To many people across the world, football is a way of life. It is the only thing that makes existence meaningful. Football or soccer, as some in North America call it, is regarded as the king of sports, which draws millions of fans to stadiums and billions to television sets. Its pull is such that the developed world has built a massive economy around it, with thousands of youths leveraging their talents to escape poverty.
In some developed countries, the football economy contributes massively to the national GDP, such that the game and its properties are treated with reverence and always pampered to continue to yield fruits. Apart from the material wealth it gives to nations, talented players and officials, football has also been employed as a diplomatic tool, which plays vital roles in building good images for countries. Football has also been deployed by countries and international bodies to settle conflicts and to also build relationships.
There are numerous examples of the deployment of football to resolve internal strife, as is shown in the resolution of the Cote d’Ivoire civil war, where members of the Ivoirian national team, led by Didier Drogba, used their popularity to get the warring parties in the country’s crisis to sheathe their swords and settle the issues through the ballot box.
Football, however, like many aspects of life, sometimes succumbs to the effects of certain global or regional catastrophes such as earthquakes, Tsunamis, and outbreak of diseases that threaten human existence. None has been as telling as the recent coronavirus outbreak, which has defied science and brought the world to its knees.
The coronavirus or COVID-19 forced the world to halt all activities that pull people together in one spot for close to five months, with sports being the worst hit. To ensure that the world fights COVID-19 successfully, the World Health Organisation (WHO) prescribed some measures that would help to halt or curtail its spread. Key among these measures is the social distancing protocol, which demands that events that involve crowds be shelved till further notice.
At the height of the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, the world agreed that all sporting activities be suspended to ensure that everybody adhered to the global lockdown adopted to fight the scourge. Thus, most of the sporting activities around the world and those slated to hold in 2020 were suspended. While some were postponed to later dates in the year, such events as the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, African Women Nations Cup, African Nations Championship (CHAN) and FIFA World Cup qualifiers, were either postponed to 2021 or cancelled outright.
However, owing to the recent ease in the spread of COVID-19, some events, including football league games and basketball championships, among others, have either returned to complete their seasons or have started fresh programmes. These events, however, returned without crowds, as spectators are not allowed to be physically present at the arenas.
Even then, before most of the activities were allowed to resume, the various health authorities ensured that the organisers met certain conditions, which they believe would protect the athletes and officials from the virus.
The result is that most European and North American competitions are about rounding off, while in some instances, some competitions are about to kick off their new seasons. The world, which missed the excitement that comes with football competitions, was given some dose of the thrills with the run in to the titles and the battles for survival in the leagues.
The recent battle for the top four positions in the English Premier League, which guaranteed slots in the UEFA Champions League, as well as the battle to avoid being dropped by six clubs in the league, made for a thrilling climax to the English Premier League (EPL), which is regarded as the most exciting league in the world.
Nigerians, like the fans of all other major football countries, followed the events till the end of the competition. The recent English FA Cup final between Arsenal and Chelsea also drew huge viewership, with the audience estimated to be more than one billion people.
While Nigerian fans have been following events in other countries that have restarted their leagues and other competitions, they are also eagerly waiting for the resumption of the Nigerian Professional Football League (NPFL), which the governing body, the League Management Company (LMC), has set for September. But some of these fans are worried about the state of readiness for the resumption of the league.
Just like the English Premier League relied on the advice of the British government through the National Health Service (NHS) to set guidelines and provide safe conditions for the resumption of the English Premiership, which is tagged ‘Project Restart,’ so also is the LMC relying on the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19 to provide the conditions that will make it safe for clubs to return to action.
However, most followers of the Nigerian league question the ability of the nation’s health care authorities to support the resumption of the league. It has become common knowledge that the COVID-19 outbreak exposed the inadequacies in Nigeria’s healthcare system, which suffered years of neglect, and may not be ready to cater for the needs of the league.
A look at the protocol adopted by the English Premier League in concluding its 2020 season shows that the organisers adopted measures that made it easier for players and officials to go for games without fear of contracting the virus. Among such measures include the introduction of water breaks in each half and the chance for each side to make five substitutes, which helped the players to rehydrate during games.
Testing players and everybody involved in matches, including referees and club officials, also provided the organisers the opportunity to check the spread of the virus through contact before, during and after matches.
According to reports, the twice-weekly Project Restart testing programme resulted in just eight positive cases among the 15,599 tests over the past five weeks. But the cost of those tests is enormous and could task the wits of the league’s managers if adopted in Nigeria.
BUT the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) says there is no cause for alarm. Recently, the League Management Company, which runs the Nigeria Professional Football League (NPFL), announced that it would test all the players, coaches and every other official that would be involved in the league’s restart for COVID-19, when the 2020/2021 competition kicks off. The LMC said the decision was part of the resolutions reached at its recent NFF board meeting held via videoconference.
The LMC said the pre-match tests would be done with the support of the Federal Ministry of Health and the Nigerian Centre for Disease Control (NCDC). The league body earlier announced that the competition would kick-off next month, but that date may not hold unless the Federal Government lifts its ban on sporting activities before the projected date.
On August 6, 2020, the LMC reminded the NPFL clubs of the decision to begin the 2020/2021 season either by the end of September or in October and end it in May 2021 subject to the approval of government, health and other regulatory authorities.
It advised the clubs on the need to comply with the club licensing regulations, adding, “there will be enhanced, robust and comprehensive implementation of these regulations, as well as other NPFL participation conditions, as enshrined in the NPFL rule book and other extant applicable documents.”
It advised license applicants to use the intervening period to carry out all the necessary measures, including “upgrade of stadium facilities and familiarisation with other criteria as provided in the club licensing regulations to ensure they are fully compliant.”
The body said it would carry out spot checks on all license applicants periodically to ensure full and sustained compliance by all participating clubs.
At the weekend, LMC’s Chief Operating Officer, Salihu Abubakar, reiterated that the body was still waiting for directives from the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19, adding, “The September date announced for kick-off is to put the clubs on alert in case the PTF eases the lockdown on sports.
“There is no specified date announced by LMC for the kick-off of the NPFL. We are not giving guidelines on health measures to combat the COVID-19 pandemic yet. All we are waiting is for government to give the nod for sports to commence. As soon as the pronouncement is made officially, LMC will now act on the guidelines given by the government. The guidelines will be channelled to various clubs to put in place before the league kicks off.”
Even with the cautious mode adopted by the LMC, stakeholders believe that it would be asking for too much if the organisers of the league are expected to adopt the measures used by European nations in restarting their competitions. The argument is that Nigerian clubs do not have the basic medical requirements specified by the LMC for matches to hold in the country.
As shown by the death of Nasarawa United’s defender, Chineme Martins, during a 2019/2020 league game against Katsina United, most of the clubs don’t have functional ambulances, trained medical personnel and first aid kits in their home stadiums. Sports analyst, Sabinus Ikewuaku believes it would be foolhardy for Nigeria to try to emulate the advanced countries when its health facilities are not as developed as these countries.
“NFF President, Amaju Pinnick, warned recently that clubs that failed to meet the safety precautions prescribed by the league body would not participate in the competition,” Ikewuaku said. “That could be difficult to implement because most of the clubs are owned by state governments and we know how they treat such orders. Most of the clubs still owe their players and coaches when there is a law that debtor clubs will not be allowed to play in the league.
“I think we need to adopt our own measures that will take into consideration our peculiar situation. Football must go on, but the LMC should look for ways to make it safe for all concerned.”
Plateau United Coach, Abdul Maikaba, said like every other aspect of life in Nigeria, it would be difficult for the league to kick off. His argument is that the country has been witnessing rising cases of the coronavirus, saying government has been unable to effectively contain the pandemic.
He said, “September/October is too early for the league to kick off because as things stand, we have not done anything to show that we are ready to begin the season. With what is going on now in the country, the earliest kick-off time for the league is either December or early next year.
“We can draw from the standard set by the advanced countries of England, Spain and Germany that have concluded their leagues. If the government, clubs and sponsors provide enough facilities for testing players and officials for COVID-19, then the kick-off date can be achieved. But if the government is not involved, it will not happen.”
Sunshine Stars of Akure Coach, Kabir Suleyman Dogo, questions the haste in setting a kick-off date for the league, when the clubs lack the facilities needed to ensure participants’ safety.
According to Dogo, “The kick-off date is feasible only when the facilities needed for people’s safety are available. Education and sports go together and if the government is currently struggling to see how schools will reopen, how do you think it would be easy for the league to resume when the testing facilities across the country are inadequate? “Where will the facilities to be deployed to stadiums come from? Finance is not available because most of the states are struggling to handle the testing of citizens. Will it be easy for them to concentrate on the players and officials when they have not finished dealing with other citizens? I believe the league will kick-off, when all the stakeholders come together to provide the safe environment for it.”
To MFM Football Club’s coach, Mr. Tony Bulus, hoping for the 2020/2021 season to kick-off in September or even October is a mission impossible. He believes it would take more than directing the clubs on what to do to get the facilities ready for the beginning of the season.
“As a sportsman and coach in the NPFL, I want the league back,” he said. “I am always in touch with my players, encouraging them to be patient, and that the league will soon resume. But we must consider that the government’s aim is to fight COVID-19 and see it out of the country. Testing of footballers is not its priority now. It will not be easy for clubs to test players for COVID-19 without help from government. So on that premise, the resumption of the league next month is not feasible. COVID-19 has to go out of the country first for the league to kick off.”
HOWEVER, Nigerian Rugby Football Federation’s (NRFF) national team doctor, Dr. Adebukola Bojuwoye, has a contrary view. Bojuwoye, who has also worked with some of the national football teams, believes the league can return in September/October if the safety guidelines are followed by the clubs and league organisers.
“It is possible for the NPFL to kick off at the announced date, because the players cannot keep staying at home because it will affect their physical abilities,” he said. “If such safety measures like quality healthcare facilities, including COVID-19 kits are provided, the league is good to start.
“But if there are no facilities for thorough checks of players and officials’ status; if the clubs cannot observe the anti-coronavirus protocols, as provided by the government, then it will not be possible for the league to start. The LMC should look for how to provide standard COVID-19 test kits for all the clubs before the kick off date.”
“Yes, the league’s resumption date has been tentatively fixed for September/October and the clubs are ready,” he stated. “Once government lifts the restrictions on sporting activities, the league will start. The clubs’ owners are already making plans to ensure top health facilities are on ground to test players and also ensure the football pitches are adequate for standard league games.
“This COVID-19 pandemic has given the clubs’ owners more insight on how to lift the standard of teams and ensure players and officials’ security. We are adopting a system that will ensure that the standard in Enyimba FC is replicated in Kano Pillars and other clubs in Nigeria.
“There is a bright future for the NPFL, and as I told you, the COVID-19 issues have given the association insight on how to transform the league. The September/October resumption schedule was picked to allow government time to work out the solution to the pandemic. Once the lockdown is lifted, the NPFL will kick off.”
Also assuring that his team is ready for the 2020/2021 season’s kick-off, Enugu Rangers’ General Manager, Davidson Owumi, said the ‘Flying Antelopes’ have acquired every material necessary for the task ahead.
Owumi said the club’s “coaching crew is at work and will soon come up with a list of players retained and those that will bid us bye for the season. For management, it is our belief that only a handful of quality legs will be sourced to fill noticed lapses in the team.” He revealed that the coaches, led by former Super Eagles Assistant Coach, Salisu Yusuf, would soon release the list of players selected to fight Rangers’ battles in the coming season, adding that the target is to beat the fourth position they got when the 2019/20 season was abruptly halted.
At the weekend, the Federal Government announced that it had lifted its ban on non-contact outdoor sports, while also approving the use of recreational parks for physical exercises under strict supervision. National Coordinator of the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19, Dr. Sani Aliyu, said in Abuja on Thursday that the Federal Government had decided to ease the restriction on outdoor non-contact sports but stressed that recreational parks are not to be used for social interaction purposes.
“For outdoor non-contact sports, these include tennis, table tennis, squash, badminton, cycling, athletics, golf, polo, para-athletics, cricket and other non-contact outdoor communal activities. In the event that people are not certain, please contact the Federal Ministry of Youth and Sports for further guidance.”
While confirming the new development, a Senior Special Assistant to the Minister of Youth and Sports Development, Mr. John-Joshua Akanji, said the ministry would gradually ease the ban, adding, however, that the ministry doesn’t as yet guarantee the September/October date for NPFL kick-off.
According to him, “Any decision on the NPFL kick-off will be taken in conjunction with the NCDC, the PTF and, of course, the final person, who is the president of Nigeria. The minister had made it clear that we can begin gradually with the non-contact sports like polo, golf, squash, and track and field. We can also begin easing up of the facilities so that people can begin training. It is going to be a gradual process.”