7 Minutes with China: Did Austin Jay Jay Okocha lie?

The Nigerian social media space had been on high octane for a while because of a statement made by former Super Eagles captain, Austin Jay Jay Okocha.

He was said to have disparaged the Nigerian league and said he would rather watch European football than the Nigerian league and a lot of lovers of the Nigerian league, as well as patriotic people are angry.

In his own words, “I don’t think I’d watch the Nigerian league if there is a Premier League match on the television, that is if I am being honest because the Premier League is more attractive.”

Now, the truth is that Okocha did not completely disparage the Nigerian League as the initial reactions to this suggested. He said what he said, based on what he knew, and I do not think what he had said would be different from what a lot of Nigerians would say about the Nigerian league, even sports journalists.

Getting straight to it and without having data to back this claim, I believe that maybe 80% of football-watching Nigerians in Nigeria do not watch the Nigerian league. Maybe 30% of that number do not even know there is a Nigerian league ongoing.

Around five years ago, I met some female students at the University of Port Harcourt dressed in foreign club jerseys and I tried to engage them in football talk. I was wearing an Abia Warriors FC jersey and they had no idea what Abia Warriors FC was. When I told them it was a Nigerian League club, they laughed thinking I was joking and asked if there was a Nigerian league, because they had never heard about it. These girls, about three of them, would have been between 19 and 23 years old at the time.

I have met senior bankers and oil company workers who talk about Nigerian league football in the 80s, but swear they will never go near a stadium to watch a league match. They still follow the games, though, but through radio sports shows.

If we can be sincere with ourselves, let us just do a random sampling of people on our street or workplace and try to engage them on the Nigerian league and see what percentage of them know about it, follow it, watch it or are willing to start watching it.

Even, football writers who major in the Nigerian League should ask our colleagues in our media houses who cover other beats about the league. I am sure the results will not be surprising. We have simply lost this generation and the next.

Even my 6-year-old son who watched almost all matches of the World Cup with me last year knows Mohammed Salah on sight, knows Lionel Messi, Cristiano, Sadio Mane, Mbappe, and Harry Kane, all on sight but has no idea there is any Nigerian league club and does not know any player in the league. Do you know why? You can only be interested in something that you see, or hear about. Yes, he and his brothers have gone to the stadium with me a couple of times, and they know Go Round FC and Rivers United, but it ends there.

Why the outburst against Okocha then?

If the league is really this poor, why are people angry with Austin Okocha for speaking the truth?

Here’s the thing, if anybody should have made that statement it should not have been Okocha and these are my reasons.

The Rangers man

Austin Okocha as an Enugu Rangers player in 1990

While Okocha may not have been entirely wrong with his statement, I do not think it should have come from a person like him.

Austin Okocha played for Enugu Rangers in the Nigerian league. Rangers is said to be an institution. I never saw or heard about Okocha in his playing days in Europe identify himself with Enugu Rangers or the Nigerian league. Ahmed Musa identifies with Kano Pillars all the time, though. People like Okocha in other climes should be in the forefront of pushing for the progress of a football league they started from. One question to Okocha is this- When last did he watch a Nigerian League match? This year? A year ago? Five years ago? When last?

Chairman of the Delta State Football Association

Okocha was once chairman of the Delta State Football Association

If memory serves me right, Okocha was vice chairman of the Delta State Football Association, and then the chairman. As chairman of the Association, he oversaw the running of football in Delta State. I am scratching my head and chewing on my pen to find out one landmark project by the Austin Okocha-led administration to develop football in Delta State. I am even searching for a football policy by him that football in Delta State is benefiting from right now. Shouldn’t he be looking at the man in the mirror? Then again, in his time leading football in Delta State, how many league matches did he watch? I am just wondering aloud and not trying to attack him, as this may be interpreted to be.

Okocha the football icon

As a football icon, whose face is known the world over, should Austin Okocha be the man to say what he said? Shouldn’t he rather be the man to walk to the organisers of the league to be part of what they are doing? I do not think any former National Team captain will say those words Okocha said about his country’s league, no matter how bad it is, but I want to shock Okocha that our league is not as bad as he says it is, but he doesn’t just know because he doesn’t watch it and does not care.

Since Okocha did not lie nko?

Now, one thing we must agree on is that Okocha did not lie on the acceptability of the league by a lot of Nigerians.

When the League Management Company took over the running of the league, I had an initial spat with them due to my criticisms, but I later worked with them to better the league. Did they better the league? Yes they did.

Two seasons ago I swore it would be better for me to set my money on fire than waste data to stream our league matches because I was disappointed at the quality of the games.

In the last season, I watched a few games and travelled as far as Bayelsa and Uyo at my expense to watch league games, plus a couple at my base in Port Harcourt and I must say they were really good games all round.

I remember speaking with Gbenga Elegbeleye and letting him know how bad the league is and offering to be a partner for the progress of our football.

In time past we have seen very horrible playing pitches, we have seen players unpaid for months and years, we have seen clubs on the road with ramshackle and broken down buses, we have seen handwritten numbers and names on jerseys, we have also seen fans jump into the pitch to assault match officials, but most of all we have seen horrible decision making by the referees too. So, there is no doubt here that we have had a lot of ugliness in our league, but did anyone watch the league last season?

We saw referees sanctioned immediately for ruining games; we saw what is probably the longest unbeaten run in Nigerian league history by Bendel Insurance; we saw fan violence checkmated immediately by the league via swift action; we saw football of high quality at the season-ending Super 6. Most of all, we saw much better organisation and football than the previous season. And these can be attributed to the work the outgone League Management Company did plus what the current board of the league is doing. How did I know of these improvements? Because I actually watched the league. How will Okocha know if there are improvements in the League when he probably has not watched it, did not watch it, and has no immediate or future plans to watch it?

My challenge with those who speak gleefully about the ills of the Nigerian league is that they seem happy with the criticism, rather than even think of solutions to the problem. And I’m not talking of the random fan on the streets. We cannot have the same quality of football in the league as we have in, say the EPL or the La Liga when our best players are scattered all over the world.

The league is much more organised now than in 1990 when Austin Okocha played for Rangers. The only difference is that there were better players in the league then. In the same way the league had better players in 1985 when I started watching it, than in 1990 when Okocha played in it.

Did Okocha lie about the quality of the league? Certainly not. Gbenga Elegbeleye and his group that currently run the company should continue to build it, but next week, we talk about the Nigerian football clubs, that are not actually football clubs.

My 7 minutes are done.

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