Which is the world’s best football league? The Premier League, La Liga or the less celebrated leagues in South America and Africa?
Whatever one’s pick may be, there is certainly the chance that the person next door will have a contrary opinion, as the issue has caused a division among football fans, even pundits, around the world.
The differing opinions on the matter is, on the whole, traceable to the difficulty in establishing a single, generally accepted yardstick for rating a league.
While some argue that ratings should be based on the league’s popularity and commercial viability, hence, the Premier League, which commands unrivalled followership, television coverage and revenue, should top the pile; others insist that using commercial indices to rate a league is just another subtle way of selling the heart of the beautiful game. They hold that attention should rather be centred on football artistry, that is, the style of football that is seen, week in week out; the flash and flare. After all, football was first a sport before it became business!
Yet another line of thought is that the quality of a league boils down to the level of competition that exists within it – the gap between big teams and the small teams; the number of points that separate teams at the two ends of the table.
While the world may never reach a consensus on the matter, the argument for competition seems to favour the Nigeria Professional Football League (NPFL).
THE NPFL, A LEAGUE OF EQUAL TEAMS?
The Nigerian Professional Football League, over the years, has turned out to be what could be likened to a casteless society. Unlike some popular leagues where there exists a clear demarcation between the big and small teams – the haves and have nots – all teams in the NPFL seem to play at the same level. In the La Liga for instance, teams enter each season with aspirations set according to their different capacities and pedigrees, but not so in the NPFL as virtually all clubs come with their sights set on winning silverware.
When Go Round FC gained promotion to the NPFL in 2017, their gaffer, Ngozi Elechi, remarkably stated that his target in his first ever season in the elite division was to win the title. While his statement sounded cocky, Elechi had every reason to dream big – considering how the league panned out in previous seasons.
The 2017 season, for instance, turned out to be a straight battle between Plateau United and MFM FC, two sides that only managed to stay afloat the season before. To be more specific, MFM were so entrenched in the relegation battle that their hopes of survival was not entirely in their hands going into the final day of the season. It only took a mixture of guts and providence for them to beat the drop on the last day.
Better yet, a closer illustration will be the 2006 winners, Ocean Boys FC, who achieved the feat in their very first season in the top flight.
Besides the citations of teams climbing from bottom to top, there have also been cases of teams that saw what was supposed to be their title defence turn into struggle for survival. Bayelsa United, for instance, won the title in 2009 but got relegated the next season.
Another proof of the level of closeness of teams in the league is the fact that only two clubs – Enyimba and Kano Pillars – have been able to successful defend their titles since the turn of the millennium. This is a proof of the level of competition that has made the league intriguingly unpredictable.
THE REASON FOR THE COMPETITION
Virtually all football clubs in Nigeria’s topflight are government owned. Currently, only 5 out of the 24 teams in the division are owned by private entities, and this is the major reason for the consistent level of competition that is witnessed in the NPFL.
According to Goodwin Enakhana, a veteran sports journalist and administrator, “There are teams in the Premier League whose targets are not to win the league. When you look at Wolves for instance, their target is always to be among the top ten because they don’t have the money to buy the kind of players that Man City have. The teams that are winning the league there are teams with big money.
“But in Nigeria, the first assignment you are given as a club administrator is to win the league. It doesn’t matter if you joined the league yesterday or today. Also, almost all the teams can afford the same kind of players because their state governments are ready to give them the money.”
Enakhana’s explanation is similar to that Nigerian football expert, Fisayo Dairo, who says, “The structure of the league has not made the so called big teams to be distinguished. Over ninety percent of the clubs are owned by the government, so the revenues for these clubs come from the government and are almost equal.
“Revenue is the main thing that differentiates clubs in Europe. Barcelona and Real Madrid are the biggest clubs in Spain simply because they are the richest. But in Nigeria where revenue comes from the government, every team have almost equal money, therefore can operate at almost same level.”
No doubt, the involvement of the government in the league by way of ownership of the clubs has created a level playing field in the area of revenue. Yet, the grave downside is that with state ownership of football clubs, the league cannot be run in the most professional and commercially lucrative manner.
So, even though the much desired breakout of these clubs from the government into private hands will represent a watershed that will open many doors for the league, the consolation for the football fan in Nigeria is that the NPFL can, at least for now, be considered as one of the most closely-fought leagues in the world.