Local Passion I watched a Nigerian football league match for the first time

The local league in Nigeria is beginning to liven up after under performing for a long time.

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Stephen Odey, the league's highest goal scorer shielding the ball from a Plateau United player play

Stephen Odey, the league's highest goal scorer shielding the ball from a Plateau United player

(Twitter/NPFL )
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Nigerian is a football country and I am mad about football.

In 1994, I leapt for joy when the Super Eagles won the Nations Cup in Tunisia. I cried my eyes out when Roberto Baggio scored the penalty that kicked us out of USA' 94.

As a small boy, I liked Borussia Dortmund and fancied AC Milan. It wasn't until 1997 that Manchester United stole my heart and I became a Red Devil.

Stephen Keshi and the Super Eagles 1994 squad play

Stephen Keshi and the Super Eagles 1994 squad

(Nigerian Archives )

 

I am from Ibadan in Oyo state and this means that when it comes to local football in Nigeria there is only one club I support, the Shooting Stars Sports Club of Ibadan.

Otherwise known as 3SC, the legendary football club is the club of the legendary Segun 'Mathematical Sege'  Odegbami. The club has won the Nigeria Premier Football League five times and the FA Cup 4 times. Before Enyimba's back to back CAF Champions League victories, 3SC was the only Nigerian club to reach the finals. Sadly, it lost on both occasions.

Christian Chukwu of Rangers FC and Segun Odegbami of Shooting Stars play

Christian Chukwu of Rangers FC and Segun Odegbami of Shooting Stars

(cheeronnigeria)

In the golden age of local Nigerian football, 3SC rode high. That was the past however. The Nigerian football league dwindled so bad in the 90s and till today it has not recovered from those dark years.

Insecurity, corruption and violence robbed the league of its shine. People stopped going to stadiums because they did not want to be robbed by hooligans or stabbed in some cases.

A young generation of Nigerians grew up without going to a stadium to watch a match or support a local team. Football culture was by and large dead.

When you watch the English Premier League or La Liga you see parents with their kids supporting their team. You see children passionately singing along to their club's chants. In the Nigerian league, that passion and football culture is hardly there in large numbers.

A young Arsenal fan supporting his team play

A young Arsenal fan supporting his team

(Arsenal/Getty Images )

 

The Nigerian Professional Football League is singing a new tune though. Within the last couple of years, it has re-branded and it seems things are looking upward again.

Yesterday, Sunday, March 19, 2017, I attended my first ever Nigerian football league match.

After watching Manchester United secure three points against  Middlesbrough and moving to the 5th place on the table, I went to the Agege stadium to watch the impressive MFM FC vs league leaders Plateau United.

MFM FC play

MFM FC team photo before their NPFL game against Remo Stars on Sunday, March 5 at the Agege Township stadium

(Pulse)

 

It was a clash between two of the best performing teams in the league. This being my first time I didn't know what to expect. The wooden signboard at the entrance of the stadium however let me know this wasn't Old Trafford or Stamford Bridge.

The signboard at Agege stadium play

The signboard at Agege stadium

(Pulse )

 

I sat down in the press section of the stands 40 minutes before kick off and I soaked in the view. The grass was synthetic and both teams were out on the field warming up under the wicked sun.

A preacher was walking back and forth in front of us, telling people to repent from their wicked ways. This might be strange to you but do not forget the home team is sponsored by one of the biggest churches in Nigeria, the Mountain of Fire Ministries . In this country, religion and football go hand in hand.

An MFM supporter play

An MFM supporter

(Pulse )

When the MFM team came out for the match, they sang their team song with their supporters. It is a gospel song by the way.

The game kicked off at 4:20 and I must say I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of football especially by the home team. They had intricate passes and their defence looked solid. Plateau United decided to soak up the pressure and play with only one man up front. The league's highest goal scorer Stephen Odey scored in the first half shortly before half time.

Plateau United FC play

Plateau United FC

(Goal)

 

During half time, Nigeria's biggest football analysts came out on the track to mingle and socialise. The NFF boss Amaju Pinnick fresh off his victory at the CAF elections pranced with so much swag. It felt like an old boys club gathering than a professional football match at this moment.

The second half got underway and Plateau United showed why they are league leaders. They removed their ineffective striker and got the equaliser in no time. MFM was under pressure and the home fans couldn't withstand it.

Anxious fans waiting for MFM FC's second goal play

Anxious fans waiting for MFM FC's second goal

(Pulse )

 

Anytime the referee blew against MFM FC, the crowd in the regular stand screamed and shouted. When things got tense, an MFM FC fan (more of a tout) in front of us threatened the linesman who he thought was biased. He was cautioned quickly by another spectator. This led to shouting match between the two. Things were getting tense in Agege stadium. A lot of spectators were verbally clashing. The trumpet and drums of the MFM band were muted.

The MFM FC coach who was suited up under the sun made three changes which turned the game around. The home team were back in it again and after some impressive passing, they had a one-on-one chance. A Plateau United defender fouled the MFM attacker and it was a penalty. The home fans roared!

Stephen Odey slotted in the penalty. It was his second of the afternoon. An MFM FC fan who was overcome with joy removed his clothes and ran around with only his boxers. The game ended shortly after.

The Nigerian Professional Football League might not have Messi or Ronaldo but it has its stars. Stephen Odey has now scored 10 goals out of 14 games, a strike rate that rivals some of the best in Europe. Sikiru Olatunbosun scored a wonder goal in February that shook the world.

 

As the players went to the dressing room, fans did their best to touch them. Some were able to shake them through the wire fence. In front of their dressing room, there was a small scuffle because some fans wanted to get in.  People wanted to see their local heroes.

Football culture is alive and well in Nigeria. Local football matches are no longer for the touts and drunks. Yesterday I saw a man bring his wife and baby to the game. I saw young men and young women come to enjoy football even though Manchester City and Liverpool were slugging it out in faraway England.

Early signs of a growing local league. An NPFL fanzine play

Early signs of a growing local league. An NPFL fanzine

(Pulse )

 

People have criticised football in Europe for being too capitalist, devoid of intimacy with fans and supporters. In Nigeria, it is still very much communal. People in Agege know the homes of some of these players and hang out with them.

Local supporters greeting an MFM FC player play

Local supporters greeting an MFM FC player

(Pulse )

 

As for the team I support, 3SC they are languishing at the bottom of the league. I would definitely watch them when they come into town and face MFM in Agege.

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