Shehu Dikko is the chairman, League Management Company (LMC) the body responsible for the running of the Nigeria Professional Football League (NPFL). In this chat, the LMC boss who by virtue of his position is the second vice-chairman of the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) speaks extensively on matters pertaining to the league. Excerpts
Three years of LMC, how has it been?
It is progress. It is not for us to say ‘this is what we have done’. Everyone who follows the league can see what we are doing, the right steps we are taking to take the league forward and, with the right support from all the parties and stake holders in the league, things can only get better. What we are doing presently is laying the building blocks, step by step, to lay a solid foundation for growth.
First, what we did was to define the governing structure. Part of what we did was to get the governing structure right, which was one of the issues not sorted out prior to this time – the governing structure was quite confusing and open to manipulation by all interest groups. We had to come together and agree on the structure and make it world standard. That confusion ended up distorting the progress of the league and when the system was sorted we all agreed to follow the rules and every other guideline that was drawn up.
We also agreed on the rules and regulations, as well as the minimum standards a club has to achieve to participate in the league. Having these guidelines helps resolve 80 per cent of the problems which we foresee. Everyone – by everyone, I mean the FIFA, CAF and NFF – all agree that the governing documents we have drawn up are straight-forward, world standard and the best in Africa. This is the primary reason for all the improvements which we are currently seeing in the league.
Last year, the International Federation for Football History and Statistics (IFFHS) rated the Nigerian league high. Was not that an overrating?
There is the need to understand that there are different factors considered when judging a league. True, the facilities may be a factor, but they also consider diversity of these facilities. It is a fact that Nigeria has diversity of facilities; every state in the nation has a stadium that can host a league game, though the issue of maintenance might be there.
The degree of competitiveness of the league is also considered. Our league is about the most competitive, because you can never know who will win the league or who will be relegated. Also, you can see that the points’ difference between the teams at the top is not so much. That is proof of competitiveness. Better still, we produce different teams for the continental championships. It is more proof of competitiveness. So, one factor cannot be responsible for a league’s rating, no. Primarily, statistics don’t lie.
Has the league improved compared to what it was in the 70s?
It definitely has, but that depends on your expectations. I believe that we have always improved, though the quality may be different now compared to when it all began or some years ago. Back then, most of the players in the league played for the national team. Very few of them played abroad. Today, the case is totally different; most of the national team players are based abroad and almost all those who play at home want to go abroad to play in all sorts of countries. As a result of this craze, the hype around our league is negatively affected. All in all, I believe our league is constantly improving.
The English Premier League, in its current form, began in 1992 and, if you watch clips before that time, you will see that they had issues with the pitch (quite muddy), the jerseys (too short, too long, too big) and all that, but the moment it was re-organised as the EPL, it became a standard for the rest of the world.
What baffles me much is that many compare the Nigerian League with the EPL. Strangely, no one has talked about what they did to get to where they are today.
They got to this point gradually, it was not spontaneous. Also, the English government intervened to creating the platform for what they have today. In 1991, the government of England availed the league a £200m grant. The money was not handed over to the clubs, no. It was used to upgrade the stadia to be right for commercialization of football, get the right television equipment for coverage, branding and the rest. Now, they have a finely developed league, everything looks ship-shape and the fans feel comfortable in the stadia, a far-cry from what the it used to be before the UK government’s intervention; when the stadia were places of violence, structure collapse and all manner of frightening things. Today, that investment of £200m earns the government over £3bn in taxes and other businesses involved with football, which has become a main-stay of their economy.
That is the kind of platform we need to have a pure, true, professional league; having the right television equipment, playing on the right grounds, branding and all that. Even the television money can suffice for the day-today running of the league.
Over here, we are all trying to do it on our own, by using money from the private sector. There is, virtually, no support from the government at the centre.
We have to stop looking at football as leisure alone; it is a vehicle for economic development, it is a business venture which has the potential to create jobs, maintain industries, promote peace in our immediate environment, etc. If you go to the United Kingdom today, millions of people – over three million of them – move around during the match days to go watch games; they lodge in hotels, they take beverages, they take buses, they take trains, they take bikes, they eat, they buy newspapers, they buy replica jerseys and souvenirs…all sorts of things. A situation where people depend on them to come patronize them every weekend develops and, as a result, you create employment and the economy gets a boost. Football business sustains a lot of businesses indirectly associated with the game; manufacturing, hospitality, media, transport, tourism etc.
We can recreate the same thing here. It will even be easier, considering that a huge percentage of our people are football-mad. We are trying to do what we can and it is only a matter of time, before we catch up and we will engage the government to foster this vision and get the right support.
The local league is getting some hype on some local and cable television stations, but how much is being done realistically to ensure that the effort is proportionate to the hype?
You will agree with me that this job is not easy, but, as much as we want it done as quickly as possible, it must be done in stages. Besides Supersports, we are also working out something with the free-to-air television stations, newspapers and other forms of media.
However, you must understand that most of the hype the EPL gets is not done by them; it is done by the media, because the media is sustained by the game. Over here, the mentality is completely different. Promoting our league is a collective thing. If you read or buy the sports dailies, you will see that the first three or four pages are about the foreign footballers and their leagues, while our local league gets just a page at best. How can you get past that? The local media is not doing enough to promote our league, to be frank. The media has to do more; how can you spend one hour discussing a game which will take place in Spain or England and just mention a game between Rangers and Kano Pillars in passing? It doesn’t help the league. Until the Nigerian media says ‘this product is ours and we have to put it out there collectively,’ anything we do may just be a step in the dark. The Nigerian football league needs the loyalty of the media, all of it.
Is it not worrisome, that club administrators enjoy publicity than the players?
That is a huge, valid point. It is the job of the media to get past these people and gain access to these footballers. Unfortunately, many of our media people do not go to watch out games, they just do arm-chair reporting and syndicate the stories (I hope you don’t do that). Where is the thrill in it if you don’t witness it, especially when it is happening close to you?
Getting our league up there is our responsibility. To this end, we have regulations which stipulate that every coach and selected players must have pre and post-match interviews but how many credible media people are at the stadia to conduct these interviews? How many of them go to our websites to get these reports?
From your own point of view, has violence disappeared from our stadia or it is not happening again?
Basically, I think they do not happen. If they do, they media cannot miss that. The match commissioners will even note that. Just recently, I heard that the management of the Nigeria National League disciplined a second division club for interfering in a referee’s decision. The club will pay a fine of N1.5m or so, I think. Those kind of things do not happen in the NPL, because the clubs and players recognize the fact that there must be a winner and loser in every game and they know the consequences if they disrespect the regulations. The NFF is working quite hard to send referees to the UK and other places to get the referees in tune with complicated rules of the game, because the game is evolving daily.
; they are not stupid. They know when a referee is being fair or otherwise. That said, our referees have improved immensely and the clubs are not doing badly under the circumstances.
As I speak with you, as chairman of the league, I do not have the number of any referee or match commissioner. I do not even know them. This is because when you begin to inter-phase with them, you get problems. Worse, if you attend the games, the visiting or home team may misinterpret your presence. It is best to stay away and let them do their jobs.
Besides punishing the clubs, we make the supporters understand that it is, first and foremost, a game which can go anyway. Secondly, it is a business venture and a way of creating jobs for all who are associated with the game in the immediate community. We are, essentially, running a public trust. If you own a football club, all you do is ‘own’ it; the fans who come to watch the club’s games are the ones who own the club. Essentially, if you, as a club owner or supporter, cause your club to be suspended or made to change their game venues, you are hurting your city, the club and the economy of that city. You automatically put business to sleep in that town on match day.
How often do you take action regarding the players’ welfare, contracts and the rest?
These are issues which almost came to be regarded as everyday occurrences in the league, so change has to be gradual. It is a tough job, but a continuous process which is getting better. True, debts are all over the place and most of the clubs are owned by the state governments, but the same governments who owe the clubs owe civil servants. We are carrying out a campaign to get the fans involved in the clubs, so that alternative revenue sources can be accessed.
We resolved the issue of contracts with them and now we have straight-cut contracts and see that the rights of the players or the clubs are not infringed upon.
In our rules, we have punishments for breaches.
If a club owes a player for a certain number of days, we can even deduct points. In no time, we can start imposing that rule. We have sorted out the issues with sign-on fees and salaries, amongst others. Now, we deal with enhanced salary structure which is easier to manage.
The system is improving. That is why a few players like Sani Keita and King Osanga are coming back home to play in Nigeria. We have Ghanaians, Cameroonians and a horde of others. In a matter of time, we will have a pretty impressive mix of foreign nationals coming to ply their trade in our league.
As for the issue of players’ salaries in government-owned clubs, we advised the governments to route the players’ salaries directly to the state governments’ houses, so that when the civil servants get their pay the players can get theirs too.
Some clubs have done that and, currently, they have no problems with salaries.
As for the strippers, we acted for the general good. It is good to see players celebrating goals – which is part of the hype – but they took it too far. FIFA states that: “if someone celebrates a goal excessively or celebrates with the fans excessively, you give him a yellow card”. The players score a goal and take of their shorts to their underwear to celebrate. What kind of message are they sending? Worse, the game was live on television.
The children at home might think it is okay to do that. It was good hype for the league, but it was indecent, an overkill. We had to fine the players for them to know that it was indecent and unacceptable. They even accepted the fine and wrote an apology letter to the league, the fans and the general public.
Do you fear for the footballers in our local league? In the last few years, the number of footballers who have dropped dead while playing for the r clubs has deceptively increased
I do. It does scare me, really. I think this is why the CAF, FIFA, NFF and other football bodies around the world have it as their requirements for doctors and ambulances to be present and a hospital not more than 10 minutes from the game’s venue on alert before a game begins, so as to take care of a physical injury, internal injury or any other emergency that may arise.
The match commissioner has to do check all these before any game is played. Also, we have taken some proactive measures, by distributing free defibrillators and emergency kits from FIFA to all the clubs in the league. We are the first in the world to do that. We got the best doctor in the world, a FIFA-licensed doctor, in the company of the director of the National Sports Commission’s medical unit and chairman of the NFF’s medical committee, Dr Mu’azu and other medical staff of the NSC to train all the doctors of the clubs.
Whether it is sudden heart failure or whatever, we don’t pray for it, but we are prepared to take care of it, as we have the kits available and well-trained doctors.
Before the season begins, we demand for the medical passport of every player registered by every club, in order to certify their fitness, health status physically and internally. If anything happens to the player, we will hold the clubs responsible, because the club doctor certified the player fit to play football.
The LMC recently came down hard on clubs lacking proper facilities in their stadia and those having poorly maintained ones. Was that the last resort after months of notices?
We should have done this at the beginning of the season, but most of the clubs had not received their budgets – because of the electioneering campaigns – seeing that most of them are owned by state governments. We looked at it and gave the go-ahead for the season to begin, but we feel that this is the right time.
We had a break after week 10 of the season and we expected them to have taken care of those loose-ends, especially the pitches, but they didn’t. The pitches we banned are in two categories; those with major repairs and those with minor repairs. We expect the minor repairs to be concluded within seven days and, if after seven days they are not complete, the teams will continue in the new ‘home’ they opted for. It is easy to keep grass in good shape; it is the rainy season, after all. The pitch in Bauchi is artificial, but some portions are bad, so it has to be changed. I see pictures of the work going on 24 hours on social networks and I am glad that everyone understands the situation. If we want to promote this league, the first step is playing on good pitches. We also have made a provision to give the clubs small amounts monthly to take care of the pitches, but we want to be sure that they consider the pitches a priority before we begin.