By Eche Amos
Football, more than just a sport, has become a social passion that connects the world and makes it a global village.
It moves thousands of millions of people, irrespective of any form of discrimination, and has defined countries, institutions, and societies, building a solid reputation over decades of competition.
Football is the world’s most unifying sport, breaking barriers and stereotypes, and creating an egalitarian society for a happier and better world.
In many countries, Nigeria inclusive, football has cult followership, and the citizens are not only passionate about it but fanatical, in most instances, in supporting their most cherished side and players get into action on the field.
There are three major tiers of football leagues in Nigeria, namely, the Nigeria Professional Football League, NPFL, which is the elite league and runs a twenty-team league per season. On the other hand, there is the Second Division category which is referred to as the Nigerian National League, NNL, and then the Amateur Division also known as the Nationwide League One.
With the 2021/22 Nigeria football league seasons (i.e in all the leagues) approaching their climax, it’s becoming very clear that the North-Central Zone is gradually becoming the bedrock of Nigeria’s football.
The last decade has seen the zone making remarkable progress in the round leather game in the country, producing some of the finest athletes, coaches, administrators, technocrats, media persons, and stakeholders who have moved on to become household names as long as the sports world is concerned.
In the elite men’s League, the likes of Plateau United FC of Jos and Lobi Stars FC of Makurdi, Benue State, have won the league title three times between them.
Other heavyweights from the zone, Niger Tornadoes of Minna have won the FA Cup once, and runners-up twice in recent times alongside Nasarawa United FC.
In the female category of the elite league, The Nigeria Women’s Football League Premiership, Nasarawa Amazons FC have become major stakeholders with a flurry of trophies in their cabinet.
The Queens of Nasarawa has won the women’s league title twice, and the FA Cup twice as well, becoming the only team from Northern Nigeria to attain such mind-blowing feats.
The national women’s teams of Nigeria are littered with boundless talents from the Lafia-based club.
Today, with just one match remaining before the end of the 2021/22 Nigeria Professional Football League Season, the North-central zone has made history by becoming the only zone that will have all of its representatives compete in the NPFL next season (2022/23), depending on how Dakkada FC will end.
Plateau United are already guaranteed a place in the Continent’s elite inter-club competition, the CAF Champions League, after coming 2nd position; Kwara United will fight till the end of the campaign in their effort to pick one of the available CAF Confederation’s Cup tickets; Nasarawa United, Niger Tornadoes and Lobi Stars FC have all secured their stability in the league and have little or nothing to fret about relegation this season.
Each of the twenty NPFL teams represents a zone as the case may be. The South-East geopolitical zone has Enyimba Fc (Abia State), Abia Warriors Fc (Abia State), Rangers International Fc (Enugu State), and Heartland Fc (Imo State).
The South-South Zone has Rivers United (Rivers State), Akwa United and Dakkada Fc (both in Akwa-ibom State).
Remo Stars (Ogun State), MFM Fc (Lagos State), Sunshine Stars (Ondo State), and Shooting Stars Sports Club (Oyo State) make up the teams from the South-west Zone.
The North-west geopolitical zone has Kano Pillars (Kano State) and Katsina United (Katsina State).
The northeast has Gombe United (Gombe State) and Wikki Tourists Fc (Bauchi State).
Only the North-central zone has the highest number of teams, five in total, and they include Nasarawa United (Nasarawa State), Niger Tornadoes Fc (Niger State), Kwara United (Kwara State), Plateau United (Plateau State), and Lobi Stars FC(Benue State).
Those five teams have produced and continue to produce some of the finest athletes and coaches in the land, entertaining their ever-passionate and vociferous fans with a beautiful brand of football.
You could be forced to ask how all these breathtaking transformations have come about. The answer isn’t far-fetched.
One of the major reasons the zone is thriving in football in Nigeria is due to street football. Here in the Zone, people (kids and young adults alike) learn to play football in the street under not-too-palatable surfaces or facilities, but more prominently for fun before the business angle of it.
The second reason for the emerging success of the zone is the diverse roster of talents.
The North-central zone is home to talents of all races and all walks of life, and these players hone their skills in competitive, multi-cultural, and religious fields of a typical African brand of football.
The zone is not discriminatory against the choice of players or coaches or administrators but welcomes everyone into its folds.
A cursory scan into the five NPFL teams from the zone will reveal an array of players and coaches from other zones executing their professional duties uninterruptedly.
Also, the zone is home to one of the greatest inter-club rivalries in the Country. We all know passion can grip and paralyze the crowd. Of course, no sport echoes that sentiment better than football.
There is nothing sweeter and more gratifying than earning an important victory over a team that competes for the same goal as you aim. Rivalry brings out the fierceness, competitiveness, and passion it awakens among the die-hard supporters and the players alike.
Have you been to any venue where either Nasarawa United is taking on Lobi Stars, Plateau United versus Niger Tornadoes, or Kwara United versus anyone of the above? The tension and anxiety before and during the game are better felt than imagined.
There are glimmers of hope that the number of clubs from the Zone could increase from five to six as City FC of Abuja are on the brink of topping the NNL Northern Conference table, should they win all three of their remaining matches, and hoping that both El-Kanemi Warriors FC of Maiduguri and Sokoto United FC slip in their own games.
Coaching chemistry is another vital area the North Central is gradually getting an upper hand. Some of the coaches with the richest CVs in the league are from the zone, making clubs from the zone a force to reckon with.
Ladan Bosso from Niger State is both the President of Nigeria Coaches’ Association and Head Coach of Nigeria’s U-20 Youth Team, The Flying Eagles, and recently led the team to a west African title in the Niger Republic which subsequently qualified Nigeria for the African U-20 Nations Championship.
Christopher Danjuma is both the Coach of Nasarawa Amazons FC and Nigeria’s U-20 Women’s team, The Falconets, and has recorded a series of successes with both teams.
There are also Abubakar Arikya, Head Coach with Nasarawa United FC; Assistant Coach Hamza Abdulazeez Abara with Plateau United FC; Samson Keshi Marwa, Assistant Coach with Nasarawa United FC as well as Assistant Coach/Scout of Nigeria’s U-20 Youth Team, The Flying Eagles; Goalkeeper Trainer, Audu Yahaya with Nasarawa Amazons FC and Nigeria’s U-20 Girls Team, The Falconets; Abdullahi Tyabo is Assistant Head Coach of Nigeria’s U-13/U-15 Team as well as Assistant Coach at Akwa United FC of Akwa-ibom.
Those are a few Coaches who have nurtured some of the best talents in the land.
In Refereeing, the North-central is equally not left out. The Zone has produced seven (7) International male and female referees.
There are also notable referees like Felicia Obille Allu (FIFA Badged) from Nasarawa State; Hannah Elaigwu(Technical Instructor in Nigeria & CAF) from F.C.T, Abuja; Abdullahi Abubakar from Niger State; Late Prince Ebube(Int’l Referee with two badges in 11-a-side and Futsal); Hudu Nwankwocha from F.C.T. Abuja and Bose Momoh also from the FCT, Abuja.
But how do you measure all these achievements without a frantic and working administration in place? A society becomes good or bad depending on the leadership style of those in authority.
The Holy Scriptures say, paraphrased, “When the righteous are in power, the people rejoice; but when the wicked are in authority, the people mourn.”
The North-central zone is home to some of the sports’, particularly football’s greatest administrators and technocrats who have continued to inconvenience themselves to blaze the trail and get things done appropriately for the zone and country at large.
Comr. Ahmed ‘Fresh’ Yusuf (Sardaunan Kwallo Nigeria), the Niger State FA Chairman and one of the longest serving FA Chairmen in Nigeria, is considered by many as the ‘brain-box’ of the Nigeria Football Federation where he is an executive committee member, with his cutting-edge innovations and mind-blowing human resource development charisma.
A 3-Star General in the NFF, he currently heads the NFF Technical and Development Committee. He is also a member of the NFF Referees’ Appointment Committee, Coordinator of Football in North Central Zone, as well as Member of the CAF Technical and Development Committee.
Alh. Alkali Mohammed (Sarkin Kasuwan Lafia) is the Chairman of the Nasarawa State Football Association.
Alkali rose to prominence in 2011 when he won his first election as the FA Chairman.
Also, a 3-Star General Executive Committee Member of the NFF, the gentle-looking enigma has penetrated the hearts of many football lovers, especially those at the grassroots level where he spearheads the largest inter-club league, the Nationwide League One, the third tier of the Nigerian league, with over two hundred clubs participating.
Popularly called SK, the football administrator has been involved in some of the latest positive changes we are witnessing in our grassroots football today, and he is also a very revered member of the NFF, belonging to different Sub-Committees of the apex football body in Nigeria.
Barr. Isaac Danladi (Dan Moren Karu) doesn’t need any special introduction.
The legal luminary has demonstrated, times without number, why he is one of the most gifted Club administrators in the land.
The Nasarawa United Chairman, against all odds, ensured the Solid Miners return to the elite domestic league in 2011 and since then, the team doesn’t know what relegation or playing in the second division means.
Under his watch, Nasarawa United has played in two National FA Cup finals, in 2016 and 2021.
In fact, he is so abreast with the politics of the game that he was brought back to rescue Nasarawa United from the relegation zone during the Corona virus-infested 2019/20 league season, a task he accomplished successfully.
Also, his tutelage has produced some of the league’s highest goal scorers, from Victor Namo to Sunusi Ibrahim and lately, Silas Nwankwo.
In the 2020/21 league season, Nasarawa United was adjudged one of the best playing sides while Silas Nwankwo emerged as the Best Men’s Player Based in Nigeria by the NFF in conjunction with Aiteo Group.
The Solid Miners have equally represented the country in CAF’s inter-club competitions in the past, and still aiming for that in the coming Season(s).
Barr. Danladi was the pioneer Vice Chairman of the Nasarawa State FA.
He is currently the Chairman of the NPFL Club Owners’ Association, a member of the NFF Technical and Development Committee as well a Member, the NFF Committee on Football Reforms.
Dominic Iorfa is the Executive Vice Chairman of Lobi Stars FC of Makurdi.
Like Barr. Danladi, the former Nigerian international is making his second return to the ‘Shoe Get Size’ Benue team after being relieved of that position some years ago.
Before his reappointment by the Benue State Government, Lobi Stars were hovering between the devil and the deep blue sea in the current campaign.
He was tasked by his employers to save the team from drowning, and your guess is as good as mine as Lobi Stars are ‘miraculously’ in a safe spot in the league, an attribute of a man who knows his onions.
The success story of Plateau United FC can’t be written without a special place for the Club’s supremo, Pius Henwan.
Gentle to a fault, but inside of this extraordinary administrator is a winning mentality that goes beyond wisdom and imagination.
Under his leadership as General Manager, The Peace Boys have won two league titles and represented the Country at the Continent’s elite inter-club competition, the CAF Champions League.
At one point, the club was having the highest-paid coach in the history of club football in Nigeria in Kennedy Boboye, just as some of the highest-paid players in the league are from the Jos-based side.
Plateau State also has in its folds, Sunday Longbap. The Sarkin Yakin Kwallon North-Central Zone is presently the FA Chairman of Plateau State and a ranking member of FA Chairmen in Nigeria.
Kwara United is on the verge of picking a continental ticket as the team is having a smooth sail this season.
They narrowly missed out on the Continent last season after the ruling by the Nigeria Football Federation.
Behind the transformation in the Afonja Warriors is a name that sounds pretty familiar – Titiloye Kumbi.
He is an astute administrator of excellence, a goal-getter, and a team leader.
He believes in the innate abilities of his players, coaching, and backroom staff.
Also, from Kwara State is the General Manager of Kwara United FC, Bashir Badawiy, who is one of the fastest-rising football technocrats in Nigeria with a vast knowledge of the game, having also served as Coordinator of Rivers United FC for three years.
Hon. Adamu Aliyu Mohammed may not be a household name, per say, but how he turned around the situation of the “Ikon Allah Boys” as Niger Tornadoes FC are nicknamed, from the lower division to the elite league remains a mystery to many till today.
The NPFL returnees were having some turbulent moments from the start of the season, but within the twinkle of an eye, their downward spiral immediately got overturned, earning them a comfortable place in the league next season.
Hajiya Hussaina Suleiman Nagogo is the Chairperson of the 2019 Aiteo Federation Cup-winning Nasarawa Amazons FC.
After the painful demise of the Club’s pioneer chairman, HRH. Audu Nuhu (Gom Mama of Mama Chiefdom), on 4th March 2019, Hajiya Hussaina was saddled with the herculean responsibility of leading the club.
With proactive tact and finesse, she led the Amazons to their first trophy, post-Audu Nuhu, the Aiteo Federation Cup against perennial rivals, Rivers Angels of Port-Harcourt in Kaduna, in 2019.
At the end of 2021/22 abridged Nigeria Women’s Football League Premiership Season, Nasarawa Amazons emerged with the highest points both in Groups ‘A’ and ‘B’, with 27 points, and came 2nd after the Super Six tournament.
As things stand today, Hajiya Hussaina who is the Secretary-General of the NWFL Club Owners’ Association is the most decorated female Club administrator from Northern Nigeria and one of the best in the Country.
The Zone is equally enriched with result-oriented administrators like former Speaker of Benue State House of Assembly, Chief Hon. Margaret Icheen (FA Chairperson, Benue State); Idris Abdullahi Musa ‘Turaya'(FA Chairman, Kwara State); Abba Mukhtar Adamu (FA Chairman, FCT, Abuja) and Umar Isa Suleiman (FA Chairman, Kogi State).
A technocrat like Hon. Suleiman Kwande from Plateau State has become a phenomenal figure in the Executive Board of the Nigeria Football Federation, earning him the title of a 3-Star General, as he is currently serving his third term on the Board (only Comr. Yusuf ‘Fresh’ Ahmed and Alhaji Alkali Mohammed are the other 3-Star Generals from the Zone).
The former legislator continues to channel his wealth of experience towards the growth and development of the round leather game in the Plateaus and Nigeria in general.
The zone is also massively endowed and blessed with, unarguably, some of the best sports writers, reporters, and broadcasters the country has ever known. From Andrew Randa to Odoba Yacham Adams; Albert Dakup to Austin Tyowua; David Ngobua to Linus Okpe; Pius Idoko to Nase Akpera; Leonard Abel to Nehemiah Gwamna.
From Rhairon Zamora to Akaa Ukile Esther; Mercy Hernandez to Dan Musa Mohammed; from Jimoh Bashir to Alhassan Kutigi Mohammed.
From Amanze Marcus to Musa Elayo; and from Aloko Flashman to Smah George. From Akila Matawal to Oyiza Yakub Hope, etc.
Those are but a few administrators, technocrats, media people, and stakeholders from the North-Central Zone who are working tirelessly to make the zone the hub of football in Nigeria.
This progressive movement is made possible through the constant interconnectivity, sharing of ideas, and working in synergy among concerned stakeholders in the zone for the general good of the game and society.
It, therefore, won’t be out of place to forecast that the North-Central Zone holds the future of Nigerian football.