For the second consecutive season, 20% of the clubs in the Nigeria Professional Football League (NPFL) will be privately-owned. Last season’s quartet comprised of Giwa, Ifeanyi Ubah, Ikorodu United and MFM; but with Giwa’s expulsion and Ikorodu United’s relegation, two other privately-owned clubs, ABS and Remo Stars, have gained promotion to the top-flight. In this era of calls for government to leave the running of professional football clubs to the private sector, the fact that up to four of the 20 teams in the NPFL are privately-owned represents an improvement from the recent past.
The government of Delta State made headlines recently with reports it had increased its number of clubs to six ahead of the new season. Unsurprisingly, the decision was made even more controversial by the fact that its flagship club, Warri Wolves had just been relegated amid complaints of poor funding and indebtedness to players. How then can a government that seemed unable to adequately fund one club suddenly decide to fund six? One would have expected Delta State to learn from the Rivers State example – where the government merged two hitherto struggling clubs (Dolphins and Sharks) to form Rivers United, which finished the season as runner-up and qualified for the CAF Champions League.
However, it is interesting to note the reaction of the Chairman of Delta State Sports Commission, Tony Okowa to the controversy. He was quoted by The Guardian as saying that: “The way government sees things is quite different from the ordinary man on the street”, and that government “took so many things into consideration before arriving at the decision to get two new slots for Ika Rangers and Isoko United in the Nationwide League”. He expressed the view that the clubs will serve as avenue for youths in the different parts of the state to showcase their football talents.
At the beginning of the 2015/2016 season, the government acquired two new clubs – Delta Stars and Delta Force – in addition to Warri Wolves and the female team Delta Queens. Thus, the latest addition of Ika Rangers and Isoko United takes the number to six. With the six clubs spread across the three senatorial districts of the state, it is apparent that the aim is to give wide-spread football opportunity to the youths of the state.
Even though one would be reluctant to fault this socio-political objective, there are reservations about its sustainability. For instance, the same Delta Force that was revived by the current administration had been disbanded by the former. Thus, it is not improbable that a subsequent administration could see the funding of six football clubs as more of a liability. In fact, the short-term thinking in the decision to fund six clubs is evident in Mr Okowa’s further statements that: “Both Warri Wolves and Delta Force, who are in the Nigeria National League (NNL), will continue their battle for promotion to the elite division, and we expect the three clubs in the Nationwide League, Delta Stars, Ika Rangers and Isoko United to battle for promotion to the NNL. If that happens, then, government will decide on what to do with them, either to sell them or retain them. But for now, the clubs will serve as avenue for youths in Delta North, Delta Central and Delta South to showcase their football talent.”
Another interesting fact is that the financial burden may not be as heavy as first thought. According to Mr. Okowa, the budget for Warri Wolves alone last season (before the club was relegated from the NPFL) was N300 million; whereas the budget for all six clubs, including Warri Wolves, is about N277 million.
With the number of stadia that are currently underutilized across Delta State, creating a platform for youth to develop and showcase their football talent is not a bad idea, particularly if the ambition of the clubs does not go beyond that of developmental teams. Nonetheless, questions abound as to the sustainability of the initiative, particularly where teams gain promotion towards the elite league. There are also sporting integrity questions to be answered under the club licensing system if teams owned by the same entity are presented to participate in the same competition. In addition, there is no forgetting the issue of outstanding debts owed by Warri Wolves. These are some of the issues the Delta State government must resolve.