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IS NPL REALLY THE BEST LEAGUE IN AFRICA?

By NBF News
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Since the International Federation of Football History and Statistics (IFFHS) published its recent report ranking the Nigeria Premier League (NPL) as the strongest or the best league in Africa and 24th in the world as at July 2012, reactions have continued to trail the report. Most query it stressing that it doesn't reflect the true picture of football currently in Africa. Nigerian fans most especially do not find it funny describing the ranking as a charade based on the reality on ground.

NPL was ranked the strongest African league compared to the leagues in Tunisia, Ghana, Morocco, Mali, Algeria, Sudan, South Africa, Egypt and Cameroon, in spite of the fact that the CAF Confederation Cup still remains elusive to any Nigerian club side playing in NPL since 2004.

That the Nigerian League is rated the best on the continent should elicit encomiums from the teeming fans of the most populous black nation. On the contrary, the fans query the rationale of the ranking describing it as laughable. So, the award remains debatable among its teeming followers. After Enyimba's back-to-back CAF Champions League exploits, since 2003 and 2004, repeating such feat at the continental level has been difficult.

Besides, it was reasoned Nigeria has not been able to qualify for any of the two editions of the Champions of African Nation (CHAN) since its inception, a competition for players based in the local leagues on the continent.

It is still very difficult to fathom out the criteria that were used to arrive at the afore-mentioned conclusion. In term of fanship the stadiums are rarely filled up, the players are still poorly remunerated and worse still, welfare is at its lowest ebb in the NPL. In recent history, the unheard of has been the order of the day with players going on strike to push home demands for unpaid sign on fees and allowances. Coaches' contract agreements are not respected while even when they are engaged, they operate on empty stomachs due to several months of unpaid salaries. Professionalism is at best is far from the watch word.

Because of these collective problems players and coaches seek the easy way out to ply their trades in foreign leagues in some cases less attractive just to make ends meet. Nigerian coaches and players have had to end up in countries like Mongolia and India not known hitherto for football prowess but basically for economic reasons. Players are still running to South Africa, Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and the likes in drove to play - to earn better wages.

Pundits say it explains why a look at Nigerian players, coaches, administrators and match officials tells of men living below standard compared to their colleagues in some developing countries to say the least. The North African countries have become a model where players stick to their local leagues because they practice professionalism in the true sense of the word.

According to the IFHHS which did the classification, on the pitch performances of clubs were assessed between January 1 to July 10, 2012. The IFHHS added points won in all continental competitions by the five best placed clubs of the Nigerian Premier League.

Some experts argued that since the league was rated as the best in Africa, the players that make up the league should naturally be the best also on the continent, but ironically, the Nigerian home-based national team has never qualified for CHAN -while countries like Tanzania, currently ranked 127th in the world have qualified and Congo DR have won the trophy. Nigeria is still struggling to put together a home based team that can compete in the continent.

Last month, Enugu Rangers declared that their captain, James Okwuosa had gone AWOL. And then, news filtered that the stopper was undergoing a 10-day trial with Ajax Cape Town in South Africa.

Ajax Cape Town is not one of the top four sides in the Rainbow country so what was the lure for Okwuosa? As captain of Rangers, he could see the end of the season and the drive to help the Enugu-based side win their first NPL gold in 30 years but he chose to go on trials. That is a certified professional in Nigeria undergoing a trial with a less than stellar club in South Africa.

Can we imagine someone like Al Ahly's Mohammed Aboutreika undergoing trials with Enyimba or even coming to sign for the Aba side? These are questions that need answers as pundits continue to debate the statistics being bandied by IFHHS.

Also, last month, sources revealed that one of the most talented players in the league, Josiah Maduabuchi of Enyimba was preparing to begin trials with Orlando Pirates confirming the ever chase for golden fleece in South Africa. But the players also see playing in the South African league as an escape route to big leagues in Europe.

When Europeans grade their leagues, it is the English Premier League, La Liga, Bundesliga, Serie A; and then the likes of Ligue 1. The indices show that the Bundesliga overtook the Serie A by attendance records and the rate at which teams from Germany went further in the Champions League than teams from Italy but that seems not to be the basis of grading African leagues.

The players who really are the protagonists in the league are neglected calling for the need to pay them like Africa's best. The coaches should also be treated like the best-that is the only way this accolade will be sustained. Last season, Nigeria made history as the country with the longest league season in the world after the 2010/11 season was held for almost one year. This anomaly was imputed to the internal crisis that rocked the leadership of the NPL board as well as the sponsorship furor.

Last month, two Nigerian clubs, Enyimba FC and Sunshine Stars were named in the 2012 top ten club rankings in Africa.

Tunisia's top flight, which has reigning African champions Esperance, is in second place in Africa and ranked 31st in the world while the Ghana Premier League is in third place but tied on points with Morocco. With no competition taking place in Egypt since January 2012, the country's Premier League is ranked 9th on the continent despite having two clubs in the CAF Champions League.

Football pundits knowledgeable in the indices believe the facts and figures on ground reflect something different. But IFFHS has said the criteria were not based on organizational excellence or financial power of the league, it was strictly based on performance of a country's clubs in CAF Competitions. IFFHS assessed the performance of clubs from January 1 to July 10, 2012 where Nigeria amassed 258 points to become the best in Africa.