The NNL and the normalization of second-tier thinking
The latest news that the Nigeria Nationwide League (NNL), the nation’s second tier, intends to promote a whopping eight teams to the top flight has been hard to digest. Once again, we are setting ourselves up to be the butt of a thousand jokes.
To provide some context, the Nigeria Professional Football League (NPFL) ended the 2018 season in highly unusual circumstances. The long-running political intrigue between Amaju Pinnick and Chris Giwa effectively derailed the resumption of the league after the World Cup. By the time it cleared up, the deadline set by the Confederation of African Football (CAF) for nomination of representatives for Inter Club competitions was close at hand.
Then the decision was taken to end the league as it was, declaring Lobi Stars as Nigeria’s representative to the CAF Champions League, and Enugu Rangers as representatives to the Confederation Cup by virtue of their Federation Cup victory. This unorthodox resolution had a side effect: no teams were relegated from the top flight.
In such a situation, it was expected that, since there was no relegation, there should not be promotion either. And if there was to be, certainly not eight.
However, we find ourselves in a precarious situation: the relevant stakeholders in the NNL have met, and have resolved to send up eight teams, thereby bringing the number of clubs in the NPFL to 28. All that is left, at this point, is the ratification of the decision by the NFF.
The first, and most obvious question, is why anyone would think this is a good idea.
Why, in a country where the majority of clubs struggle to even get around to honour matches, or to scrape together enough funds to pay players, do we need to have more teams play in the topmost division?
There have been clamours in the past for the NPFL to be split into groups and abridged precisely because of the logistical challenges facing the clubs within it (with a view to harmonizing with CAF, the upcoming season will operate this format as a matter of necessity). Eight more teams is yet more variables to grapple with, and while there is an undertone of political pressure for this resolution to be adopted, the League Management Company (LMC) must do all within its power to stand against it. Failure to do so could seriously jeopardize the work and effort that the LMC has put into making the league into a remotely marketable entity.
The local league is one which encumbered by many problems. It suffers in terms of attendances in stadiums, and has no television rights deal running. Clubs are underfunded, as benefactor governors understandably would rather focus on infrastructural development. There is no reserve league, no youth development programmes. The quality of play and personnel is weak (this truth was cruelly exposed at the Championship of African Nations earlier this year), and there is no clout or means to keep even the better ones. Instead, they actively seek out trials in middling European and Asian leagues.
In spite of these, the LMC has worked hard to dress up the league, putting a veneer of professionalism and worth on it, and instituting partnerships with, for instance, La Liga and the Federal Inland Revenue Service. If this proposal goes through without opposition, all of that work would be undone in double quick time.
Really, what would the addition of eight NNL teams to the top flight do, but damage the brand and dilute the already tepid quality on offer? It is also not clear how many would then be relegated – some reports indicate as many as 12, which would lead to further chaos. It is a decision that cannot be salvaged even by time: it looks stupid now, and it will look stupid for many years to come.
It seems though that none of that matters. The Nigerian capacity to bungle the simplest things, and shoot ourselves in the foot is, by this evidence, alive and thriving. The LMC, and every well-meaning stakeholder of Nigerian football, must as a matter of necessity, stand against it, if only to check the ongoing normalisation of this stupidity.