The Nigeria Professional Football League (NPFL) was cut short on March 18, 2020, after matchday 25, following the spread of the novel coronavirus to the West African Country. There are now more than 50,000 confirmed cases of the virus which originated from China in Nigeria.
The pandemic affected sporting events across the world, leading to their suspensions or postponements. Top European Leagues went on break while the Olympics, Euro 2020, AFCON 2021 qualifiers, and other major events were postponed thereby disrupting the football calendar.
Club’s finances were also hit as a result of the pandemic with some players taking a wage cut during the three months break.
When the beautiful game returned in Europe, it came with a new look; without fans, and five substitutions instead of three but fans and players were delighted to be back.
However, the NPFL never resumed with the League Management Committee deciding to end the campaign on a point per game basis.
Now that the 2019/20 football season has concluded, this writer got in touch with players of the Nigerian Professional Football League (NPFL).
The purpose was to find out how they were able to cope with life indoors, and without football as preparations for a new season in the COVID era are underway.
Grateful for survival in scary times and eager to return to the pitch
The players of the Nigerian League contacted are grateful that things are gradually returning to normal and the football league season can get underway sooner rather than later.
Nwangwa Nyima, a forward with Kano Pillars, acknowledged the severity of the situation and appreciated the decision of the government to protect the lives of the citizens no matter the cost. He said “It has been a difficult situation. First of all, we thank God for life. We are up against something we don’t know, so we have to respect the decision of the federal government and ministry of health.”
Adeniji Kabir of Kwara United echoed Nwangwa Nyima’s thoughts. The former MFM striker admitted that it was better to remain safe. Safety should be the priority before worrying about anything even if it was tough to stay away from the football pitch for a long time.
Speaking about the abrupt end to the 2019/20 NPFL season, he said “The decision to end the season was a good way to save players from contracting the COVID-19 and keep everyone safe. Of course, the players would have loved to play, but our ‘elders’ know better than we do so we are grateful that they looked out for us.”
While the fans could barely wait to see the game they love from the stands or on their TV screens, it was even more challenging for the football players who are used to training every day and playing in big games.
Adeniji Kabir, who joined the Ilorin-based side this month admitted that he missed the special feeling that came with preparation for and playing in the League matches. In the same vein, Harrison Ibukun of Dakkada FC appreciated the need for safety. However, he expressed his desire to return to the pitch because the game brings him joy.
During the lockdown, fans could turn to YouTube to watch videos of old matches while they gained weight during the lockdown period. Professional footballers do not have this luxury as their physical fitness is crucial to success in their career.
NPFL players could not afford to let themselves go. They needed to keep their bodies and minds in good shape to be able to give their best when football inevitably returned.
Naturally, Nigerian players are talented and very ambitious; nothing short of success would be enough for them. They cannot afford to resume duties with pot bellies and lazy mindsets, so how have they maintained their fitness levels without regular football?
Keeping fit by training during a National lockdown
Several players resorted to doing exercises in the privacy of their homes to maintain their physical fitness. Plateau United and former Flying Eagles striker, Jesse Akila disclosed that individual training was necessary as the imposed lockdown prevented going to the club training ground.
He said: “Everybody (in the team) has tried to stay fit on their own. Luckily, our coaches have kept in touch with everyone to let every player know what he needs to do. The members of the coaching staff have been great; the training intensity has increased in anticipation of next season.”
Like Jesse Akila, Adeniji Kabir also resorted to training at home and the gym so that he would be ready to return to the pitch as soon as it is okay to do so. He admitted that training alone was not as easy as training at the club training ground with the rest of his teammates. However, he used a small pitch in his residence to work on his technique ahead of the season.
Harrison Ibukun, a defender of Dakkada FC, explained that he has been training privately ahead of next season. He has a strong desire to get even better than he currently is.
Kano Pillars forward Nyima Nwangwa agrees that it would have been preferable to train with his teammates, as usual. However, safety comes first.
The 27-year-old star is grateful that things are getting better in terms of managing the pandemic. He said: “All the same, I do my training at home with some training tools, but life without football is difficult for me.”
While training alone has helped to maintain players’ physical fitness, playing in a team is part of what makes football the beautiful game that Nigerians love absolutely.
Nzube Anaezemba who recently completed a move from Lobi Stars to Abia Warriors disclosed that he missed playing professional football with his teammates. However, he has been able to take his training to another level by practising on a small neighbourhood pitch while maintaining the safety measures imposed by the relevant authorities.
Points per game conclusion of the 2019/20 season and expectations for the first season in the COVID era
Almost four months after the suspension of the 2019/20 NPFL, the NFF held an online meeting to determine how to conclude the season. The executive committee, National League chairpersons and the president of the Nigeria Referees Association were in attendance.
In that meeting, the stakeholders concluded that the 2019/20 NPFL season should end at matchday 25. The final league table was decided by using a Points Per Game (PPG), just like the French Ligue 1. The teams that finished in the top three would automatically qualify for the 2020-21 CAF Inter-club competitions.
Plateau United was four points clear at the top of the table after 25 games. It is therefore normal that the fans of the Jos-based side believed that it would have been their year if the season had run its full course.
The club striker Jesse Akila disclosed that he understood that safety had to come first. However, it still hurt that the season ended abruptly the way it did because he was confident that his side would have been the champions.
“The pandemic was unexpected. We were dealing with a disease we had not encountered before and so the season was cut short. I believe that if the season had continued and concluded normally (38 games), Plateau United would have been Champions,” the former Flying Eagles forward.
Nevertheless, he is already looking forward to next season as he has set high standards for himself. As a striker, Akila admits that his primary objective is to score more goals. “Strikers have to score more goals to remain relevant. That is my aim for the coming season. I hope to score more goals next season to help Plateau United win the league and hopefully get another call up to the National Team.”
Nzube Anaezemba agrees that a decision had to be made by the NFF to decide the teams that would represent the NPFL at next season’s continental tournaments.
“The teams that would play at the CAF tournaments next season had to be decided. I understand that a decision had to be made. I think it was the right decision as there would have been no other way to determine those teams. I believe everyone is trying to move ahead and clubs must be planning ahead of next season.”
The experienced midfielder recently completed a move to Abia Warriors where he is looking forward to helping his new side win titles. “I want to achieve a lot with Abia Warriors. I know the club has missed out on winning titles and I aim to help this side win trophies next season and book a place in the continental tournaments,” he said.
Kano Pillars forward Nyima Nwagua also expressed his understanding of NFF’s decision as he NPFL calendar should align with the rest of the football world. “The situation we found ourselves is not what anyone could have expected. We have to meet up with other leagues and the points per game is just the solution to our situation. It is cool by me because we have to meet up with the rest of the football world.”
The talented striker is always looking to improve his game every season. However, he has one aim ahead of the 2020/21 season which is to get his hands on the NPFL title. “I always want to be better than my previous season though I want to win the league and go far in the continent too,” he said.
Adeniji Kabir also disclosed that he is ready to take his game to the next level as he readies himself for next season. The striker is confident that he has what it takes to excel at the very top, and he is ready to prove it at Kwara United.
He said: “Next season, I hope to score fifteen to twenty goals for my team. I hope to do better for myself and to provide more assists for my teammates as well. I want to do better than I have done previously; I want to win for myself, my teammates, for the fans, and the city.”
It would be another thrilling season of top-flight football in Nigeria as the players are already eager to get back to the pitch. In the meeting between the stakeholders last month, they disclosed that the next season could begin in September or October 2020
The NPFL 2020/2021 season will start from September/October 2020 and end May 2021 subject to the full reopening of the country and the approval of the health authorities, the statement read.
Tomiwo Ojo is a freelance Sports Journalist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on twitter @sirtomiwo