There is this colleague of mine who was always ‘worried.’ Each time he wanted to ask a question at a press conference, he would start by saying ‘I am worried.’ We then honoured him with the nickname ‘I am worried.’ Most sports administrators dreaded him because he was never afraid of controversy. He would ask delicate and provocative questions. We don’t meet regularly at assignments again but I believe Roma, the short form of his name, is still  ‘worrying and terrorizing’ those who try to conceal the skeletons in their cupboards.

Today, like my very good friend, Romanus, I am deeply worried by the deliberate bastardisation of Nigeria’s most prestigious club competition, the FA Cup. Inarguably the oldest in the history of Nigerian football, the competition which has no definite shape and name at the moment, started as far back as 1945 as Governor’s Cup. The Governor’s Cup actually succeeded the War Memorial Challenge Cup that had been limited to teams in Lagos. Between 1954 to 1959, the competition was known as Nigeria FA Cup, from 1960-1998 it was called the Nigerian Challenge Cup, then Coca -Cola FA Cup from 1999-2008 and Nigeria Federation Cup from 2009-2016. Since 2017, this important competition is said to be sponsored by AITEO Group and has been known as the AITEO Cup including the women’s tournament. The sponsorship deal with  AITEO brokered by the past administration of Amaju Pinnick is enmeshed in controversies so it is unclear, if the oil company is still the sponsor of the competition.

Like I stated earlier, I am worried because those saddled with the simple task of administering football in Nigeria have allowed the glamour of the FA Cup to disappear under their watch. It is no longer the competition it used to be in the 70s, 80s, 90s and early 2000 when clubs like Enugu Rangers, Shooting Stars, Bendel Insurance, Stationary Stores, Mighty Jets, Leventis United, Iwuanyanwu Nationale, Abiola Babes, BCC Lions, El-Kanemi Warriors, Julius Berger and NEPA Lagos, mesmerised fans with breathtaking performances. It was also in the course of some of these epic clashes in the FA Cup that Nigeria’s late ace sports commentator, Ernest Okonkwo, produced memorable nicknames for some of the outstanding players. He nick-named Enugu Rangers’ Captain and defence marshal, Christian Chukwu, (Chairman), Segun Odegbami (Mathematical), Adokiye Amaesimaka (Chief Justice), Alloy Atuegbu (Blockbuster), Emmanuel Okala (Man mountain), Muda Lawal (midfield maestro), Dominic Iorfa (Human Express) etc.

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Undoubtedly, the FA Cup was one competition that football fans waited for with great expectations every year because of the spectacles it produced. One of the most interesting things about the tournament was its ability to produce giant killers who sprung up from nowhere and took out the even more formidable opponents. There was hardly any edition of that didn’t produce a giant killer. Even when it had finally lost steam in 2009 when it was re-named as the Federation Cup, the competition was able to produce giant killers like Arugo FC, Smart City FC Lagos and Aspire FC.

It is indeed worrisome that even as we pretend to be interested in developing football in Nigeria, those who are called football stakeholders or administrators have consciously designed and executed the total collapse of the competition which ordinarily should be strengthened to support the over all development of football in the country. It is, therefore, disturbing that what we are witnessing today as whether Federation Cup or AITEO Cup is nothing but an adulterated version of the original one we had in the past.

It is also necessary to reiterate that in as much as it produces one of the clubs that represents Nigeria in the CAF Confederation Cup, the FA Cup is no longer a serious competition because it is organised in a lackadaisical manner. It is too soon for Nigerians to forget how last year’s edition started very late and ended abruptly after it was hit by controversies at the quarter-finals stage. For example, Kogi United who walked over Kano Pillars were to meet the winner of the match between Nasarawa United and Wikki Tourists in the semi-finals. However, when both Wikki and Nasarawa United refused to honour their match, NFF announced Kogi United as automatic finalists. In the end, the 2022 FA Cup was stopped by the NFF. In another controversial decision, the football federation secretly forwarded the name of Kwara United who had earlier exited the competition to CAF as one of Nigeria’s representatives in the Confederation Cup. It took a long time for the dust raised by that shocking decision to settle. Although the then leadership of the NFF promised to defray some of the cost incurred by the clubs that went all the way to the quarter-finals, only the clubs can say, if the gentlemanly agreement was kept by the NFF.

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Despite the unfinished business of last year, the competition is on again. Sadly, there are no changes or improvement in its organization. Some of the smaller clubs that could have emerged as giant killers will certainly be disappointed because most states didn’t play preliminary matches. However, in the past weeks, state champions have continued to emerge. What most State FAs do is to pick the two biggest clubs to compete in the finals. Thereafter, the names of the winners and runner-up are forwarded to the NFF to be registered for the national competition.

This is indeed complete bastardisation of the FA Cup. It is so trivialised now that it longer portrays the beauty of the once glamorous and prestigious competition. Amateur clubs are deliberately denied the opportunity to showcase their strengths against the bigger boys. And if we continue to belittle competitions like this one, it will be difficult for us to discover hidden talents. Some of these amateur players wait for opportunities like the FA Cup to advertise themselves. Unfortunately, they are being denied their right because those who are at the helm of affairs lack vision.

While I lament over the steady abuse of the FA Cup, let us pray for this year’s edition to run its full course. This is because one is not even sure if the competition has a sponsor. Many years after, some of the winners like Enugu Rangers, Kano Pillars and Bayelsa United are said to be waiting for their cash prizes from the NFF. And I am worried again because if last year’s edition ended in crisis and nothing happened, where is the guarantee that we won’t witness another disaster this year? In fact, my heart bleeds for Nigeria’s FA Cup.

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