BY KUNLE SOLAJA.
It is 36 years today that the meeting, which midwifed the Nigeria Professional Football League (NPFL) took place in Lagos. On that 27 April 1984 date, a body that registered as Professional Football Federation of Nigeria (PFFN) acted as the catalyst that brought about the status of Nigeria’s elite footballers.
The PFFN later got registered under the company act of 1968 at the Ministry of Trade in July 1984. It had registration number RC4037.
The body backed by prominent citizens, especially two Emirs from the North, made a major breakthrough when on April 27, 1984 it held the first ever summit on professional football at Royal Bed Hotel, Ikeja, Lagos at the instance of Chief Lekan Salami, a chieftain of the then IICC Shooting Stars.
The meeting was expected to come out with a comprehensive data on positive approach towards professionalism. It was of historical significance both in design and choice of venue.
A similar summit had taken place in England in the same month of April in 1888, which transformed English football from its predominantly amateur status.
The Royal Bed Hotel, Ikeja, meeting of the PFFN appeared a replay of the Royal Hotel Manchester meeting 86 years earlier.
At the PFFN meeting, Sampson Emeka Omeruah, Minister of Sports, was represented by National Sports Commisssion (NSC) Chairman, Brigadier Kehinde Sho-Silver.
His address touched on the fundamentals of professional football in Nigeria. He told the PFFN to consider the ethics of professional soccer and urged the delegates to enter into dialogue with the NFA on the modalities of beginning a professional league.
The meeting in Ikeja was major step that led to chains of events culminating in professional football kicking off in 1990.
The government seemed to have given a blanket approval to the venture. In 1982, it accepted the recommendation of the S.O. Williams commission on Sports Administration that government should recognise professionalism in sports.
At the inauguration of a new board for NSC, Emeka Omeruah announced that professional soccer might take off in 1986. When the National Executive Committee of the NFA met in Benin, in January 1986, Chairman, Anthony Ikazoboh, told the gathering that the Federal Government had given the go-ahead for the change of players’ status and called on interested club sides to register as companies with Ministry of Trade.
Everyone seemed to have agreed that Nigeria was ripe for professionalism. But one hurdle crossed, another emerged.
Which body should control it? The next few months witnessed a cold war between the then NFA and the PFFN.
FIFA recognises only one football governing body in a country. The NFA, which had enjoyed that recognition since 1959, held steadfastly to the argument.
It pointed to Article 41 of FIFA Statutes (1986) to buttress the claim to sole authority to all forms of football activities in Nigeria. The article forbids any form of relationship with sporting associations that are not members.
The PFFN countered that by Decree 34 of 1971 under which the NSC was established, the amateur status of all its various associations, including the NFA, was clear.
Officials of the PFFN argued that the NFA cannot control professional football, while also, their own body needed no recognition from FIFA and CAF as it intended to operate under the jurisdiction of the NFA.
Analogies were drawn from boxing and wrestling bodies, which have dual status. Both are organised at amateur level by national associations under the NSC.
But at the professional level, there are boards of control that were still outside the control of NSC. But such comparison appeared more complex on closer examination.
While FIFA controls football world wide, both at amateur and professional level, different bodies control boxing.
The International Amateur Boxing Association (IABA) organises championships and tournaments in the Olympic Games. At professional level, no fewer than four bodies – WBC, WBO, WBA and IBF exist.
When in late 1985, Col. Ahmed Abdulahi took over from Omeruah as Sports Minister; he set up a committee comprising the NFA, PFFN, and Sports Writers Association of Nigeria, the referees association and representatives of the ministry to harmonise all issues relating to professional football.
The committee’s report was submitted in November 1986. The bringing together of men from both PFFN and NFA notwithstanding, the former pressed on plans to start its independent league.
It began registration of club sides in March 1986 and reportedly had 15 clubs in its fold. Among them were some division one national league sides.
They were alleged to have paid 25 Naira registration fee while their representatives continually attended the PFFN’s meeting at its five-room secretariat at 3 Western Avenue, Lagos.