COVID-19: Players, Administrators Differ on NPFL Resumption
Although it has been difficult to regain the passion and excitement that characterized the Nigerian Professional Football League in the 90s when clubs like BCC Lions of Gboko, Iwuayanwu Nationale of Owerri, Stationary Stores of Lagos, Abiola Babes of Abeokuta, Kano Pillars, Ranchers Bees of Kaduna, and Julius Berger of Lagos held sway, the interest of Nigerian football fans in the domestic league has refused to die completely.
It is, for this reason, that in spite of the glaring shortcomings in the organisation of the league, enthusiastic football fans still throng match venues to render support to their darling clubs.
In as much as attendance at match venues have dropped drastically when compared to the 90s, clubs like Kano Pillars, Plateau United, Enyimba FC, Wikki Tourists, Heartland of Owerri and Kwara United still attract appreciable fans to their stadia on match days.
Consequently, fans of these leading clubs usually look forward to Wednesdays for midweek action and Sundays for weekend football as they hope for resounding victories against opposing teams.
This was a routine for 25 weeks before the League Management Company (LMC) through the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) suspended the current league season on March 18 following the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.
With the pandemic ravaging the world which necessitated the suspension of all sporting activities as well as the introduction and enforcement of lockdowns, the minds of players, coaches, fans and even administrators have been on how to survive the deadly virus.
Thus, the need to shift significantly the minds of people from depressing thoughts over COVID-19 and also kick-start economic recoveries heightened and the need for football leagues around the world to resume became imperative.
According to available figures, Germany has gone into recession and they are the first and only country so far that have used their league, Bundesliga to distract people from wallowing in fear, uncertainty and depression.
Spain, Italy, England who recorded thousands of deaths due to the virus are also preparing to resume their leagues in the coming weeks in a bid to restart the economy slowly.
The European football market is now worth a record €28.4 billion (£25.1bn, N12trn), according to the 28th Annual Review of Football Finance from the Sports Business Group at Deloitte.
Though it is difficult to get how much football in Nigeria contributes to the economy, it has however been a source of livelihood for some many people and it is believed if resumed, the league can help restart the economy slowly and gradually.
With Nigeria recording far fewer deaths than Europe and with the gradual easing of the lockdown, some players want the league to restart while others are of the opinion that the LMC should consider the health crisis as a force majeure and cancel the league season.
It will be noted that other African nations like Kenya and Angola have decided to end their league campaigns but the NFF and the LMC have chosen to wait while the government tries to contain the ravaging Covid-19 pandemic.
In a chat with Trust Sports, Kano Pillars burly striker, Nwagua Nyima said the resumption of the league should be in line with the guidelines of the federal and state governments.
“My thoughts on the league resuming is still in the line with the ministry of health too and the federal government. I think once they see it safe for us to play games then playing behind closed doors is going to be the best for us for now.
“The reason is that controlling the crowd will be difficult so I am strongly in support of playing behind closed doors, if the league is to resume amid COVID-19 chaos,” he said.
Nyima also advised the LMC to exercise patience in the event they are contemplating cancelling the league and declaring a champion.
“About cancellation or declaring a champion, I still feel it will be too quick considering the narrow gap between the leaders and those behind them.
“I would still prefer the LMC to be patient and continue looking into means of the league continuing,” he advised.
In the same vein, Enyimba winger, Thomas Zenke has supported calls for the league to resume as he said he wants to get back to what he loves doing best.
“I don’t and won’t support the LMC annulling the league and declaring a champion. I want to be able to play some football and see how my club can climb up the table.
“You know we have some outstanding games and it is very possible for us to overtake those ahead of us. So if the LMC cancels the league, it will be an injustice to us because we have outstanding games,” he said.
Chris Okunnuwa, Media Officer Sunshine Stars as wants the league to be concluded, if possible behind closed doors.
He said “I’m in support of the league resuming and for it to be played behind closed doors. League should resume behind closed doors or continental/relegation play-off format adopted.
Abia Warriors Sporting Director, Patrick Ngwaogu also said his club is ever ready to play football again but they are waiting for the final decisions.
“Abia Warriors have never entertained any fears on the resumption of the League and in whatever format they want it played. We are all ears for whatever the organizers would want to do,” he said.
Ngwaogu, however, acknowledged that the LMC can’t restart the league without the express approval from the government.
“It’s very evident that the LMC has no powers over when the league will restart, and we don’t even know when. Before that will happen, the Federal Government will have to give clearance, and nobody knows when that will be. But, it’s only when you get to the river you will know how to cross it,” he said.
However, the chairman of Adamawa United Emmanuel Zira said the LMC should not toy with the lives of players and club officials by re-opening the league.
“I want all stakeholders to prevail on LMC not to re-open the league because they will be exposing everyone to serious risk. It is too early to rush back.
“The German Bundesliga has resumed because they will lose so much money if they don’t resume. The English Premier League and LaLiga are also planning to resume because they will lose money from sponsors.
“Our case is different. We don’t have to risk precious lives because we want to do what others are doing,” he said.
Wikki Tourist forward, Nafiu Kabuga has also supported outright cancellation of the league season.
“For me, I would prefer the LMC cancel the league and declare a champion. Before I am misunderstood, my club is no longer in relegation waters so I am not being selfish,” he explained.
Kabuga is not alone as he has the backing of the captain of Plateau United, Elisha Golbe who does not want the league to resume now.
“I am not in support of the league resumption for now because they said health is wealth, and it is only the healthy that can play football. And when you look at it critically the pandemic is increasing on a daily basis in Nigeria.
“For that, we can’t risk our lives in the field of play. Moreover, many countries in Europe and Africa have declared winners without completing the league. Ours cannot be different,” he said.
When contacted, the chairman of Nasarawa United and chairman of NPFL Club Owners Association, Barrister Isaac Danladi simply said the clubs as critical stakeholders will cooperate with the LMC when the need arises.
He, however, declined to go into details of the co-operation and support the clubs are willing to offer the league organisers on the league’s resumption or cancellation.
Meanwhile, the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) has said football activities will resume only when the government gives approval.
“The NFF will liaise with the heads of the various Leagues (Nigeria Professional Football League; Nigeria National League; Nigeria Women Football League and; Nigeria Nation-wide League One) and other important stakeholders on the return of the domestic football season, subject to an announcement by the Federal Government on the resumption of football and other sporting activities in the country,” said the football federation in a recent statement.