Wild celebrations greeted Akwa United’s emergence at the end of the 2020/21 season as champions of the Nigeria Professional Football League (NPFL) for the first time in their history.
As the Promise Keepers embarked on a victory parade through the streets of Uyo, Franklin Udeme, an ardent fan, wondered how many of the history-making players would remain at the club when they begin their CAF Champions League campaign.
Mr Udeme was right to be worried. At least four members of the team have since departed the country in search of greener pasture.
Almost every club in the NPFL and even in the lower ranks have seen players move abroad, even to remote places such as Vietnam, Cambodia and Myanmar, in search of professional careers.
According to a recent FIFA report, Nigerian clubs sold 1,904 players in international transfers in the last decade.
The report ranked Nigeria 17th in the world and first in Africa for volume of players’ movement in the decade.
One of the most intriguing cases is that of Chisom Chikatara, fondly called Kolanut Boy.
Chikatara joined Wydad Casablanca of Morocco from Abia Warriors in 2016, after a brilliant performance for the home-based Eagles at the African Nations Championship – CHAN 2016 – held in Rwanda, which saw clubs and agents swarm around him like ants on sugar.
He grabbed a hat-trick in Nigeria’s 4-1 thumping of Niger Republic at the Stade Regional Nyamirambo, Kigali, and by the next morning, the local sports journalists had rechristened him “Chikatala.”
By the time Chikatara arrived for his breakfast at Super Eagles’ Hills Views Hotel at Kiyovu Road on January 19, word had filtered out that Wydad had won the race to sign him.
It turned out that he jumped before looking, his gaze firmly fixed on the money. He probably saw Morocco as a stepping stone to Europe where he would achieve his football dreams. Alas!, he was wrong.
Today, those dreams have turned to dust. Chikatara struggled in the Moroccan Botola League, scoring just once in 12 appearances in two best-forgotten seasons at Wydad Casablanca.
Chikatara joined El Gouna FC of Egypt in 2018 and again scored only one goal in 11 appearances. They sent him on loan to another Egyptian side, Tala’ea Gaish, but he failed to find the net in five games. The once dreaded striker now plies his trade with Gokulam FC in the Indian second-tier league.
At 26, Chikatara still has many years ahead in the game. Would he want to come back to the NPFL to relaunch his career? Probably not, as he may be earning better in India’s second-tier league than he would in Nigeria.
Chikatara’s story reflects those of many Nigerian footballers who rushed abroad in search of a professional career in the game. They think any league abroad is better than the NPFL. How did this fallacy become the Nigerian local league footballer’s truth?
Both the Nigerian footballers desperate to travel abroad and the NFF can be said to share the responsibility for the current situation.
For a player whose club owes a backlog of salaries and benefits, seeing mates who had made the journey abroad return home in changed circumstances only hardens his resolve to also play overseas.
The NFF says it wants to stop Nigerian players from joining lower-ranked leagues abroad so as to save the Nigerian league. But the league lost its allure partly because of the NFF’s myopic obsession with the senior national team, experts say.
If football reflects the socio-economic realities around it, the summer transfer window that saw many NPFL players move abroad is an accurate reflection. This is a football league struggling to deal with both a crippling economic recession and maladministration. It is therefore not surprising that Nigerian players continue to hustle to join just any club ‘abroad’.
Reasons for the desperation
The recent move of Anayo Iwuala (Anayo) to Tunisia reflects this scenario. Unconfirmed reports said he will earn about $50,000 a month, compared to the $1000 he was earning while at Enyimba.
When Taye Taiwo joined French Ligue1 giants, Olympique Marseille, in 2011, many thought the move would open the doors for NPFL players directly into top European leagues. They hoped it would change the impression that the local league no longer commanded the respect of scouts from the biggest European leagues.
Sadly, after Taiwo joined Marseille, the Nigeria league continued to experience low-scale transfers with most movements confined to clubs in North Africa. The likes of Orok Akarandut, Junior Ajayi, Kingsley Sokari , Junior Lokosa, and recently Iwuala have gone up-north in the continent in pursuit of fortunes.
Players believe playing at home will not earn them calls to the Super Eagles while money is also a major factor behind the desperation to play in countries like Albania, Serbia, Romania, and Cyprus.
As long as the culture of irregular payment of salaries continues in the NPFL, footballers will need little persuasion to join ‘lower leagues’ that offer consistent wages, experts say.
Findings by PREMIUM TIMES also revealed that some agents also advise players to accept offers from lower leagues as a pathway to bigger deals in Western Europe. But these are callous agents more interested in lining their pockets than protecting their players’ interests.
Christopher Adedojoh, a Nigerian football agent, says the NFF needs more than sound bites to stop players moving from the NPFL to supposedly lesser leagues abroad.
Mr Adedojoh told PREMIUM TIMES that club owners must respect players’ contracts and pay salaries and bonuses as at when due.
“It is not the players and agents that are the problem here, it is the NFF’s failure to make the league lucrative for players to stay.
“How do you stop players from accepting offers from lower leagues overseas when clubs owe six months’ salary and are also not paying other bonuses?
“This has to stop or more players will move to Albania, Qatar, Kuwait, and other lower Leagues in Asia and Europe,” Mr Adedojoh said.
Shina Philips, another agent, is the initiator of the longest-running football award in Nigeria – The Nigeria Pitch Awards. He says the NFF has only a limited role in players’ career choices.
Mr Philips, who had organised seminars for football agents in the country, says the NFF is an advisory body that can only guide players on transfers and not block their moves.
“Even from a moral point of view, I think the NFF has some level of responsibility in guiding players when they want to make some of these choices.
“If, for example, a player with great potential is heading to one of these obscure leagues, the NFF can talk to the player and to his agent to rethink the decision for the good of the promising career.”
However, Mr Phillips said, the most important work for the NFF is to ensure the local league becomes more vibrant and lucrative.
“I think the NFF and the other concerned authorities should begin what I call aggressive marketing, let them reach out to these billionaires who have money and love football. They can replicate in Nigeria what they love about Arsenal, Chelsea, and the Manchester United of this world. Supporting football is not just about giving Super Eagles money.
“Imagine Dangote, Otedola, Adenuga having football clubs where they pump money into, just like their businesses. The league will not only be lucrative for Nigerian players to stay in but would also attract foreign players.
“They have what it takes to build the structure and the infrastructure for a world-class football team.”
The football agent made reference to former Nigerian clubs that were owned by millionaire businessmen – Abiola Babes, Iwuayanwu Nationale, and Leventis United – saying they paid so well that they drew players from across West Africa.
Hapoel Petah Tikva attacking midfielder, James Adeniyi, turned down offers from NPFL clubs after a short stint with COD United in Lagos to join Albanian side, Bylis Ballsh, in 2012. He then moved to Slovenia and later joined Gabala in Azerbaijan. Adeniyi believes NPFL is far below global standards in terms of organisation.
“I played for COD United before packing my kit and heading to Albania. These leagues might be of low standards, but they are still many steps ahead of NPFL. I needed it as a stepping stone, but I had to move to Azerbaijan later on.
“The League in Azerbaijan is far more organised than the NPFL, and nobody owes you any salary,” he said.
The NFF President, Amaju Pinnick, has declared that no Nigerian player will again join the lower leagues in Europe. But such a declaration can only come into effect if the local league becomes attractive to sponsors and other corporate bodies to identify with, observers say.
For Chisom Chikatara, his grace to grass tale has become part of NPFL folklore and epitomises the danger that awaits NPFL players who do not make the right career move.
Such stories again demonstrate that the grass is not always greener even on the other sides of the ocean.
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