The ascendancy of English Football: Any lesson for Nigeria?

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By Emmanuel Onwubiko

Spending quality times inside the imposing Stamford Bridge sporting facilities in London, United Kingdom has become for me like a yearly ritual in the past decade and still counting.

In April, I had the opportunity to watch a live match between Chelsea football club – my favourite English premiership side against one of their opponents. The match was similarly watched by approximately 60,000 ticket paying fans.

I was a little unlucky not to have procured the ticket officially since I am not a season ticket holder. Nevertheless, with a princely sum of £100, yours faithfully grabbed a ticket from near the gate. The 90 minutes I spent watching this interesting and pulsatingfootball match was eventful.

It afforded me the opportunity to notice that running professional football team in England has become truly commercially attractive and interesting. Also, I could see that on a typical match day, the fans do spend good chunk of cash to buy souvenirs of different genres even as soft drinks and beverages are sold in very organized fashion around the stadium environment.

A typical match day would see the train and bus stations getting frenetic and busy. But in the midst of these mammoth crowds of soccer lovers who turn up to watch matches in England, one characteristic I noticed from close observations of Chelsea FC and Tottenham Hotspur stadia, is that the police operatives are usually deployed to control human and vehicular movements and to assist in minimizing inconveniences that come with gatherings of people of such magnitude. Usually, train services to such places I am told are increased even as the atmospheres are convivial but relatively peaceful.

A day after the football match I watched aforementioned, I also entered the shop of the team just within the stadium environment to make purchases.

My observation of what goes on inside this  chain of well-coordinated shopping outlets remains so impressive. There is also the interesting dimension of the fact that on almost each working day, hundreds of tourists who travelled from far and near to England usually buy up souvenirs such as customized shirts and several other momentos.

On getting back to my hotel room I reflected on the extensive ramifications of what Nigeria could be like, should we be able to replicate at least half the success stories of some of these English premier league teams.

Nigeria is amongst the few nations in the world that is understandably endowed with talented footballing youngsters who are yet to be discovered. Their talents, if harnessed and optimized, could make the country better, particularly if football becomes professionally well administered with all the global best practices in place.

We will return to this significant topic. But first let us examine the origin of the ‘beautiful game’.

The Origins

The contemporary history of the world’s favourite game spans more than 100 years. It all began in 1863 in England, when rugby football and association football branched off on their different courses and the Football Association in England was formed – becoming the sport’s first governing body, so says football historians as recorded by FIFA. 

Also we are told that both codes stemmed from a common root and both have a long and intricately branched ancestral tree. A search down the centuries reveals at least half a dozen different games, varying to different degrees, and to which the historical development of football has been traced back. 

Experts say that people have enjoyed kicking a ball about for thousands of years and there is absolutely no reason to consider it an aberration of the more ‘natural’ form of playing a ball with the hands.

On the contrary, they stressed, apart from the need to employ the legs and feet in tough tussles for the ball, often without any laws for protection, it was recognized right at the outset that the art of controlling the ball with the feet was not easy and, as such, required no small measure of skill. 

Interestingly, however, we also saw that the very earliest form of the game for which there is scientific evidence was an exercise from a military manual dating back to the second and third centuries BC in China. But unarguably, Britain is the home of football as we will see shortly. 

Britain, the home of Football

FIFA record has it that for all the evidence of early ball sports played elsewhere in the world, the evolution of football as we know it today took place in Britain. The game that flourished in the British Isles from the eighth to the 19th centuries featured a considerable variety of local and regional versions – which were subsequently smoothed down and smartened up to create the modern-day sports of association football, rugby football and, in Ireland, Gaelic football.

 Primitive football was more disorganized, more violent, more spontaneous and usually played by an indefinite number of players, FIFA recalls. 

Curiously, the writers said it was not until nine years after the rules of football had been first established in 1863 that the size and weight of the ball were finally standardized. Up to then, agreement on this point was usually reached by the parties concerned when they were arranging the match, as was the case for a game between London and Sheffield in 1866. This encounter was also the first where the duration was prearranged for 90 minutes.

Now, let us ask the question regarding Premier league finances.

The 2016-17 accounts of all top-flight clubs and what the figures say about their health goes to show that  Manchester United tops the charts with  £581m income and £57m profit.

 Chelsea celebrated winning the 2016-17 Premier League title – but still managed to make a loss, unlike at least 17 of the other 20 teams. 

Due to space constraints we will cite financial figures for 2016 and 2017 from just two out of the 20 Premiership teams and then look at the overall financial profiles as released by UEFA the football governing body of Europe.  For  ARSENAL – Ownership -Arsenal Holdings plc. major shareholders are: Kroenke Sports Enterprises UK (registered in Delaware, owned by US resident Stan Kroenke): 67%; Red and White Securities Limited (owned via Jersey, by Russian resident Alisher Usmanov): 30%

Under Arsène Wenger:  In his first full season, Arsenal failed to qualify for the Champions League, finishing fifth. The finances reflect underinvestment in players, with income – boosted by the new TV deal – the third highest in the Premier League but wages only fifth highest. 

That reflects a caution in owner Stan Kroenke’s approach which some frustrated supporters characterised as an emphasis on profit at the expense of football ambition. For Chelsea owned wholly  by Roman Abramovich. The team made in one year as follows: Broadcasting £162m; Match day £66m; Commercial £140m; Net debt Not stated; £1.17bn owed to Roman Abramovich.

Ironicallythe Russian oligarch increased his loan by £33.8m, taking his funding to £1.17bn since he bought Chelsea in 2003.

Let’s look at Europe wide financial profiles of football sector.  According to the just-released UEFA Benchmarking report, the Premier League accounted for 27% of all revenue generated by Europe’s top-division teams. 

(The benchmarking report;2017) uses two different measures of clubs’ profitability (i.e. their profits or losses). 

The first is operating profit, which measures clubs’ underlying ability to generate profits that can be reinvested back into transfer and financing activity. The second measure is net profit after tax, which we refer to as ‘bottom-line profit’, as it is the final result after all costs, gains and losses. 

A reading of the breakdown show that for the fourth consecutive year the profit and loss position of European teams was positive with a cumulative operating profit of €1.39B ($1.58B). 

The aforementioned underscore the levels of successes attained by English professional football clubs, just as one has to look at teams that got to the finals of Europa and Champions League namely Liverpool, Tottenham, Chelsea and Arsenal.-all English teams.

The lesson for Nigeria is that professional football needs to be restructured and reorganized.

First and foremost, there has to be better organization and management of professional teams in Nigeria so as to attract sponsors and fans to even attend matches. 

The standard of refereeing in Nigeria needs to be upgraded urgently and extensively. 

The poor state of football governance in Nigeria depicts the poor standards of referees and the readiness of club owners to compromise the professional business codes of running football in such a way as to compel all that are involved in management of football to operate by the minimum benchmark requiring that they must operate ethically and avoid all criminal tendencies to compromise standards. 

The Nigerian government has no business running football but should provide the legal frameworks for professional football to happen in Nigeria so locally groomed talented players are gainfully employed. Nigeria needs to abolish the ministry of sports so Football Association becomes truly autonomous. 

If the running of football in Nigeria becomes ethical and professionalized, meaning that the standards of the game is upgraded, the standards of playing stadia/facilities are upgraded, it then follows that merit will drive the recruitment process of players to play in the professional football teams who must be technically and financially sound enough to bear the funding burden of running their teams. Players must work under financially sound atmosphere. 

It is a fact that the Nigerian Football Federation interfaces with the Football Association of England. 

Interface with English FA and FIFA should be explored to serve opportunity to deepen the reforms of the declining standards of professionalism in Nigerian football.

If and whenever the football sector is properly administered, it will not only boost the jobs sector but will also serve as fertile grounds for foreign direct investment just like in England whereby almost all the teams are owned by foreign investors.

If football in Nigeria is sanitized and cleaned up from the debris of corruption, bribery and match -fixing as it is now, then, our talented footballing youngsters would seamlessly be bought by the affluent European teams and the economy of Nigeria will be better for it.  

*Emmanuel Onwubiko heads Human Rights Writers Association (HURIWA). 

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