By Tunde Sulaiman
ANALYSISIf there was any need for the nation to realise that there is a major problem with the way its domestic football is being run, then one does not have to go any further than to look at the woeful performance of our club sides at the continental tourneys this season.
Nigeria fielded four clubs in the two Confederation of African Football (CAF)-sponsored competitions, the CAF Confederation Cup and the more prestigious CAF Champions League with none of them getting anywhere near clinching the trophy.
Incidentally the four club sides, Kano Pillars, Rangers Heartland and Lobi Stars are supposed to be the nation's best considering the fact that they were the ones that either won the domestic competition last season (as was the case of Kano Pillars which placed first with Rangers second) or the FA Cup (which was won by Heartland with Lobi second), which gave them the right to fly Nigeria's flag on the African continent.
However, Kano Pillars, Heartland and Lobi Stars all failed to progress at the very first time of asking, some losing by scandalous results like Lobi Stars, which lost 7-1 to Liga Muculmana of Mozambique after winning the first leg 3-1 in Bauchi!
Of course the club came back from Maputo with the usual tales of woe inflicted on them by the away team to explain away their humiliating first round exit from CAF's second tie competition.
Heartland Nigeria's second entry in the competition went out in more bizarre circumstances after failing to show up in Gabon for the return leg after beating 2-1 US Bitam in Owerri in the first leg.
The FA Cup holders had two clear weeks to make proper travel plans for the second leg but in typical fashion missed the plot and failed to travel thus earning them sanctions from CAF.
Nigerian champions, Kano Pillars kicked off their Champions League campaign on a good footing after beating their Congolese opponents, AC Leopards 4-1 in Kano. But despite the fact that they took a chartered flight to Congo they still lost 3-0 to crash out at the first hurdle.
Of the four it was only Rangers that made it past the first round only to come up short in the second round losing 3-1 to Recreativo de Libolo of Angola after playing goalless in Enugu two weeks ago.
But should the results be a surprise to us? This is what happens when those that should rather come together to fashion out how our domestic game can improve for the better are busy battling for control of a "defective product"!
Ironically, most of those engaging in the power struggle will claim that they are doing it for the good of the game, when they should rather be channelling their energies and resources into making their respective football clubs better.
It is incontestable that the only way the domestic game can improve is by the injection of money into the game and the only way this can happen is by ensuring the right things are put in place to re-assure the investors that they will get value for the money they are injecting onto the league.
We all marvel how the English Premier League, La Liga and the Bundesliga are so attractive, yet those that have the power to see that the Nigerian league can also be mentioned in the same breath as the aforementioned are not thinking along those lines.
Of course, one of the major problems is that most of the clubs are owned by government and we are all witnesses to what happens to government-owned concerns.
NITEL was given the same GSM licence as MTN and ECONET (now Airtel) years ago, and despite the fact that they (NITEL) had a major advantage over the rivalries (because they were already on ground in virtually all the states of the federation); they failed woefully and died a natural death while the others are waxing stronger.
So what I'm getting at, is that ultimately if we are to have a real transformation in the domestic game, club sides owned by state governments will have to go like NITEL and Nigeria Airways to be replaced by private concerns, which will be able to properly articulate programmes for the good of the club, without necessarily waiting on red tape to get their programmes approved.
There was a time that this was a common thing in the country with the Stationary Stores, Abiola Babes, Iwuanyanwu, Raccah Rovers and Leventis United holding sway. And one distinct thing about these clubs was the fact that they were all able within a short time to prove their worth by either winning the league or FA Cup - or both.
But failure of the club owners to realise any appreciable returns saw these household names dying away. However, should the environment be right then there is every likelihood that others are out there ready to replace Abiola Babes and Stationary Stores.
Is it any wonder that many of the clubs that have dominated football on the African continent come from countries were the domestic league is much better organised, like Egypt (Al Ahly and Zamalek) and Tunisia (Esperance and Sahel du Tunis) or well founded like in Congo where TP Mazembe dominated the African scene for a few years.
So it is obvious that unless something drastic happens in Nigeria concerning domestic football, we will continue to play second fiddle.
Incidentally, while the League Management Committee (LMC) is striving to try to elevate the league in the country to the next level there are those hell-bent on allowing the status quo remain clearly afraid of what will happen to them in the new dispensation.
Only recently the LMC was able to secure a three-year multi-billion naira sponsorship package for the league with the head of telecom's outfit sponsoring, insisted that they were only doing so because they were comfortable with those currently operating the league!
That speaks volumes of how important trust and the credentials of those in charge of the league have to be if they are to attract the necessary funding oil the machinery to ensure the domestic game improves.
Incidentally, with Stephen Keshi taking six home-based players to the Nations Cup is a clear indication that the country has not lost the ability to produce the talent. What is left now is for there to be a conducive environment to attract more of such talent to the league and the only way this can happen is if the players know that they will be well rewarded for their efforts.
If a footballer knows that he can make a decent living playing the game he loves he will stick to it rather than trying to make it in an office doing a job that in his heart he is not really fond of, but only doing it to pay his bills.
One only hopes that those concerned will for once actually do what is good for the nation and pull together in order to make our domestic league the envy of other African countries.