Football is the most popular sport in Nigeria. To some it is a culture, a religion that unites people regardless of their beliefs or ethnic diversity. United by dreams and aspirations of playing internationally, players are constantly stepping up from the nation’s grassroots scene; with talents blooming into stars as seen through the successes of Nigerian footballing greats such as Kanu Nwankwo, JayJay Okocha, Mutiu Adepoju, Finidi George, and Emmanuel Amunike.
Grassroots football in Nigeria however, has been a grey area over the past few years. Although it stands as the incubator phase for the nation’s burgeoning talent, there are many challenges confronting its development especially in a world dominated by big money deals and multi-faceted endorsements.
Take for example the case of Femi, who grew up in a family of footballers. His two uncles were semi-pro footballers with two of them playing for and coaching the national team. On his part, he played as an amateur footballer for two local teams before appearing for the Nigerian U-17 team at the African tournament. He trained for 12 hours daily playing under a strict manager, the routines for training were sometimes military like, with sessions including jumping jacks, tire rolls, scaling fences and rigorous physical activities. Blessed with tremendous amounts of skill, and vision made for spotting defence splitting passes, he was destined to become a great footballer. Unfortunately for Femi, injuries plagued his potential professional footballing aspirations.
There have been a number of local talents who have suffered the same fate as Femi. The poor state of infrastructure, lack of technical know-how from coaches & medical staff alike, and a general lack of football knowledge has cast doubts over where the future of grassroots football in Nigeria lies. The fact that artificial grass pitches are in short reserve also means that in the rare case where demand exceeds supply, young and upcoming players are left to play – if they are lucky enough, on poor quality pitches, often sand.
Football at grassroots level should not be taken for granted, even at its primary stage; as it is fundamental to the success of the country’s honours sports wise. For instance, according to a 2016 general survey carried out by GOAL.com Nigeria, 50% of suburban Lagos youths play football. Many feel that if Nigeria had a solid grassroots system in place, this year’s FIFA World Cup in Russia could have been one to remember for the Super Eagles.
For the development of grassroots football to make headway, Nigeria must create solid platforms for discovering young talents whilst providing training facilities that will expose players to the business of football as a profession. Players at a grassroots level are in their ‘golden age of learning’ which is why it is essential to start indulging in football early, as trainings focused on development rather than winning, are more enjoyable and they improve technical ability. By providing access to world-class training facilities for everyone, it becomes easier to identify the right talent from a wider pool. Once identified, it becomes easier to give the deserving youngsters the training which would help them develop into successful professional footballers.
The top flight Spanish football league, Liga Nacional De Fútbol Profesional, more commonly referred to as “LaLiga”, is in the process of creating some of these platforms to bolster the development of grassroots football in Nigeria, with a series of LaLiga driven football activations across Nigeria, starting at a grassroots level.
As one of its key initiatives, LaLiga kicked off a coaching clinic in partnership with the Nigerian Professional Football League (NPFL) to train and educate Nigerian youth coaches on LaLiga’s methodology, so that they can incorporate the concepts and knowledge to grow youth teams into professionals with the same capacity as their international counterparts.
The importance of coaches in grassroots football as educators/trainers in the development process of young footballers should not be undermined, as it takes a leading role in this process for the development of football as a whole in Nigeria. LaLiga has shown its commitment to this, having already developed 2 coaching clinics (as stated above) for around 100 coaches, who in the coming years, will be responsible for implementing the know-how and knowledge provided by LaLiga in order to achieve a definitive improvement of grassroots football in Nigeria, and an improvement on the development of young footballers in Nigeria.
LaLiga Sports Projects Manager, Hugo Blanco, recently said “LaLiga makes available the knowledge and experience of its best professionals who work to share the successful methodology that has brought so much success to Spanish football. In addition, work is being done to promote and transfer the positive values of sport, and to encourage a healthy lifestyle. On the other hand, working in collaboration with the local league is of utmost importance for the success of each of these projects.”
An effective grassroots football regime can only be of great benefit to footballers in Nigeria, as it provides a platform for them to be propelled into the best footballing leagues in the world. LaLiga has started something special here in Nigeria, and perhaps with the right mentorship, training and provision of infrastructure, Nigeria might one day, one day, lift the most sought after cup in world football, the prestigious World Cup.