Professional football clocks 33 years in Nigeria 

Professional football clocks 33 years in Nigeria 
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BY KUNLE SOLAJA

On this date, 12 May 1990, professional football kicked off in Nigeria after years of agitations. It kicked off with Stores’ home match with the then Iwuanyanwu Nationale (now Heartland of Owerri). Ben Iroha, a left rear guard of the Super Eagles playing for the Owerri side entered the record books as the first scorer in the Nigerian professional league when he scored the first goal in a 2-1 away win at the now Mobolaji Johnson Arena.

Sports Village Square recalls that in the opening season, 16 club sides were paired in the first professional league fixtures in the country.

Professional football had kicked off in Nigeria 102 years after England pioneered the venture worldwide.

By 1989, the year preceding Nigeria’s adoption of professional football, the venture had virtually swept across the globe. What could not be imagined some years back were unfolding.

No fewer than six Eastern bloc countries of former Czechoslovakia, Romania, Poland, Hungary, East Germany and the defunct Soviet Union had surprisingly dropped amateurism.

Even the Olympic Movement was not left out as amateurism was fading out rapidly. Professionalism has now become the bedrock of the movement, which only a decade earlier could not boast of having more than $100,000 to run its affairs.

By early 1990s, the International Olympic Committee measured its reserves in million dollars, thanks to the influx of sponsors. Juan Antonio Samaranch had transformed it into a big commercial enterprise.

In response to posers on the increasing professionalism of sports in the Olympic movement, Samaranch remarked that it underscored the importance of the games.

In Nigeria, the early agitation for professional football was perhaps in the 1950s. Initially, the argument was on the pros and cons.

But stronger voices seemed against it. Derby Allen, who later became the NFA chairman, for instance argued that the football industry would take more than it offered. The scale of organisation and capital investment for professional football to thrive were lacking.

Derby Allen in the Sunday Times of  20 September 1953, offered such argument against professional football. He doubted the ability of clubsides to obtain suitable ground sufficiently large enough and equipped to accommodate thousands of spectators.

In the Lagos area, the only ground of note was the King George V Stadium (now Mobolaji Johnson Arena, Onikan), which could hold a tightly packed 12,000 people.

The value of terracing and facilities was estimated at £20,000. The paucity of facilities was also the strong point of argument against professional football, even up to the 1980s.

Allen argued further that managing the professional players, grounds men, manager, treasurer, trainers and other staff would be too much for the prospective clubs to bear.

A typical wage bill of each club was £6,209 per month. With other expenses like rent of ground and other operational costs, each club was computed to likely spend £16,000 annually and make about £8,000, leaving annual loss of the same amount. Such clubs would be too few and far apart.

Most antagonists up till 1980s subscribed to the arguments. Clubs were expected to seek other means of generating funds like the Egyptian teams, which were run as semi-professional outfits.

The Al-Ahly of Cairo printed out 120,000 copies of its magazine weekly to supplement earnings from gate takings. Besides, each of the 15,000 associate members at the time, yearly paid one thousand Egyptian pounds.

Protagonists held that professionalism was the answer to the apparent dwindling standard of the game. Coach Peter ‘Eto’ Amaechina told the Sunday Times of 2 September 1969, that Nigeria could not make a World Cup standard without adopting professional football.

He was to be proved right as Nigeria’s debut in the World Cup was immediately after the commencement of the professional league.

Ameachina recalled then that only one non-professional football country, Sweden, in 1958 ever played the World Cup final.

Jasper Philips, treasurer of LAFA for many years, maintained in 1963 that Nigeria should go professional.

His lofty idea was that 3,000 sports-minded Nigerians should contribute £10  each to raise a £30,000 Trust Fund to begin the venture.

Louis Edet, the NFA chairman, loved the idea, but doubted the implementation, as professionalism would rob Nigeria the opportunities to feature in some international competitions.

“There is currently no professional football in Africa, and barring African Cups, a team of professionals in Nigeria can’t take part in Olympics, West African Gold Cup and the Nnamdi Azikiwe Cup played by Nigeria and Ghana”, argued Edet.

He stated further that such debarment also applied to friendly matches.  “It will therefore require more than £30,000 trust fund to maintain a professional team which can’t play many matches and bring money from the gates to reinforce the trust fund”, Edet concluded.

The argument sounded plausible, especially recalling past experience.

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