Sunday, April 23, 2017

SPOT THE DIFFERENCE: Rivers United Only Nigerian Club to Reach League Phase of a Continental Cup.

For the second year running, only one Nigerian club reached the league phase of continental cup. Last year, it was Enyimba. This year? It is Rivers United. Three other clubs, including Enugu Rangers, Wikki Tourists and FC Ifeanyi Ubah (FCIU), started the journey alongside Rivers United. Obviously, Nigeria exports most of its top players to foreign clubs and, thus, cannot be considered a perennial challenger for continental cups. However, under that exportation climate, Enyimba won two consecutive African Champions league trophies in 2003 and 2004. Thus, while migration/exportation of players to oversea clubs may explain poor performance of Nigerian clubs in the continent, it isn't an adequate explanation especially for failure to reach the group stage of continental competitions. So why does the failure occur? Why did three clubs fail this year where Rivers United has succeeded?

Here are five plausible reasons, in no particular order:

1. Match fitness. Clearly, this is where Rivers United had an edge over the other three teams. While Rivers United went on an extensive playing tour of the country and Spain, the rest of the clubs stayed back in Nigeria and played only top level games when the league organized the Super 4 involving teams representing the country in the continent. Rangers failed to tour West Africa as planned. This is an important point because the Nigerian Premier Football League (NPFL) frequently starts late and the teams are not at their best at the start of continental competitions. This is precisely the reason the NPFL began to organize the Super 4 to keep the clubs match-ready. Well, the Super 4 cannot be the only avenue for match readiness and the clubs must do more as Rivers demonstrated this year.

2. Quality players. Bar Rivers United, the other three clubs recruited poorly while losing key players. Those three were eliminated before the league phase of the continental cups. Rangers lost their most influential forward -- Chisom Egbuchulam to migration and found no capable replacement. Then the club suffered a goalkeeping crisis when its top goalkeeper, Nana Bonsu, was injured for a significant period and its third goalkeeper (Emmanuel Daniel) left to join a South African club. Furthermore, the club recruited aging players like Onoriode Odah, Ugwu Uwadiegwu, among others instead of seeking young and vibrant talents. Wikki Tourists FC lost its mercurial coach Abdu Makaiba to Akwa United and with him left several key players including Godwin Obaje (Enyimba), Alhassan Ibrahim (Akwa United), and Gabriel Wassa (Rivers United), among others. FCIU did little to attract good and talented players besides Prince Aggrey. At Rivers United, the club solidified the squad with Wassa (Wikki) and Anaezemba (Enyimba). 

3. May not be best team. While poor recruitment may have affected both Wikki Tourists and Enugu Rangers, surely there are questions about quality of FCIU. This was a club that benefitted from several questionable refereeing decisions on its way to winning the Federation Cup in 2016 and earning a spot to represent the country in the continent. Well, benefitting from such calls in Nigeria does not translate to doing the same outside Nigeria especially when the club failed to recruit highly talented players.

4. Player remuneration. Poor player remuneration practice is clearly a bane of Nigeria's local football. Rangers players were promised paradise after winning the 2016 league but none of that materialized and then they were owed wages and bonuses. The team protested, which led to a late arrival in Zambia and of course a not surprising elimination. Demotivated players cannot produce good results. FCIU had similar problems. Players were unpaid for months, did not receive promised match bonuses for winning the Federation Cup, and instead received just N50,000 each according to reports. Top players who were recruited by the club, chose to go elsewhere. Meanwhile, of all the four clubs, Rivers United was the best in player remuneration.

5. Strength of Opponents. After the CAF draws and fixtures for the continental competitions, it was clear that Nigerian clubs faced a tough road in 2017. Only Wikkki Tourists had a good draw in the opening round but a lowly-rated Sierra Leone opponent turned the tables against Wikki in the opening round. Why? Wikki Tourists FC lost several top players and was far from match ready after a quiet preparation. As for Rangers, it was one difficult fixture after the other. First against an Algerian team and then against the 2016 African Champions League finalist (Zamalek) before facing Zesco United that reached the semi final stage of the African Champions League in 2016. FCIU was eliminated on penalty kicks by a tough El Masry of Egypt. Rivers United had its own tough schedule but overcame them. It had to beat Mali's Real Bamako. Real is historically a feared contender in Africa. Rivers United also faced El Merreikh of Sudan that has a more feared pedigree than Real Bamako before United encountered a slightly softer fixture against the perennial Rwandan champion -- Rayon Sports.

There are additional points that may be added to the five. However, the five points are most significant especially for this year's representatives. One hopes that the lessons of this year are enough to wake Nigerian clubs up to the challenges in the continent. Already, this year's poor performance may reduce the number of clubs eligible to represent Nigeria in next year's continental contests. If it happens, Nigeria would be just like Ghana with a feared national team but only one representative per continental competition because of persistent poor performance in Africa at the club level.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Was Pinnick's Vote for Ahmad a Nigerian Benefit?

Just a few days ago, the new CAF President, Ahmad Ahmad, began to publicly outline his agenda for his tenure as President. Ahmad's victory over the aged Issa Hayatou was widely celebrated as victory for change and progress and Nigeria's Amaju Pinnick was received as a hero upon his return home and showered with congratulatory messages. From the agenda that Ahmad has outlined, thus far, it provides us with the picture to evaluate whether the vote Nigeria's Amaju Pinnick cast in Ahmad's favor benefits Nigeria or not? 

First, let us outline Ahmad's plans as reported in the media before evaluating them in terms of how they may serve Nigeria's interest. Here are items in Ahmad's stated agenda:

1.  Change the cycle of the African Cup of Nations (AFCON) from two to four years. 
2.  Change the timing of the Africa Cup of Nations from January-February to June-July.
3.  Increase number of participating countries in the African Cup of Nations from 16 to 24.
4.  Regionalize the qualification system to the finals of the African Cup of Nations as well as other continental competitions.
5.  Regionalize the award of hosting rights to continental competitions.

Clearly, the above measures signal two ideological positions that Ahmad represents. The first is a position that is Eurocentric and the second is a Regionalized African position. It is obvious the source and support for both positions come from power-brokers (FIFA and COSAFA) who made Ahmad's election possible. Pinnick, who voted along, must answer whether Ahmad's position benefits Nigeria. Of course, Pinnick could possibly argue that Nigeria's benefit is not necessarily the election of Ahmad but Amaju's own election to the CAF Executive Committee. However, make no mistake about it both are linked because the coalition that elected Ahmad assured election of coalition members to the Executive Committee and, thus, one cannot be separated from the other. We analyze, below, the five items found on Ahmad's agenda.

The AFCON Cycle
There is increasing demand for changing the AFCON from a two-year to a four-year cycle. The source of this demand is to solely mirror the cycle of continental competitions elsewhere. In essence, it is not a demand based on peculiarities of Africa. Sometimes, it is linked to the timing issue discussed in the next section. But should the cycle be linked to timing? One would argue that it should not. If AFCON is moved to June-July when the European season is on break, why should it the matter that AFCON is a two, three, or four-year cycled tournament? To continue to do so exposes an overriding Eurocentric view.

One would think that de-linking the cycle from the timing issue, should allow a focus on the important issue of African peculiarity. What is this African peculiarity? It is the issue of funding for African competitions. The AFCON remains the cash cow for African football. Without it, the rest of African competitions will likely go with very little sponsorship. Thus, by moving the competition from a two to four-year cycle threatens not only the funding cycle but also the amount of funds available to support the game. This is based on the theory that increased frequency of competition correlates with increased funding. However, seeking additional funding through additional sponsors or increasing amount of current sponsorship should ameliorate this problem. Unfortunately, Mr. Ahmad has spoken very little about this option.

How does this impact Nigeria? The NFF continues to struggle to find funds for its programs and some of that funding comes from CAF, which depends on AFCON earnings to generate funds that are disbursed to federations like the NFF. If the Ahmad regime fails to attract additional funding, while losing amount of funding because of the change of AFCON cycle, that could mean that the NFF will have less funds coming from CAF.

The AFCON Timing
The change in AFCON timing could be argued as a benefit to Nigeria if one solely focuses on availability of foreign-based players for the competition. However, it must be noted that Nigeria has rarely experienced a problem securing the release of its foreign-based players for the competition, which falls under the FIFA international tournament calendar. Some players may have been adversely affected upon return to their clubs following each AFCON. Adversity may result in loss of starting positions at the club level. Changing the cycle to mirror the European calendar would mean that African players leave foreign clubs to play for their national teams when players from other continents also leave to play for national teams. Thus, it would become difficult for foreign-clubs to discriminately punish African players in such changed circumstance.

However, there are other issues at play beyond availability and comfortability of European-based players. Unlike much of Europe and elsewhere, much of Africa (West, Central, and East) faces heavy rains during the June-July months and these could adversely affect a tournament scheduled during such months (See Figures 1 and 2). One-off games (such as in leagues) are played in those months but those can be more easily postponed than games in a tightly-scheduled tournament. Thus, the timing for Nigeria as a host nation is not conducive.

Figure 1: Amount of Rainfall/Month in Lagos, Nigeria

Figure 2: Could this be an AFCON hosting scene for Nigeria?

Increased Number of AFCON Participants
This is a win-win for all countries, including Nigeria. For Nigeria, in particular, this should mean better odds (But read the regionalizing issues below) better odds of participating in the AFCON and additional funds from CAF. This is important when one considers that Nigeria has missed three of the last AFCONs.

With expanded number of participants, Nigeria should (theoretically) have an easier path to the AFCON than in previous years. Think about this, 24 participants means that just about one of  every two African countries will get to the finals! (24 out of 54 member countries).

Moreover, with increased number of participants there are fewer African countries that have facilities to host an AFCON except in a case where CAF supports dual hosting. Among those few countries  is Nigeria. Nigeria will not need to build new stadia, it already has more than enough to host such a competition. It already has suitable stadia in Lagos, Kaduna, Uyo, Enugu, Calabar, Port Harcourt, Ibadan, and Abuja. Only minor work, especially on the playing surfaces, is needed in some of the stadia.  

Regionalized Qualification System
Ahmad has muted the idea that all CAF competitions would utilize the regional qualification system. This system is currently used for election of CAF officials and qualification for the home-based national team cup (CHAN). The system assures that all CAF regions are represented in the finals of an African competition. Currently, West Africa dominates representation in African national team competitions with only North Africa providing serious challenge but that is without the system. Ahmad was supported by COSAFA, Southern Africa region, which has found it difficult to qualify for the final of these competitions. The use of the system, which solves COSAFA's qualification problems justifies Ahmad's move to regionalization.

However, does this support Nigeria's interest? No, it does not. Though the West Africa region is divided into two (i.e. A & B zones), Nigeria is in Zone B along with very competitive teams of Ghana, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, and Togo! Four of these teams are currently among the top 10 teams in Africa. In Zone A, you have three teams in Africa's top 15 (Senegal, Mali, and Guinea). If regionalization is used in today's 16-team tournament, Nigeria would battle for just three spots against three other Top 10 African teams! Meanwhile, COSAFA has three spots for teams that have only South Africa (No. 12) in the Top 20 in Africa! That is the politics of regionalization.

In any case, a 24-team tournament (discussed above) may solve the problem, at least from Nigeria's point of view. However, it is clear that Ahmad's move towards regionalization does not benefit Nigeria. Nigeria loses on that point.

Regionalized Hosting System
Regionalization of hosting rights clearly provides more opportunity to the Southern and Eastern zones and not to West African and North African zones that have often hosted major African tournaments. From Nigeria's viewpoint, this should not matter as it has the ability to win away from home and has done so two of the three times that it won the AFCON. Moreover, if the tournament increases to 24 teams, Nigeria (regardless of region) will be one of few African nations able to host such a large event based on availability of current facilities, except if CAF moves to the option of dual hosting which it has done at least two times in the past. 

Essentially, as Ahmad unveils his plans as CAF's President it is becoming clear that his position is not beneficial to Nigeria and if anything it is detrimental even though Nigeria has the ability to overcome some of the issues. Pinnick's support for Ahmad clearly is not to Nigeria's benefit from the point of CAF's Presidency but it does have a silver lining. That silver lining is in the election of Pinnick to the CAF Executive Committee. At least, Nigeria will have a voice at the seat of decision making. However, it is how Pinnick uses that power that will matter. Will he use it for selfish reasons or will he use it to protect Nigeria's interests? That is the question going forward.