Culture and Lifestyle

English Football and the Sustained Prestige: Any Lesson For Nigeria?

Football is one of the most loved and most popular sports in the world with an estimated fan following of 3.5 billion people. It is a passionate game cherished by many and a unifier across diverse lines.

While the expectations can be high across the board for many nations domestically and internationally, there are some countries that take their love of the game above all others.

Like every other aspect of society, football administration is important and key to the development and economic growth of many countries across the globe.

Top on the list is England where association football is believed to have started. The English Football Association (FA) which is the governing body of football in England has remained a successful global sports leader since it was established as the regulatory body for all soccer-related issues in that country.

The FA sanctions all competitive football matches at the national level, and indirectly at the local level through the county football associations. It runs numerous competitions, the most famous of which is the FA Cup. It is also responsible for appointing the management of the men, women, and youth national football teams.

All of England’s professional football teams are members of the Football Association. Although it does not run the day-to-day operations of the Premier League, it has veto power over the appointment of the League Chairman and Chief Executive, as well as over any changes to league rules.

The English Football League, made up of the three fully professional divisions below the Premier League, is self-governing but subject to the FA’s sanctions.

The most prestigious and flagship competition in England is the Premier League, often referred to as the English Premier League or the EPL (legal name: the Football Association Premier League Limited).

It is the highest level of the English football league system. Contested by 20 clubs, it operates on a pyramid system of promotion and relegation. The EPL works in alignment with the autonomous English Football League (EFL) as teams relegated from the EPL must move to the EFL.

The EPL Seasons run from August to May with each team playing 38 matches (playing all 19 other teams both home and away). Most games are played on Saturday and Sunday afternoons.

The EPL was founded as the FA Premier League on 20 February 1992 following the decision of clubs in the Football League First Division to break away from the Football League, founded in 1888.

This they did so as to take advantage of lucrative television rights deal. The deal was worth around £1 billion a year domestically as of 2013–14, with Sky and BT Group securing the domestic rights to broadcast 116 and 38 games respectively.

The league is a corporation in which the member clubs act as shareholders, and generates €2.2 billion per year in domestic and international television rights. Clubs were apportioned central payment revenues of £2.4 billion in 2016–17, with a further £343 million in solidarity payments to English Football League (EFL) clubs.

The model has been a huge success and propelled the Premier League to be the most-watched and the most-followed sports league in the world. It is broadcasted in 212 territories to 643 million homes and a potential TV audience of 4.7 billion people. Most stadium occupancies are near capacity.

The Premier League ranks second in the UEFA coefficients of leagues based on performances in European competitions over the past five seasons as of 2021, only behind Spain’s La Liga.

The English top-flight has produced the second-highest number of UEFA Champions League/European Cup titles, with five English clubs having won thirteen European trophies in total.

Europe’s premier competition, the UEFA champions league record for highest all-nation final appearance, is a record jointly held by England and Spain, both making 3 all-nation final appearances each.

Two English teams featured in the Final 3 times (2008, 2019 & 2021), while two Spanish teams equally featured in the final 3 times (1999, 2014 & 2016).

In 2019, the top two UEFA competitions (the UEFA Champions League & the UEFA Europa League) had teams from the English Premier League as finalists.

It was unprecedented in European football, with Liverpool and Tottenham squaring off in the Champions League final and, Chelsea with Arsenal locking horns in the Europa League final.

In 2008, two English teams also battled for the UEFA champions league title with Chelsea and Manchester United in a fierce contest in the popular “Moscow Final”.

The stage is also set for an all-English Champions League final again in 2021 with Chelsea and Manchester City set to compete for the prestigious laurel on 29 May 2021, in Istanbul Turkey. One English team, Manchester United, will also compete for the Europa League final on 26 May 2021, in Gdansk, Poland following the exit of Arsenal in the semi-finals against Villareal.

Can football managers in Nigeria learn from the success story of English football? The Nigerian Football Federation is the regulatory soccer body in the country.

The Nigeria Professional Football League (NPFL) which is the highest level of the Nigerian football league system is managed by an autonomous registered body, the League Management Company (LMC).

The league changes its name like a chameleon. It was known as the Nigerian Premier League for the second time, up till the 2012/2013 Season from the 2003/2004 Season.

It was called at different times “Nigerian Premiership” (2000–2003); “Nigerian Premier League”, first time (1993–2000); “Nigerian Professional League” (1990–1993); Nigerian National League – First Division (1979–1990), and “the National League” or “Nigerian Football League” (1972–1979). Like many other national football leagues all over the world, the NPFL operates a pyramid-based model of promotions and relegations.

The top 4 teams in the NPFL will go ahead to contest for continental laurels in the CAF champions league and the CAF confederation cup, while the bottom 3 teams will drop to the lower division.

The Nigerian football league has attained remarkable national relevance and attracted huge interest from a huge population of soccer-loving Nigerians.

This was from the 1980s up to the mid-2000s when things went awry and started going downhill totally. The craze for European football, with the emergence of Pay-TV, pushed the Nigerian league to the brink of extinction.

Looking at the clubs in Nigeria, Enyimba FC of Aba is the most successful, having won the Nigerian league a record of 8 times, closely followed by Rangers FC with 7 honours, as well as Shooting Stars of Ibadan and Heartland FC of Owerri with 5 respectively. Kano Pillars make up the top five with 4 titles won.

On the continental front, only one Nigerian football club has won the CAF Champions League, and that is Enyimba FC. They won the title on two occasions (2003 and 2004). The CAF confederation cup has been won once by a Nigerian club and that is with Dolphins FC of Port Harcourt clinching the laurel in 2005.

With zero success by clubs at the continental level in almost 18 years, it is obvious that the state of the national league is in tatters and is in desperate need of rehabilitation.

The sustained success of the English Premier League was brought about by certain factors which the Nigerian Football administrators can learn from.

The fact that many football zealots in Nigeria have decided to pitch their tents, and loyalty with clubs from the EPL rather than clubs from their country is a testament to the NPFL’s monumental failure in recent years. Before the mid-2000s, there was remarkable fan followership and interest in the Nigerian league.

Nigerians displayed “football patriotism” with stadiums witnessing encouraging attendance and while media coverage and reportage were also massive. It was not uncommon to see fans gather around a transistor radio to listen to live commentaries and monitor the actions and results of the teams.

The decline of the NPFL in the last 20 years or so was triggered by many lapses and defects which football authorities failed to address holistically and poignantly.

Some of those lapses border on ownership, funding and other related issues. For instance, most football clubs in Nigeria are typically owned by the state governments who administer and operates them as part of the civil service. This has proven to be ineffectual and retrogressive. The state government most times are unwilling to make adequate provisions for the clubs, thus, hindering their success on the pitch.

The EPL conversely has most of its clubs owned and administered by investors and private individuals who have the passion and resources to take the clubs to the next level.

The recent takeover of EPL clubs by foreign investors in the past decade has translated to massive success for the clubs (Chelsea and Manchester City for example).

The NPFL must be ready to do all it takes to attract both local and international investors for football clubs, especially in the first division to ensure adequate funding and administration of such clubs for better performance.

Over the years, the Ministry of Sports has contributed little to football development in Nigeria because it has always been run like a typical government unit with little or no personnel having pedigree, expertise and capacity in sports leadership.

It is filled with civil servants who are only there to work and earn their pay. NFF, the football governing body must as a matter of exigency, start filling holes with square pegs and ensure its personnel are not random civil servants like the Sports Ministry, but devoted and passionate football lovers; who will bring veritable ideas and provide policy ideas to chart a way forward for football growth in the country.

Another issue that the NFF needs to address is to seek for robust collaboration with TV companies for the broadcast of NPFL games. The current coverage plan with Supersports is poor and erratic.

The coverage, picture and audio quality are below standards and they are repulsive to fans who are used to smooth flowing European games. The NFF and the clubs must be ready to inject funds; with a sustainable financial model that will provide good returns in TV rights for both the NFF and the clubs over the long term. The can be achieved with adequate planning and negotiation.

The ticketing system used by the NPFL is outdated and porous. Most game tickets are sold on a cash and carry basis right at the gate before the games.

In the country, there are high risks of financial impropriety by some stadium officials. The EPL clubs use a season-ticketing model where fans purchase tickets to serve them all-season for games of the club, and monies deposited directly into bank accounts provided by the club; often by mobile or electronic means.

This is the standard practice in most successful leagues and the NPFL must make plans with clubs and relevant stakeholders to put this into place as the COVID-19 pandemic is being contained even before fans return to stadiums later this year.

Most ardent followers of NPFL in the past can attest to the fact that most games are marred with cases of fan violence and chaos after games. This discourages some fans from attending games and even losing interest in the league completely.

The NFF must make security inside and outside the premises of the stadium largely impregnable; cases of fans trooping to the pitch to assault officials and players are things that should be consigned to the past, and never allowed to rear its ugly head again.

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The quality of officiating in the NPFL must also be raised. The fact that no Nigerian referee was deemed worthy to officiate in the FIFA world cup 2018 is an indicator that more needs to be done to raise the quality and worth of Nigerian football officials.

Innovative and novel introductions in football such as the goal-line technology and VAR (video assistant referee) must also be integrated into the NPFL.

The wages of footballers should be paid on time. Cases of players protesting unpaid wages are some of the reasons why all Nigerian footballers seek to ply their trade outside the country.

Nigeria has lost many footballers to other countries as a result of the shoddy treatment it metes out on footballers and other athletes. More needs to be done to improve staff and player welfare on the domestic front.

The quality of stadiums must also be improved. Massive investments are needed to enhance the infrastructural capacity of stadiums to meet international standards and attract more quality footballers.

The media, press and relevant bodies such as SWAN (sports writers association of Nigeria) must also contribute their quota to the revival of domestic football in the country. Adequate reportage and coverage of NPFL events must be top of their agenda in radio and T.V programmes.

Conscious efforts must be made by all stakeholders, the NFF, football clubs, media and fans to bring back the NPFL to its glory days and generally improve football administration in Nigeria.

If it has been attained and sustained in England, who says it cannot be done in Nigeria too?