BY KUNLE SOLAJA.
The topmost tier of the Nigerian football league, the Nigeria Professional Football League enters its 21st match day this weekend. But the league itself clocks 28 years this Saturday as it kicked off May 12, 1990 at the Onikan Stadium, Lagos. This season is also the 47th football league season in Nigeria.
Former Super Eagles’ rear guard, Ben Iroha entered the record books as the first scorer in the professional league when his team, the then Iwuanyanwu Nationale beat Stationery Stores 2-1 on the season’s opening game at Onikan Stadium.
- Ben Iroha, scorer of the first goal of the Nigeria Professional Football League
Incidentally, of the 16 pioneer clubs, only five still remain at the elite division this season. They are Plateau United which registered in 1990 as JIB Rocks, Enyimba, Enugu Rangers, Kano Pillars and Heartland which was then known as Iwuanyanwu Nationale.
The other 11 have either gone extinct or struggling in the lower rungs of the Nigerian football league. In that class are Stationery Stores, ACB, Bendel Insurance, Bendel United, Highlanders, Calabar Rovers, Julius Berger, Shooting Stars and Obanta United which in the 1990s changed to VIP.
Of the pioneer 16 clubs, only Enugu Rangers had never been relegated, a record the coal city club has been carrying since the advent of national football league in 1972.
- Enugu Rangers have never been relegated in 47 football seasons in Nigeria.
The current dominant club sides have at one time or the other been relegated. Record seven-time champions, Enyimba, swallowed the bitter pill of relegation in the 1991 season.
- Enyimba, the most successful professional football team in Nigeria
Next most successful club of the professional league is the crowd-pulling Kano Pillars which has had four titles in 2008, 2012, 2013 and 2014. The club was relegated in 1994 season.
Maiden champions which also followed up with another title in 1993, Iwuanyanwu Nationale (now Heartland) got relegated in the 2016 season and just returned to the elite division in 2018.
The most profound of the fallen pioneers appears to be Bendel Insurance, a strong force in the top trio of Nigerian football in the 1970s through 1980s. Since relegation 10 years ago in 2008, the club had secured a permanent seat in the second-tier Nigeria National League.
Bendel Insurance, ‘Permanent Members’ of the Nigeria National League.
Next to the Benin side is their current NNL rivals, the Shooting Stars which entered the record books as the first champions to be relegated. The 1998 champions dropped to the lower division in 1999, even while featuring in the CAF Champions League.
It has carved for itself, the ‘title’ of the most experienced club in Nigeria having experienced virtually everything in a football league. Shooting Star have been in title struggle and had also won the title.
It had been in struggle against relegation and had also been relegated severally. It had battled to stay afloat in the middle of the league table and also struggled for promotion from the lower league.
- Shooting Stars have experienced everything conceivable in the league
Shooting Stars have gone down three times since the professional league started in 1990. The club is currently struggling to find its way back to the elite division.
The professional league had undergone significant changes since its beginning 28 years ago. At the beginning, to make the clubs have appetite for goals, a new point-scoring device was adopted. Traditionally, drawn games attracted just a point, but the organisers opted for two points in score draws and a point for goalless outings.
That point-scoring device was abandoned after the 1994 season. Also, in 1999 season, the Super League was adopted in the picking of champions. That way, the top four teams at the end of the regular league went into around robin competition in one centre within a week to determine the champion.
Two of the clubs, Iwuanyanwu, the leaders at the close of regular season, and Plateau United initially protested the Super League on account that they would be sacrificing their 34-week efforts in a one-week, three-game series.
In fact, had Plateau United topped at the end of regular season, Nigerian football would had been thrown into confusion as the club threatened not to go into the Super League.
It was great relief as the less antagonistic Iwuanyanwu topped the regular league. Incidentally, for the three seasons the Super League was adopted to pick continental flag bearers, none of the clubs that topped the regular seasons emerged champions!
In 2005, the Nigeria Professional League became semi-autonomous as a new body was created to run the league. The body was also later replaced by the current League Management Company in the Season 2012/13.
That season, an abridge league was played to harmonise the Nigerian football league with the international football calendar. The objective was however not realised. Season after season, the Nigeria Professional Football League suffered delay in kick-off and also dragged to the end of the year, leading to nearly three month inactivity for players, especially those engaged in CAF competitions.