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Talents for export

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Last week I attended the Integral European Football Week in Ijebu Ode where more than 300 young men between the ages of 13 – 18 from 16 teams worked hard to impress European scouts in hopes of landing a trial. There were several striking performances with some stand-out talents in the teams on parade at the Dipo Dina International Stadium. The young men played out their hearts and provided proof that indeed there exists a great production line of young footballers that could power a football industry in this country.

The irony was that, despite having been selected from across the country, none of the teams was a feeder club for the leading Nigeria Professional Football League club sides. They were largely independent clubs owned by enthusiast coaches and entrepreneurs who understand the business secret of getting young talents to play in European leagues and the financial rewards that it brings.

The truth is many of the best young players in Nigeria will never play in the domestic professional leagues. Once their talent is discovered by the scouts, they are ferried to clubs in Europe where they are polished and prepared to be sold on to bigger clubs where their talent will be enjoyed by delightful spectators. Meanwhile, the domestic scene is left with the rest of the pack who remain here always with an eye on moving abroad at the slightest opportunity.

During my visit to Bundesliga clubs Hoffenheim, Stuttgart and RB Leipzig last year, I observed the way German clubs brought young players from their communities into the club system. They carefully sought out promising talents and placed them in the coaching system deploying technology and expertise to improve their skills. These young boys become the fulcrum of the teams in future. Their stories become intertwined with their clubs and become a part of the larger folklore. Club and player are in a symbiotic relationship.

This is not the case in Nigeria where there is hardly any structure. On Tuesday, LMC chairman, Mallam Shehu Dikko made a damning revelation at the Stakeholders’ Roundtable on Sports Business and Dispute Resolution organized by the Lagos Chamber of Commerce’s International Arbitration Centre. Dikko recounted how Nigerian clubs are wont to offload more than half of their entire team at the end of each season and wonder why they do not have consistent progress. Enugu Rangers won the NPFL title in 2016 but resumed the next season with half of the old team leading to a poor run on the continent. Soon after, they sacked Coach Imama Amapakabo whose doorsteps they wrongly laid the blame for the poor season.

A lack of proper structure is tied to the ownership of clubs by state governments. State funding of clubs arose as a result of the divestment of private owners in the mid-1990s due to the crash of the Nigerian economy. Once the major entrepreneurs and public corporations took their money out of club football, the state governments stepped in to rescue the clubs and keep them running to ensure fans were able to have some entertainment. However, they have unwittingly become tools in the hands of politicians to maintain their popularity and ensure regular job for their boys. Nigerian sports management at the federal and state level have become nothing more than a patronage and reward system with many at the helm of leadership having no expertise to excel in a multibillion-dollar industry.

That lack of management expertise leaves clubs unable to plan and create programmes that will ensure profitability and proper marketable structures for their business. It is why we have not had a club that has built its own stadium nor has a functional business model that can make it self-sustaining without a state government budget. It seems that the state governors also like what they see; an opportunity to maintain their hold on what is sometimes the only entertainment outlet in their little cocoons. They keep it small and manageable bereft of best practice and innovative thinking.

This reduces the whole ecosystem to a small space where nothing much thrives, instead of an industry that could really grow into an employer of diverse labour; coaches, physicians, therapists, marketers, psychologists, content creators, digital innovators, programmers, developers, etc. So we are left with a football system where everyone is left to look out for themselves and try to grab a piece of the tiny pie on the table.

It is why there is no place for our best young talents to thrive in-country so they seek every opportunity to go abroad. And from what we have learnt this week from the New York Times story of the young Nigerian chess prodigy Tanitoluwa Adewumi, “talent may be universal but opportunity is not”. Young Nigerian talents will continue to flock towards Europe and Asia where their talents can be better rewarded in a healthy place of opportunity.

How can we create an environment where talent thrives? How can we become more than a market where talent is exported to be polished and profited from? These questions will be answered by the calibre of people that we employ to manage sports at the institutional level.


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