Prior to 2016, it had taken Lagos 20 years to establish a team to represent the state in the Nigeria Professional Football League, and Eko Akete, a city noted for its quick ability to show up and show out, had yet to live up to its reputation on the football field. Until Mountain of Fire Ministries (MFM) FC and Ikorodu United arrived in 2016, the former played in the league for six years, competing with the best in the country and on the continent at the Confederation of African Football (CAF) Champions League, before being relegated in 2022. The latter, on the other hand, was unable to withstand the rigors of the competition and was demoted in the 2016/17 season. After 2022, Lagos found itself in the deserts of Nigerian club football, with no teams to fly its flag in the country’s league, until today, when Sporting Lagos, owned by Shola Akinlade, has piqued the interest of football fans and analysts alike.
In 16 months, sporting Lagos has gone from the Nigeria National League ( NNL) to the Nigeria Professional Football League (NPFL) , winning the Naija Super 8 tournament along the way. In this interview, Sporting Lagos Chairman Godwin Enakhana who had overseen MFM’S brief stint of success in the NPFL talks about Sporting Lagos’ journey,the clubs foundation and how it differs from the MFM project, its plans for the future, and its hopes of becoming a force in African football.
We delve into the club’s remarkable achievements, including their recent triumph in the Naija Super 8 tournament and their swift promotion to the NPFL. Enakhana sheds light on how the team has managed to attract and sustain a young and enthusiastic fan base, even in a climate of dwindling interest in the Nigerian league. He explains how Sporting Lagos’ focus on providing value, entertainment, and quality football has been key to their success in engaging supporters.
Looking ahead, Enakhana emphasizes Sporting Lagos’ distinctive approach, setting them apart from other clubs. He highlights the club’s strategic goals, which include competing on a continental level, nurturing talent through their academy, and ultimately becoming a business model and sponsorship magnet for other clubs.
As the NPFL experiences a wind of change brought about by privately owned teams like Sporting Lagos, Enakhana offers insights into the league’s future trajectory. From the challenges of government-controlled clubs to the potential of club licensing and financial audits, he paints a realistic picture of the league’s road ahead.
This is a fascinating glimpse into the evolving landscape of Nigerian football and the potential for transformation within the NPFL.
Can you take me through Sporting Lagos’ 16-month journey from the NNL to the NPFL?
It’s been an intriguing and enormous journey; as an administrator, I was familiar with the route and knew where the booby traps were. We began 16 months ago when Shola Akinlade contacted me through Colin Udoh and asked to be a part of the Nigeria Premier Football League. I laughed him off at first and told him about the negatives of the Nigerian league, and he said that the more reasons he gave for wanting to get a club into the league, the more serious I saw him, so we bought a football club in the NNL and went to Ilaji in Ibadan to recruit players and coaching staff. We first recruited Coach Fatai Osho, but he was unveiled by Rivers United, so we had to move on to Uche Okagbwe, the then coach of Ifeanyi Ubah and we went to Illaji and then the rest they say is history
Sporting Lagos won the Naija Super 8 tournament and was promoted to the NPFL practically simultaneously. What kind of statement do you think the club made with those success stories?
We have made the statement that with proper preparation and the correct staff, we can do things right. When you have square pegs in square holes, things will go right. We understand the Nigerian topography well, and it was no surprise when Colin Udoh recommended me to Shola Akinlade because I am familiar with the terrain. And with the right managerial support, everything will fall into place. We were looking for a platform to showcase how to the rest of the globe, and we found it with the Naija Super 8 platform and our Promotion to the NPFL.
Sporting Lagos has a young fan base. How has the team been able to attract a young fan base to the happy corner in light of the Nigerian League clubs’ diminishing fan base?
When you go to a stadium to watch football, you enter freely, you are not harassed by anyone, and you enjoy football. When football is pleasing to the eyes, victory after victory, even when we lose, we enjoy the quality of football, and beyond that, the entertainment is top-notch. You never know who will entertain you; it could be Teni, or it could be anyone. Aside from that, you can win 100,000 naira during halftime with a variety of gifts, such as vuvuzelas. When you provide the average Nigerian with good value for their money and time, they will always return.
MFM FC, for example, has played in the NPFL but has not been successful. How does Sporting Lagos want to avoid becoming a failure statistic?
There are no two teams that are alike; we did not establish MFM FC as a business company; it was a youth repositioning initiative, and we succeeded. It was not intended for business because it contained an ideology. Sporting Lagos is different. I never believed in my life that a Nigerian fan would pay 50,000 naira to watch an NNL team play, but I have seen that happen with Sporting Lagos, and some Nigerians would even pay 500,000 to watch us in a booth. The guys behind this squad are young; none of them are 40 years old yet. Ekene Agu, Fola Olatunji- David, and Shola Akinlade are here to demonstrate that this is a generational effort that will outlast them, They have gone ahead to buy a team in Denmark, and they have built a stadium that’s 85% complete. The difference between MFM FC and Sporting Lagos is that one is business and the other is youth repositioning.
Privately owned teams such as Sporting Lagos and Remo Stars are changing the outlook of NPFL clubs, and it’s rubbing off on the NPFL. With this wind of change, how far can the NPFL go in the next several years?
As the general secretary of the clubs in Nigeria NPFL and the spokesperson, I know a lot about a situation where we have 20 teams, and 17 of them are controlled by the government; saying we will get to El Dorado is a joke. The trip is long, and we can only begin with club licensing, so let’s get that done first and take modest steps. I’m not aware of any financial audits of any government clubs. The government clubs are set up as CSR and we need to get away from that template before the league system improves.
Are there any plans to build your own facility? Sporting Lagos currently uses the Mobolaji Johnson Arena.
The stadium is located at Landmark in Oniru on Victoria Island; it’s a little stadium for a small community. The intention was for us to start the league at Onikan in the first stanza and transfer to our stadium in the second stanza.
Shola Akinade owns a 55% stake in Aarhus Fremad. Does that translate to a strategic partnership with your club and how does that partnership help Sporting Lagos?
What I can say is the best players in Sporting Lagos season in, season out will move to the club in Denmark. For me, nothing beats that.
What are the short and long-term goals of the Sporting Lagos project?
The short-term goal is to compete in the Nigerian league, attract the best players, increase our fanbase, and make more money. The long-term goal is to get on the continent in 2 years, win the CAF Champions League if possible, compete with the big boys, export as many players from our academy and team as possible, be a business model for other clubs and attract as many sponsorships as possible
Let’s talk about the transfer window. With the signings of Junior Lokosa from Remo Stars and Olisima Ekene from Warri Wolves, how much more are you willing to bring to Sporting Lagos?
To compete with the big boys, you must have big boys on your team. Junior Lokosa is a soldier who has fought in many fights both in and out of Nigeria, and we need a balance of youth and experience. The goal is to be on the continent in a year or two; therefore, we’ll make a few more transfers before the transfer window closes.
Photo Credit: Sporting Lagos,Instagram.