The Nigerian Premier League came of age in a big way in 2014. The problems are still there, make no mistake, administrative and logistical. However, for the first time in a long time, it looked like we were on the road to getting things right again; furthermore, on-pitch events overshadowed the ugliness behind the scenes.
One of the really engaging subplots was the race for the Golden Boot between Emem Eduok and Mfon Udoh. A rivalry to set the blood racing; the shot in the arm the league needed to get everyone interested. It is the same sort of duel in La Liga that has captivated the imaginations of many, the eternal slug-fest between Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.
Who is better? That is subjective. In the interim though, it stimulates debate and discussion, fuelling interest and drawing attention to the league.
It was this phenomenon that truly highlighted the Nigeria Premier League in 2014. A shame then that, just when the appetite has been whetted, the league is set to lose both its foremost stars. It has the potential to reach Messi vs. Ronaldo proportions, but we are unlikely to ever see it now.
A recent Goal Nigeria exclusive has revealed that Udoh and Eduok are seeking moves abroad. This is not at all surprising: the local league lacks the financial muscle to compete even on the continent, let alone with European sides looking for the next big thing.
However, it is hardly ideal that the top goalscorers of a league season are set to leave at the same time. It creates a vacuum at the top for the likes of Osaguona Ighodaro, Gbolahan Salami and Peter Ebimobowei to step up and make a name for themselves, but then again it will take a while to build up interest: all three had more goals at the mid-way point of the season than Eduok and Udoh, but struggled for consistency in the second stanza.
Consider also that both Enyimba and Dolphins are pencilled in for continental competition in February. Enyimba in particular will play in the CAF Champions League, where Nigeria’s coefficient has been dropping consistently since the People’s Elephant last won the competition in 2004. Failure to reach the group stage brings the very real prospect of losing one of the two places allotted Nigeria in the Champions League.
As it stands, both teams must replace the goals of Udoh and Eduok quickly, but will need to either buy proven quality (Enyimba followed this route in acquiring Udoh at the end of last season from Akwa United) or look within. The latter is not a promising avenue: Dolphins’ second-highest scorer in the league was Ifeanyi Egwim, who only got eight; Emeka Nwanna scored five for Enyimba.
Of course, there is also the (very slim) possibility that either or both stay. However, both were pretty categorical in their statements to the contrary.
“I will not be playing in the league next season. I’m hoping to play in one of the top class leagues in Europe. There are offers for me from Norway, Israel and others. Though, I will fancy playing in Spain,” Mfon Udoh revealed to Goal.
“Where I will play depends on where the best offer comes from. I wish all the attackers that will play in the league next season will work hard and break my record,” he said.
Hardly the words of someone likely to change his mind. Eduok was similarly dismissive of the possibility, and admitted, as before, that the local league really does not have the resources to keep hold of them. What they do next though is of paramount importance.
Their goals broke Jude Aneke’s record of 20 goals in a single league season, but it is the former Kaduna United striker among others who should serve as a cautionary tale. The forward presently turns out in the Kazakhstan Premier League, a victim of bad choices especially in moving to Egyptian club Al-Masry in 2013. Former Nigerian Premier League goal-king Akarandut Orok plays in Bahrain; the grass is not always greener.
One can only wish both players the best, but the local league will be poorer for their absence. Then again, it is worth noting that league scoring records are becoming easier to break: it took 19 years for Ishaya Jatau’s 17-goal haul to be equalled by Orok, but in the five years since, that record has been surpassed by Ahmed Musa, Aneke, Udoh and Eduok. In the last player’s case, it was not enough to even win the Golden Boot!
So maybe we have nothing to worry about, and the next great marksman of the Nigerian Premier League is waiting to reveal himself. The trend supports this, and it is something to look forward to in the 2015 season, as is the sad certainty that, if he does present himself, he is unlikely to stick around for the 2016 season.