African business, politics and lifestyle
New hope for Nigerian football
The progress of two Nigerian teams into the group phase of the African Champions League defies the supposed impact of the continuing exodus of the country’s top talent to almost every distant footballing corner of the world.
Kano Pillars caused a major upset last month with their shock win over defending champions Al Ahly, albeit on the away goal rule, while Heartland FC eliminated last year’s runners-up Coton Sport of Cameroon at the same stage of the competition. Both results plunged the established order into disarray and offer now the Nigerians a chance to prove their immense resources.
Nigerian club football has had steady representation in the Champions League over the last 13 years but besides Enyimba, the state sponsored team from Aba State, no club has ever displayed title winning potential.
Much of that has to do with the flight of players from the country, off in search of better earnings and opportunity on foreign football fields. There are more than 200 Nigerian footballers playing across the globe, from the top leagues in England, Germany, Italy and Spain to lesser footballing markets like India, Vietnam and even in Albania.
Losing the top 200 players is a massive blow to any country and in particular the domestic championship. Nigeria might have a professional league in name but it is still a shambolic competition, dominated by extreme violence and routine disorgansiation. Attacks on players, coaches and referees remain common place and although there is some TV coverage, much of it is frustratingly haphazard for the broadcaster. The standard too is hampered by poor facilities and the player drain.
Nigeria, given their immense resources, really should be the powerhouse of club football in Africa. But because so many players have left, success for Africa’s most populous nation at club level is infrequent. The progress of Kano Pillars and Heartland FC, neither of whom have ever progressed this far before in the 13 years of the Champions League format, bucks that trend.
It emphasises again the immense potential of Nigerian football, which given its passionate following and playing resources should be the most prominent in Africa. But whether the progress of the pair of the clubs to the last eight of the Champions League, and the elite group field, is an anomaly or not will become evident in the coming months of competition.