Getting to the top and staying there are two very distinct and often mutually exclusive things, a fact that Nigerian clubs have both manifested and proven over the years. Save Enyimba FC’s dominant run in the 2000s, no team has quite held sway in the same way and steadily built on success season-on-season.
Why? In truth, it is not a uniquely football-centric phenomenon. Art imitates life, they say; if football is art, then it can be said that the general trend of a nation’s football will reflect the reality of its society. There is very little succession planning in the Nigerian leadership: victories are won in the face of great odds, and feel like one-offs to be celebrated and retired to.
Last season saw the return of Enugu Rangers to the pinnacle of Nigerian football. It was a mythical curse put to death. A sixth title placed them in second place behind only Enyimba in the all-time standing.
Rivers United, formed as something of a merger between the former Port Harcourt sides Dolphins and Sharks FC, found that their coming together made it easier to swim against the tide of relegation. Not many would have expected them to be Rangers’ closest challengers though.
The placing for third, as well as victory in the Federation Cup, both important for access into the CAF Confederation Cup, went to Wikki Tourists and FC Ifeanyi Ubah respectively.
Six games into the new season for all four teams sees them in the bottom half of the table, with Rangers second from bottom in a shocking reversal of fortune. Of the lot, Rivers United are perhaps making the best fist of it, but not by much: they may be up in 12th, but their points haul is closer to basement side Remo Stars than fourth-placed Enyimba. Wikki and FC Ifeanyi Ubah are 18th and 16th respectively.
It is no freakish turn of events either. In each case, a breadcrumb trail of bad decision-making is evident, leading down into a hole that will be hard to claw out from unless cogent steps are taken.
The Flying Antelopes perhaps provided a window into the instability to come by letting contract talks with coach Imama Amapakabo drag on till the end of last season, when he surely should have been offered a new deal before the season ended. The fact that they did not, and that his position came into uncertainty at all, was a troubling sign.
It has spilled over into this term, of course: Rangers have already had cause to change their management, and Imama has found results hard to come by with his best player and league MVP Chisom Egbuchulam stuck in limbo. It has all come off rather shoddy.
Rivers United’s lofty aspirations were underpinned by their ambitious recruitment, but it is difficult to understand jetting off to Spain for a training tour in the dead of winter. Preparation is less about posturing and more about conditioning with your own peculiar challenges in mind; surely even a tour of Ghana would have been better, with the resources ploughed into a more thorough welfare and travel plan for continental responsibilities.
Wikki Tourists played some of the most thrilling football in the country, and that with a team that was not exactly frothing with experience: the coaching of Abdul Maikaba and the goals of Godwin Obaje steered them right. Both are now lost: Maikaba allowed to move to Akwa United, and Obaje hotfooting it to FC Ifeanyi Ubah. It is hard to foster genuine growth by starting from scratch every season, and any team with designs on dominance must keep its best hands happy.
It all really points to the fact playing and coaching staff are not afforded the prominence they should be. Instead, administrators wield and outsized influence on the team, a fact clearly illustrated at FC Ifeanyi Ubah. Millionaire owners are often considered volatile, but it was a proper surprise to see Rafael Everton relieved after guiding the Nnewi side to a first ever piece of silverware last season.
In his place came Japanese Kenichi Yatsuhashi, whose time in Ghana with Accra Hearts of Oak had been widely panned. He would leave soon after citing interference, and now an uncomfortable detente reigns: Yaw Preko is in charge, but with Everton back in charge of the youth side, has a sword hanging over his head.
All four teams began their sojourn on the continent in broadly positive fashion, but it is clear to see none made concrete moves to engender progress. In that, they can take a cue from Northern African sides, for whom competitiveness on the continent is non-negotiable. Even closer to home, the professionalism of Ivoirian clubs, for example, is to be greatly admired: player welfare and comfort is given pride of place. Borrow a leaf.
It is no use showering them with lavish gifts after they have had to surmount self-imposed obstacles to achieve the impossible. This is a lesson Nigerian clubs must learn – for a nation that prides itself as a giant on the continent, two Champions League titles is an embarrassing return