With the Russia 2018 FIFA World Cup on the horizon, Otuguor Ufuoma writes on the role of stakeholders in the development of Nigerian football in this digital age.

HOW would you like to sit in a wooden bench with your torso forming a convex pattern in front of a television whose volume alternates between disturbance and noise, high and low and steady and unsteady. The graphics is not any better as people appearing as Christmas trees or wobbling dolls run after a supposed football looking like a square or oblong box or something in between. Such supposed ‘clear’ display was only achieved after a rigorous process of pole turning and exhausting every known manual method of achieving clarity. If you were born in the era where coloured television is a luxury rather than a necessity and where you have to make a choice between only food and entertainment, the above story would evoke bitter sweet but beautiful memories none the less. Fast forward then to present day, you can tell the difference between what is and what was. Beautiful as those memory may be, you can't help but appreciate what technology has achieved in the form of comfort as far as information and entertainment is concerned. Such changes in every sphere of human endeavour improves our lives in many ways and can rightly be called the digital age. Your Dictionary defines the digital age as the period starting in the 1970s with the introduction of the personal computer with subsequent technology introduced providing the ability to transfer information freely and quickly.

This age has seen marked improvement compared to yore and as a football fan, you would be forgiven to desire such changes coming football’s way. If that is true, your dream is a reality as digitalization has greatly affected football that about 1.013 billion( persons can sit together from their various parts of the world to watch a match played in Brazil with great comfort of beautiful sight and clear audio signal matching their anticipation and enthusiasm. It is only normal as a Nigerian particularly with the 2018 world cup in Russia closing in, to expect a positive impact from digitalization. Making Nigerian football attractive in a digital age now comes to mind.

Nigerian football is a term that covers all football events within the nation as well as those outside its shores involving participants in Nigeria. Conveying this idea in a different fashion, Nigeria football involves the national teams as well as clubs from the amateur to the professional levels within the country. It is safe to assume that one who enjoyed indigenous football in times past, should have no problem enjoying it now. But sadly the reverse has been the case. The majority of Nigerian population have switched from supporting local football to growing great affection for oversee clubs. It is also very common to hear youths and adults alike saying that if you want to keep your heart healthy, abstain from Nigerian football. This is coming from same persons who religiously follow oversea clubs through drama and tears and may have sat in Benches in the story above. While that is victory in some parts to digitalization, it is a defeat to the attractive prowess of Nigerian football. That means although there is overall improvement caused by digitalization, the average Nigerian audience is no longer captivated by football in the country. This is so despite the fact that Nigeria football has gained international recognition as being the cradle of great football stars like Austin Jayjay Okocha, Nwankwo Kano and a host of others. Narrowing down the focus, we come to the Nigerian professional Football League (NPFL). It is factual that a nation’s football development is hinged on the performance of the domestic league. Being the giant of Africa, you would be forgiven to believe that any league match would fill the stadium to full capacity and beyond. But when Supersport 9 airs these games to the world, you see empty benches like matches played behind closed doors.

One of the factors is that the games are highly predictable. Fans and observers expects to win every home match or get a draw when the situation is extreme. Some have even joked that a foul committed in the middle of the park can result to a penalty for the home team. When you compare this with other leagues, you can understand why the game is not attractive even in this day and age. Look at the elclassico for example, the match between Real Madrid and Barcelona. The last edition in the Spanish super cup ended in victory for Real Madrid in both legs. Such hardly happens in Nigeria and when they do, it is usually celebrated like a child seeing eclipse of the sun for the first time. Therefore for the game to be attractive, it must be unpredictable.

Inside the pitch with the players are officials. They ensure that the game is played in a fair and orderly manner. But what happens when these are poorly trained and afforded little protection. They usually bend to the whims and caprices of the fans, sometimes irate. This leads to unobjective and bias decisions tailored both to favour the home fans and guarantee protection for the referee after the match. For a more attractive football, the officials must be properly trained and their security assured.

Away from officials, fans and managers, let us talk about management of the clubs by owners as well as the league managers. For club owners and managers, emphasis should be on developing the sport as a whole and not just profit making. The orientation should be that with a little sacrifice on their part, the league will become more attractive and profit will be guaranteed on the long run. This is not to undermine the profit motive of nearly all business ventures but if we don't want to put the cat before the horse, it must be recognized that a more attractive league will both satisfy spectators and increase revenue. A win win situation is therefore achieved. That means players’ welfare should not be joked with and nonpayment of salaries and allowances should be frowned at. Proper care should be taken both to prevention and treatment of injuries. Once the general wellbeing of players assumes front burner, the players will be more dedicated and a more competitive environment will result. This will make the league attractive and more sponsors will come in as a byproduct.

The league management should also be geared toward sustaining and improving its acceptability in the eyes of fans particularly as they face competition of attention from other attractive football leagues. Sanctions should be netted out to clubs and fans who are unruly, club owners should be incited toward development of the game in general and officials should not be more concerned about personal gratification.

We hope to see our stadia full again, we yearn to see our league produce world class stars, we anticipate international recognition and compete with other developed leagues. All of these are possible. Yes if we can sit in benches to watch blurry televisions in the past, we can even be more aggressive in our support for Nigerian football. Digitalization is already in place to assist us. The onus is for all and sundry to change their attitude for betterment of our football and with the world cup just around the corner, now is the time to put all hands on deck.

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