Growing up in Lagos, there were few things that could beat the pure and unadulterated joy of being in darkness one moment and then just like a magic trick, seeing everywhere light up when NEPA ‘brings the light’.
The outpouring of joy although shameful, was beautiful to see as ecstatic cries of “Up NEPA” from wide-eyed electricity-starved citizens rent the air like those of football fans who just watched their team score a trophy-winning goal in the dying seconds of a game.
NEPA of course, being the treacherous unreliable killjoys they still are, were just as liable to ‘take the light’ in the midst of the spontaneous jubilation, leaving the populace with a strange sort of deflation and sheepishness at having celebrated vigorously, much like as has happened with league football in Nigeria with the false dawns of various commencement dates set over the past few weeks for the Nigeria Professional Football League (NPFL).
All this is, of course, a roundabout way of saying that it appears that light has been restored – however temporarily – to Nigerian football as the NPFL gets set to resume definitely on Sunday, 13 January following a series of protracted and unedifying bickering that left the league comatose for seven months.
Whilst there is palpable excitement at the return of the NPFL, the intervening months of darkness weren’t pleasant for fans, league watchers and more importantly for the key actors involved – players and coaches in the topflight many of whom were left frustrated at the length of the enforced break inflicted on the topflight.
“I didn’t think the NPFL was going to be off until this time,” newly unveiled Akwa United striker and record holder of the most goals scored in a single season in Nigeria’s top flight, Mfon Udoh told busybuddiesng.com. “I thought it was something that was going to get resolved even before now and it is very unfortunate that the league didn’t start until now.”
“We didn’t expect such a long break,” agrees Sikiru Olatunbosun, who moved to Plateau United from MFM FC during the long break.
While the length of the enforced break may have been disconcerting for Mfon Udoh and Olatunbosun, Enyimba International defender Ifeanyi Anaemena perhaps used to the peculiarities of league football in the country, wasn’t too surprised.
“We know that the Nigerian league is always having issues up and down; it does not have a permanent kick-off date so we were not really surprised about the league kicking off in January,” the Enyimba stalwart said. Go Round FC captain Ebuka Akobundu perhaps sums it up best “It’s Nigeria for us sha,” he says.
With the league put on an indefinite break as administrators lurched from one self-imposed crisis to the other, players who were used to regimented living suddenly found themselves with too much time and very little to do especially for those who unlike players at Enyimba, Rangers and Lobi Stars, weren’t involved with continental football.
“I have no job apart from football, this is the only job I do, so during the break, I stayed with my family and sometimes I’d hang out with friends, but mostly I would just stay indoors in my house or sometimes go for training as well,” Olatunbosun said.
“It was very, very boring staying at home even with family and friends,” Mfon Udoh said, “sometimes I’d go to see movies, go to the gym, stay out with friends, read some books but it was actually very boring although I tried as much as I could to keep myself busy.”
For Sunshine Stars striker Franklin Sasere, being consumed with a hunger for football and a zest for competitive action made it difficult to unwind and enjoy the extended holidays.
“You have a dream to come first in your life so you going out to party, going out with friends those are secondary things,” he says. “The primary thing for me is to play football and when we were at home, I was worried and making calls asking when is the league going to start, the only opportunity the break afforded me was spending time with my family,” he said.
Keeping busy can be difficult for professional players used to a certain level of structure when faced with too much time and too little to do, although, the rigours of ensuring they kept in shape in anticipation of the league resuming was a welcome distraction.
“There wasn’t a day I didn’t train throughout when we were at home,” Sasere says, ”throughout, I trained each and every day even when there weren’t people on the pitch I’d train alone because I hate it when I will be home doing nothing.”
For Olatunbosun “personal training and also playing with some grassroots teams” helped him stay fit while Mfon Udoh would play football and go to the gym “once in a while”.
If the dedication and professionalism exhibited by the players appear something of a surprise – footballers, after all, do have a reputation for bohemian wantonness – it perhaps shows a willingness to put their careers first as Go Round’s Akobundu puts it in Pidgin English, “our coaches dem tell us say as we are going back to home, we should not relax, everybody has to keep fit so for you as a footballer, no be something wey you take because dem give you break you go go house go de drink or go de hang around so you have to keep yourself fit.”
Keeping fit through training and spending time with loved ones may be good ways to pass time but what it doesn’t do is put food on the table or money in the pocket.
The sad reality for many footballers based in Nigeria is the irregularity of pay and the inability of many to earn a living outside what comes in from their clubs. Clubs tend to owe for long periods with player salaries and allowances often structured around an active season.
The extended break was a tough period financially for many especially for players like Olatubosun who was without a club for the major part of the break.
“If not that I stay in Lagos, it would have been impossible to cope because it was difficult,” Olatubosun says. “But because my family are in Lagos as well the only thing I could say made it easy for me was that I went back to my family house and I was able to cope a bit but you know that there are some things I would like to get for myself but it will be somehow for me to be asking my parents as a footballer playing in the league so we just had to cope like that but I know many other players had it tough.”
Go Round’s captain Akobundu echoes Olatubosun position “it affected us very, very well as we have family and our family depends on us. We couldn’t tell our families anything and we were owed three months salary which was only paid in December. It was tough not being able to solve family problems and as men, we should always have money in our accounts at least.”
“It was tough I must confess,” Mfon Udoh says “although sometimes you save for the rainy day because days like that definitely will always come in your life and you need to get prepared for days like that. I have always prepared for days like that so when it comes it doesn’t take me off my feet, it wouldn’t just come like a surprise because I know a day like that will come. I had some savings which was able to take me through that period.”
For Sasere the Sunshine Stars forward, regular salaries from his club meant it wasn’t “a difficult period” although he says the match, travelling and feeding bonuses he “didn’t get access to” during the break would have come in handy.
While the players count the costs of not being able to play football for months, coaches too weren’t left unaffected by the break with many having to redraw plans painstakingly put together over a long period.
“Every coach and every team has a programme,” Technical Adviser of Go Round FC Wilfred Udube says, “there’s the one year programme, monthly programme, weekly programme, each coach has his own plan but because of the break it affected a lot of things but then as a coach, you have to make amends you have to go back to the drawing board and make sure you write a programme that will suit your players and the team.”
It has been a regrettable past seven months for all affected by the bizarre happenings that ground the league to a halt and as the kick-off date for the new season inexorably draws closer it is hoped that the ugly events have been firmly relegated to the past.
“We are so glad that the NPFL is going to be back on Sunday,” Mfon Udoh says.
“We pray that it will end successfully,” Udube says, echoing the thoughts of perhaps every Nigerian eagerly anticipating the 2018/2019 NPFL season.