroots structures and start scouting for players, whose records of progression from U-13 to U-17 levels they don’t have. In other nations, the U-17 is just part of the journey… it’s like phase one of a long journey. They have eight to ten years masterplan, which accounts for successors to every level of their national teams.”
On infrastructure, Idowu said the country should have junior leagues within local councils, who then play to the state championships.
“From the states, the teams move to the regional stage and from there to the national championship. So, what I am trying to say about infrastructure is that the minute it is announced that the national competition will be hosted at a particular place, they will start developing, cleaning up, painting, decorating and remodelling their facilities. It, therefore, becomes a catalyst for infrastructural development, which is what FIFA does.
“Abroad, people support, sponsor and volunteer in the most little ways they can, but here the case is different. So if we want to get football right in Nigeria, we need to have federal-level templates for urban and rural football.
“We are going to use this national competition to drive grassroots football in Nigeria so that at the end of the day, a state can end up having as much as 100 players when what they really need is just 20 players.
“Once we have a bottom-up football pyramid that is good, then N15 billion would really go a long way. That is why we need to invest in the grassroots.”