It took thirty-eight years after the commencement of the biggest club football competition in Africa before a Nigerian team found success.
Enyimba won the CAF Champions League in 2003 against all odds and established their name as one of the biggest teams on the continent.
A talented team of good professionals worked hard that season, surmounted some of the most difficult grounds in Africa to win the tournament.
What was special about Enyimba was that they did it twice, to remind many that the first was not a fluke. They became the first club in 36 years to retain the CAF Champions League in 2004. And what was even more special was that they did it with different coaches. First, Kadiri Ikhana took the team all the way to emerge African champions in 2003.
One year later, Okey Emordi repeated the same feat and took the People’s Elephants to the hallowed triumph. If anyone told a lover of local football at the time that it will take more than a decade before the next team will win, it would have ended in a debate. Not only has it taken a decade, it has gone past and doesn’t look like it will happen soon.
2009: So Close, So Far
In the 2008/09 season, Nigerian teams Kano Pillars and Heartland of Owerri faced in the semifinal of the CAF Champions League with Heartland making it to the final.
They faced one of Africa’s best teams in TP Mazembe and lost on aggregate to the Congolese giants. Nigeria has never come so close since then.
Sunshine Stars of Akure went as far as the semifinal under Segun Ogunbote but couldn’t take the extra step to the final in the 2011/12 season.
While the struggles in the CAF Champions League hasn’t been limited to Nigerian teams, as there’s no West African finalist since Enyimba in 2004, Nigerian teams have been disappointing- a result of high expectations.
The reason for this is not far fetched, as local football’s following has dwindled over the years. The constant degradation of the Nigerian Professional Football League has happened when European leagues have become more popular in the country. And that’s not the main reason. The NPFL is hardly marketable, as its organisers haven’t shown enough developmental strides to give the league a sense of direction. What’s football El dorado is seen in foreign leagues, while the local scene is hardly getting eyes.
The NPFL is not on television today, and many brands don’t consider clubs worthy enough for investment. Without these investments, the best players are not encouraged to play in the country as they are hardly rewarded in good measure.
Talent-wise, what’s possible is endless but football is never down to pure and natural gifts alone. It’s a lot more.
Why Not? Why North?
Many players leave the NPFL to join North African teams. Teams north of the Sahara have the closest semblance to European football in terms of organisation, quality and standard of football.
They run proper football clubs, owned by private companies and the fans and make strong business decisions. Other than that, they pay well.
Former Enyimba winger, Anayo Iwuala left the NPFL for Esperance despite being in the Super Eagles and standing as one of the best legs in the league. Many others have made similar moves in the past and presently.
For many players in the NPFL, North African teams represent an upgrade, hence their readiness to move when an offer comes in.
North African teams have proven to be more business-minded than many teams in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Other than the Premier Soccer League in South Africa where teams have also shown great organisation and corporate mindset in their operations, and TP Mazembe who are a traditional powerhouse on the continent, many teams down the Sahara can’t measure up to the North African teams.
In the last 30 years, only 6 teams outside North Africa have won the CAF Champions League, and without any of TP Mazembe or a magic from a Premier Soccer League team, possibilities of seeing more non-North African winners are dire.
The NPFL, even in the minds of its greatest enthusiasts is not ready to repeate Enyimba’s feat.
While the league has been consistent this season and recent happenings have shown desire for growth, it’s still some miles away from ruling the continent.
When serial champions and Egyptian giants Al Ahly face Wydad Casablanca of Morocco tonight in the final of the competition, Nigerian teams can watch, plan, dream and desire such heights. It’s not impossible, but without organisation, it’s hardly possible.