The 2017 Nigeria Professional Football League is upon us. The excitement is already building for the teams and the players. Not to mention the journalists who make sure everything from preparation to the kick-off is well covered. For the fans, it is nothing but pure joy. Nothing matches the feeling of watching their teams play for the points. They seat, jump and shout through it all. They look forward to the league much more than everyone else.
The 2016 league season was done and dusted in a spectacular and historic manner. There is no doubt as to what an incredible season it was. Rangers International Football Club were crowned champions on the very last day of the season after a marathon of wins, defeats and draws against other NPFL clubs. Rivers United, Wikki Tourist and FC Ifeanyi Ubah football clubs didn’t take legs off their pedals in putting pressure on Rangers and ensuring the fight for Nigeria’s biggest soccer title isn’t a one man show. What made winning the title more special for Rangers is the fact that they had to wait 32 years to win it again, breaking a jinx that has kept many Enugu football fans wondering at night when they should be sleeping. The fans can finally sleep peacefully at night, singing Coach Imama Amapakabo’s and his boys’ names in the morning. A group that have etched their name in gold and earned their place in the history books of Rangers Int’l Football Club.
This title season winning season for Rangers football club is a great referral on how better the Nigeria Professional Football League has become under the guide of the League Management Company (LMC). With just two games to end the season, the Flying Antelopes had a game away against relegation threatened Ikorodu United and the champions won to take the three points which put them in pole position to lift the title after the final game of the season. Now cast your mind back just few years ago, would it have been possible for Rangers to win a penultimate game of that magnitude away from home? I strongly doubt that. The LMC has brought so much sanity into the NPFL. The last three years is testament to this fact. This season we saw how Giwa FC broke the rules and were thrown out of the league. We also saw many other teams fined and punished for crowd violence (Kano Pillars and Ikorodu United especially) and also players been punished for silly behaviours.
In the same vain, we saw for the first time in the Nigeria Professional Football League teams flying to match venues within the country. MFM FC, Ikoroudu United, FC Ifeanyi Ubah, Kano Pillars and Enyimba are notable among those that have flown to match centres within the country. This has brought sanity to a league previously plagued by acts of indiscipline among those responsible for promoting its image. Such acts became so rife that they went unpunished and even worse among the administrators who busied themselves in a Game of Thrones. This has rather taken a turnaround for the positive the last few years.
This turnaround is evident in the swelling number of people attending games at different match venues across the federation. The increase in number of fans trooping to stadia is a consequence of safer match venues. Nothing justifies this safety more than games returning to Borno state, the home of ElKanemi Warriors where violence by Boko Haram has held sway since 2009. Though this isn’t associated with the fans, it however further proves that the current administrators of the league can be trusted with ensuring safety in match venues. Many times people who haven’t been paying attention to the progress the Nigeria Professional football League for some years now ask me, Rufai aren’t you scared? I take no time to let them know that the NPFL isn’t what it used to be. We have moved away from that period when it was easy for matches to degenerate into a street gang like fight with fans or players chasing referees and club officials doing a face off.
This shift for the better is evident in the increase in interest generated by the NPFL on social media especially among the young demography. The season just gone by saw a surge in the engagement with the NPFL social media channels, interest in the games and the overall administration of the league. This is clear a sign that progressed made hasn’t escaped the attention of many and that yielded result in terms of increase in number of people going to the stadia. It was also clear from the number of Nigerians in the diaspora asking for TV stations showing league matches and where they can watch highlights of the game that the league is hitting the right keys. Thankfully, the League Management Committee ensured major games were on TV and maintained a Youtube channel with recap of games played every week.
In hindsight, it is important that we as Nigerians begin to think of the numerous benefits that a better Nigeria Professional League will afford us and jump on the progress made so far, to ensure it gets better. The jobs alone a better NPFL will create is enough encouragement for our young people to get behind the league. For long we have left the effort to move the Nigeria league forward to the administrators alone, forgetting that we have roles to play too.