From Romanus Ugwu, Abuja
Alhaji Shehu Dikko, has actually turned the Nigerian league into a beautiful bride with the introduction of certain innovations. In fact, he has gradually carved a niche for himself since taking over the League Management Company (LMC) mantle of leadership. He has ensured that the league never remained the same.
Fielding questions from Saturday Sunsports, he speaks on a wide range of issues including the delay in securing sponsorship deal for the league, plans to bring Nigerian fans to the stadium, the turning around of the league and the training of referees among others.
So far so good for the new league season
I will of course say so far so good for the league season but I also know that every day is a learning process when we keep improving on the successes recorded. The unfortunate incidence of week one was a wakeup call for everybody.
It is obviously better to have issues at the beginning and correct them when we have 37 week matches than witnessing such incidence in match 36 or 38 when there is little or nothing we can do. I congratulate IfeanyiUba FC over the way they handled the matter. They realised their mistake and accepted it publicly.
They respected the rules and the integrity of the competition. The matter is closed and it is good that everybody learnt from it. It has even put the referees on their toes.
Naturally, people will always focus on the negatives but we have used it to set a standard. For instance clubs are accepting defeats and even commending referees. What it means is that even the referees are improving and doing their best but we always focus basically on one negative issue and dwell on it so much. What we want people to know is that we have the ability and capacity to deal with any issue and there will be no sacred cows.
Every club spent money to recruit quality players. It is only in England we hear top four, bottom four and middle table team. It is because they have different sizes of budget unlike in the Nigerian league where all the teams have almost the same size of budget. They have the same access to the players and coaches and that made the teams here balanced. The only thing that makes the difference is the training programmes.
The marginal difference between last season and current season
We instituted a programme to curtail the three point syndrome. We tried to work on the psychology and thinking of the players and officials desperate to secure three points by all means. It has worked because the teams are making efforts very well.
The club managers now understand better that they have to do things differently and better now especially in bringing fans to the stadium. Some of them have even activated their lounges for refreshments and other things.
The management of Sunshine Stars and Plateau United have cleaned their hitherto dirty stadiums. Managers are trying to attract fans to the stadiums. Again for the first time in Africa, we did a pure transfer season using the TMS which computerised every transfer to check the complaints we witnessed in the past.
The registration of the players went seamless and much credit must be given to the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) and the LMC for working hard to put that system in place.
It has helped us so much to reduce influx of clubs managers coming to LMC office for registration. Before now, LMC was like a market place. With the right documentation, you get Domestic Transfer Certificate (DTC) and incidentally, people don’t know we issue DTC.
Again, we are running national live commentaries and you can’t imagine the number of people following the commentaries. We are playing mid-week games and getting full houses despite European games going on.
Only recently, last season’s highest goal scorer, Obaje. rejoined IfeanyiUbah FC after failing to secure a contract in Europe. In the past, he would rather prefer to join any obscure league to coming back home.
Yes, we have recorded resounding progresses but there are still much to be done. We know that there will be fatigue playing weekend and midweek but we can’t stop midweek match because it was a collective agreement with the clubs. We need to catch up with time but we are also reasonable in cancelling midweek matches sometimes.
The truth is that it is only in the Nigerian league that a club registers 40 players yet continues to use only 12, 13 or 14 players consistently. Why not register 20 players, pay them good money and stop wasting money on other players.
We have the highest number of registered players because we know we have a peculiar terrain where travelling is difficult. There is no airline to take the players and officials consistently. We have been talking to the airlines but the airlines are also in a big trouble.
The problem we have is that no airline plies all the routes in the country. It would have been easier if we have an airline that covers every part of Nigeria. We have also encouraged every club to negotiate such deals on their own. Some clubs are working on that but the fact is that the airlines are not consistent.
We are talking to them not to give us the money but to do a very heavy discount on each ticket. However, as it is now, we might end up cancelling fixtures because of delay of airlines. A team might spend the whole day at the airport waiting for flight and it could be more tedious than travelling by road.
Nigerian league the only thing working in Nigerian football
The league is not done by the LMC alone but by everybody. The LMC, NFF, referees, media and every other stakeholder are doing everything to ensure that the league improves. Have we asked ourselves how many competitions England has won at any level but they obviously have the best organised league with the biggest money in the world?
That is what is keeping them happy and going. A typical English fan is more passionate about his club than his national team because to them, the league is the way of life. This is basically what we need to change our country into.
We must stop focusing 100 per cent on the Super Eagles which end up putting pressure on the team. We want to increase the interests of Nigerians in the league than the national teams. Getting the league right would mean total transformation of Nigerian football from the grassroots to the national level.
The league will drive all football developments in this country. The other leagues like the National, Nationwide and the Women will also be driving along. If we fix Nigerian league, it will change many things because it is an economy on its own. In Spain, it is La Liga, in Italy, the Serie A, in England, the Premiership and in Germany, the Bundesliga, so Nigeria should be identified with its league.
Our target is to bring over 10, 000 Nigerians to the stadium in every match. Nigerians are gradually beginning to forget the craze about foreign leagues. The next thing we have to do is to put smiles on the faces and put something in their pockets.
The turning point of Nigerian league
The secret of our success is the sincerity of purpose and the determination to ensure that we do things right. We are sacrificing much to keep the league going. The turning point is getting all the key stakeholders under one umbrella.
No club owner complains again because everybody has keyed into the project. We do disagree but we have been able to find solution on the dialogue table. The turning point is the change in the psychology and thinking. The commitment of the media is also another turning point.
We now send highlights through mobile phones and we will soon test run the technology to stream our matches live everywhere in the world.
Tightening the loose ends in officiating
We have done that and I can tell you that Nigerian referees are not as bad as people think. Weekly, we see officiating mistakes in the big leagues around the world but nobody dwells on it. We still see single mistake from a Nigerian referee as the old order, I want to however add that we are all on our feet to ensure that it works.
No NFF board has invested on development of referees more than the LMC has done under the current NFF board. The kind of money we have invested in training both locally and abroad is very high. We are even finalising securing a kit sponsor who will supply kits free to our referees. We are still waiting for them.
The issue of referees’ mistakes are over exaggerated. The lady who officiated the Kano opening match did not breach any rule of the game but we picked her out on her sense of judgement. Part of refereeing is judgement not just application of the rules. The referee for Crown vs Abia Warrior did not do badly until the award of that questionable penalty almost to the end of the game. He paid the price.