by Tola Adenle

Now that the football (soccer) season in Europe is over, I will like to contribute my penny’s worth – like any self-respecting fan who believes she/he knows it all – to discussions on the state of the game and where it needs to go.  When one takes a look at all the European leagues, it is apparent that not more than just a few in each league can be said to be competitive.  Tick off the top five in the English Premier League, the Spanish La Liga,etcetera, and you have left over a dozen-plus clubs that are not much better than the next lower league.  Why is this so?  How can the situation be improved so that fans do not eventually lose interest which could translate to loss of revenues?

In the English League as in the Spanish and Italian leagues, a few clubs have strangleholds on the titles and it seems these same leagues are always in the top half of the first ten teams every year and in the English League which many Nigerians have followed for years, it was not always like that.  There was relative upper mobility but like the English social class system, it seems some stellar teams of the past like Sheffield Wednesday, Nottingham Forest, etcetera, are now forever locked out of the lucrative premier league.  Did I just say ‘lucrative’?

Money is what has created a permanent underclass within the English Premier League and in the various leagues of the Football Association (F.A).  Money, or the lack of it, is also the problem in the other leagues, especially Spain, Italy and other European countries.  Why would Lyn of Norway lose Nigeria’s whinny Mikel Obi to Manchester United (ManU) or is it Chelsea?  As all football fans in Nigeria know by now, Lyn, it was, that plucked Obi and a couple of other Nigerian kids out of obscurity and trained them before their God-given talents were honed to the point of being noticed by pound-waving big clubs?  After he and his dad proclaimed to the world how happy and proud they were that Mikel was headed to the best-known club in the world – ManU – the boy, his dad and his agent did an about-turn after Chelsea probably waved some of Russian Abramovic’s zillions and cried out that Mikel no longer wanted ManU because he was made to sign under duress!  I beg your pardon, young man, where was your street-smart agent when a pen was placed in your hand and a gun in your head?

Above is a fight between giant, rich clubs, ManU and Chelsea but when it comes to smaller clubs, they stand no chance when faced with the might of big money acquired over decades of dominance in the English League (ManU) or made in the confusion of post-Soviet Russia (Chelsea).  What could ‘little’ Everton do last year when ManU snapped its mighty fingers at Wayne Rooney although an incredible run by the Rooney-less Everton this year, while an exception, is likely to be pointed at as not.  Now, Fulham’s goalkeeper, van der Saar, is headed to ManU this coming season.  Fulham, in that ‘Neverland’-Premier-League zone of bottom half, would probably have been one of those now headed to the lower division if not for the Dutchman’s agility at the posts; now, he’s gone, signed for “an undisclosed sum”.  Will Fulham be able to afford another good goalkeeper

Everybody who can play a position the best in the Premier League right now seems headed to Chelsea because Abramovic and his gun-slinging manager, Mourinho seem to overlook Real Madrid whose self-inflicted wounds were so deep last year that an essay I did at season’s end was titled “Whatever happened to all-star Real Madrid?  A side that had Ronaldo, Beckam, Figo, Raul, Roberto Carlos, etcetera could not win a single trophy throughout the year.  Why?  There were so many stars (galacticos they call them) that a player of the stature of Beckham would often be on the bench at match beginning at the beginning of that season.  No wonder darkness enveloped the home stadium not only at the end of the 2004 season but also this last one that also saw a trophy-less Real Madrid in spite of all the stars of the firmament.  I opined in that essay that clubs should get the best out of their rosters in view of the fact that those released often go elsewhere to do much better.

How can weaker teams aspire to ever come up in the jungle of money-throwing?  SALARY CAPS is a way that I think is the future in Europe although very well mastered in the United States where sports money is even much bigger than anywhere else in the world.  Right now, I do not think this obtains.  For example, each team in the Premier League should have a cap above which it cannot go as far as player revenues go.  If the cap is, say, twenty million pounds, it means Chelsea or ManU or Arsenal can pay a few top stars almost all the amount within their cap but it would mean the other players would have to play for near-free, if that is possible.

In addition, it must be compulsory that players serve out their contracts and, in addition, a thought must be given to the idea of a draft – also as in the States – that would make  new entrants to the league each year

available in a pool so that the weakest teams choose before the best teams.  Readers will remember Emeka Okafor, the Nigerian-American college star whom I believed should skip his senior college year and become eligible for the basketball draft; well, he did and got picked in the top three by one of the weakest teams as normally happens in drafts American football and basketball drafts.  The English/European way does not provide for upward mobility for weak teams; their good players also get poached by the richer teams.  Leeds (relegated last year) is now Division I but her Alan Smith now struts his stuff at  ManU. If there is relegation, may be all players should go down with their clubs.  That way, they will fight hard to come back up.

Mr. John Abebe and Nigerian Cricket

While I can referee a basketball or football game – if I can get another pair of legs – I do not understand much of cricket although I used to take games in at the old Race Course, a few minutes walk from my residence at Lafiaji, Lagos  over forty years ago.  These days, I will only stop briefly to watch the perennials: India, Pakistan, South Africa, the West Indies (Windies) when there is not much sporting activities on tv.

When I read recently of the race for the presidency of the game, I was surprised at why the Ministry would have a candidate (John Abebe) when this is the sort of practice that FIFA is trying to stamp out in football: governments’ heavy involvement in administration of football.

Anybody who is remotely familiar with Cricket in Nigeria would know that a Sagoe vs. an Abebe for an elective post is a no-brainer.  Storied names in Nigerian cricket abound but some families have contributed more than most: the Alakijas; the Enahoros, and the Sagoes readily come to mind.  I was happy to see Violet Odogwu (Mrs. Nwajei) chosen as the head of the Athletic Association.  That is a round peg in a round hole. Violet crowned her athletic achievements  with that Silver she won in long jump at a Commonwealth Games decades ago.  Now, I am not disputing Abebe’s interest in the sports because it is even possible he had exploits at school.  I am just saying that his inability to move the sports forward in four years coupled with other criticisms of his presidency as reported in newspapers, are enough to disqualify him from another term.

Of course, in another country, Mr. Abebe will not even be in the running for such a position being the brother-in-law of the president but since such things are no big deal here, he can be made the minister of sports.  This game has almost died in Nigeria and what is needed is somebody who can resurrect it.

The Nation on Sunday, October 22, 2005.



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