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.