It has only happened twice before. Enyimba FC remains the only Nigerian club to win the CAF Champions League. But it has come to be that we expect Nigerian Professional Football League (NPFL) sides to be CAFCL contenders. Perhaps it is because The Aba Warriors won it in succession and within living memory.
It could be because domestic leagues in Africa are littered with footballing talent from Nigeria and we expect better from the very source of good things. All that I can confirm is that NPFL teams have struggled to replicate the lightning in a bottle moment that Enyimba enjoyed in 2003 and 2004.
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There have been close calls like when two Nigerian clubs, Kano Pillars and Heartland FC, made the CAFCL semifinals in 2009. Sunshine Stars FC also surprised Africa with a similar fete in 2012 – when Esperance Tunis had Belaili and Msakni yet inexplicably could not play them together. Enyimba themselves have last four accomplishments of 2008 and 2011 to look back to despite being only a CAF Confederation Cup team these days.
The excuses given by Nigerians are familar. They say their clubs do not have as much money as the North African sides. They cry that NPFL does not enjoy the partronage that the likes of Sundowns and Horoya AC do. NPFL fans will also not fail to mention the self-sabotage antics of Nigerian teams. This can be in understandable forms such as losing key players at crucial moments or it can be something spectacular, like being too disorganized to win away matches.
NPFL teams can compete in Africa
Closer scrutiny reveals that things are not that bad in Nigeria. For one, the country has arguably the greatest pool of football talent in Africa. Nigeria also has some of the best small stadiums in Africa that are only strokes of paint away (and maybe changing rooms and scoreboards too) from hanging with the Moroccos of this world. The importance of spectacularly deep pockets is overstated. Money is not doing too much for Al Ahly when it comes to matters CAF Champions League, for instance.
It is important to bring up the fact that clubs not too disimilar to the level of NPFL teams repeatedly reach the latter stages of the CAFCL. I am talking about the likes of Dynamos, Coton Sport and Vita Club who did well in Africa at one point or the other. The big challenge, therefore, is consistency in doing good. This problem is not limited to NPFL or club football in Africa. We also witness every couple years or so how the major national teams of Africa drop many levels down. Who knows if Belmadi and Algeria will even make World Cup 2022?
Innovation is the key
Consistently good performance requires discipline and innovation. The former draws from the competencies and professionalism of football admins as well as players. The latter defines inclination towards new thinking in football. Making NPFL teams great again is a medium to long term endeavor that needs the input of all stakeholders, especially government entities that own the clubs.
There are also changes that can be implemented within shorter time frames to realize quick wins for domestic football in Nigeria, with regards to CAFCL.
What would the CAF Champions League be without names like Junior Ajayi and Michael Eneramo? You could argue that if Nigeria brought her youth development structures up to par she may not even need foreign players. But this protectionism or nationalist approach in football simply doesn’t work. Algeria’s decline is living proof. The days of one, two and three foreign players in the starting XI should be behind us. NPFL teams need to re-emphasize importance of foreigners in their squads.
A proper data-driven, systemized recruitment process will bypass the advantage of deep pockets in African club football competition. There are only so many expensive footballers aspiring to spend their playing days in Africa. Nigeria has equally impressive talent pools of Ghana, Ivory Coast, Mali and Cameroon to draw from. They could yet cast their nets wide and attract the few good players they can from East and Central Africa.
NPFL should develop know-how
It is unfortunate that the transfer market has been hijacked by unscrupulous agents and club officials. The best we can come to a model of good recruitment in Africa are CS Sfaxien and Esperance Tunis. These clubs are always able to reinvent themselves and maintain their stature despite losing players or completing cycles of golden generations. They appreaciate that know-how supercedes the most extravagant training complex you can build (yes, Morocco).
One cannot talk of know-how without bringing up coaches. And this goes beyond the head coach to touch on the entire technical bench. Nigeria has some good coaches like Usman Ab’dallah and, our favourite, Fidelis Ilechukwu. It’s a shame that nothing ever came of MFM FC. It is appropriate to retain these Nigerian faces as head coaches. They get experience and raises spirits in Nigeria.
It will do a world of good to bring in competent foreigners as supporting casts for these men as well. This should be in the form of club management, game analysis and team conditioning. They do not necessarily have to come from Europe. Getting coaching talent from proven countries like Egypt, Tunisia and Algeria will bring the much needed edge for approaching CAFCL football.
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