<
>

New-look Nigerian Premier League bearing fruit for Nigeria at CHAN

Nigeria head coach Sunday Oliseh had every reason to smile following his team's 4-1 thrashing of Niger. AP Photo/Olamikan Gbemiga

Nigeria's Chisom Chikatara came on with less than 30 minutes of play left in the opening game of their African Nations Championship Group C campaign against neighbours Niger and proceeded to decimate the opposition with a hat trick in a 4-1 victory on Monday.

It wasn't just about the number of goals he scored -- indeed, it could have been at least twice the tally -- it was his overall play. His movement was timed to perfection, the technique was exquisite and the finishing was lethal.

Chikatara may have hogged the headlines, but this was teamwork come good: From goalkeeper Ikechukwu Ezenwa's incredible saves, to captain Chima Akas organising his defence one second, then bounding up all the way to the byline to help with a rapid counter-attack.

Paul Onobi's near invisibility in holding midfield was the biggest compliment to his efficiency, and the wingers Osas Okoro and Prince Aggreh subjected the Niger full-backs to such trickery that by the time Chikatara came on for the off-form Tunde Adeniji, they were ready to depart themselves.

It is hard to find a more acerbic or sharp-witted commentator on Nigerian football than Temisan Okomi, but even he was could not help but acknowledge what he had seen from Sunday Oliseh's squad. "If nobody says it, I will; that was, arguably, the best football a Super Eagles team has played in a long time. Good job, Oliseh."

Nigerian journalist and sports commentator Biola Kazeem is as dispassionate as Okomi is caustic, and his very underwhelming commentary reflected high praise by its very understatement. "All four goals were well-worked and deliberate. There is some quality in this team particularly going forward," he wrote.

These are just two samples of the giddy-eyed delight that followed the Super Eagles' win. The display was confident, stirring, controlled but quick and ultimately, annihilating.

Naturally, Oliseh gets the credit, and rightfully so. He picked a squad that few had any cause to complain about, despite leaving out some players who could have been picked without any eyebrows being raised. Then, as he has shown from his very first game, he had the gumption to haul off underperforming players, taking off defender Jamiu Alimi within the opening half hour, then Adeniji after another 30 minutes for Chikatara.

Alimi was getting left behind at one end by the Niger forwards, while promising attacking plays were continually breaking down at Adeniji's feet at the other end. Both subs proved more than inspired and their efficiency will only add to the Oliseh legend.

However, equal, if not more credit must go to Nigeria Premier League organisers, the League Management Company. Over the last four years the body has gradually changed the face of the domestic league.

Improvements in organisation, both at league and club level, international training for referees, more games on national television, fan education, increased security and offering incentives to clubs with large fan turnouts have led to improved games, better results, higher remuneration for players and improved attendances.

All of this, despite delayed wages for players, have led to increased confidence and better individual and team displays.

The Super Eagles failed to qualify for the first two editions of the CHAN and started poorly at the last one before finding their feet and finishing third. Now, installed as favourites, their first game is a clear validation of the tag.

Chikatara's goals and performance were no accident. He does the same week in week out for Abia Warriors, a small club in Abia State living in the shadow of their more illustrious rivals Enyimba. In fact, his first goal was almost a carbon copy of one he scored against Rangers during the season: one touch on his chest to control and take the ball away from his marker, the second to lash an angled volley home.

He is not alone. Such is the value placed on Okoro that Rangers and Heartland bickered over his ownership rights.

Aggreh, Adeniji and Paul Onobi are three of five players who had Sunshine Stars making a spirited title chase until it was derailed by financial issues. Incidentally, that number from Sunshine is the highest contribution of any one club to Nigeria's national team.

Those are some of the players who did make the squad. Of those who could have made it, league top scorer Gbolahan Salami stands out. Enyimba's Mfon Udoh was also left out, so was the tricky Christian Pyagbara.

These and other players, serve up a sumptuous fare of football every weekend in the Nigerian domestic league and will do so again when the new season begins in February. Nduka Irabor, a member of the LMC board, says people must let go of their stereotypes when it comes to the Nigerian league.

"People are stuck in that old narrative they've been fed about the local league," he told ESPNFC. "But those things are no longer there. Before, assault on referees and visiting teams used to be a regular thing every week. But when was the last time anybody heard anything about that in the league?

"Attendances are going up everywhere as more people realise that the falsehood they have been fed no longer obtains. We are happy about the performance of these boys so far, and we hope that they will continue so that people can also enjoy what we enjoy every weekend."

Tunisia will provide much sterner scrutiny of the Nigerians than Niger did. But if they play half as well as they did against Niger, Irabor may well have his wish when the season kicks off: more converts to the Nigeria Premier League.