The Challenge of Playing Home Games in Lagos

Words by: Dhee Sylvester

When the full-time whistle stole the air at the Onikan Stadium last Sunday, it felt like the beginning of a trend that might go on to mar the home team’s campaign. The lack of topflight league matches in Lagos for over a decade has more or less made the state seem like a neutral venue for most teams or a second venue for the champions, Enyimba – if you consider the number of Federation Cup finals they have played in Lagos over the years.

With the seemingly lack of quality and experience needed to survive in a league as unforgiving as the Nigeria Professional Football League, it appears the return of League football to the Center Of Excellence is set to be a more of a curse than a blessing for the two teams flying its flag this season.

While MFM, the state’s other team were doing the do away at Nasarawa United, Ikorodu United playing at home were struggling against Abia Warriors. By every indices and parameters, MFM had the most difficult job — not just because winning away from home in the NPFL is almost comparable to killing a Raven in the dark, but also because judging bylast season’s finish and the clubs overall history, Nasarawa United were the bigger of the two opposition. In the end, MFM got an unlikely three points in their first ever topflight game while Ikorodu United could only manage one.

If Ikorodu had won and MFM had lost, few would have been surprised but as it was, the reverse happened, and Lagos fans have every reason to be concerned. Before the season started, Ikorodu United announced their intention to have their home matches played at Onikan, a stadium bigger in capacity but miles away from their community of fans.

To understand the scale of this decision, just imagine Manchester United playing a home game at Goodison Park. The implication of this is that majority of those who came to the stadium to support the club on Sunday, did so not out of genuine love, but rather out of solidarity and curiosity. Most football loving Lagosians are excited about the return of topflight league football to the state, yet so few can connect to the two clubs beyond the sentimental. MFM is a faith-sponsored club formed from a community-based team while Ikorodu United are a community-based team that used be sponsored by a bank.

None of them have the history or appeal of the Stationery Stores or Julius Bergers of this world, and are having to endear themselves to a crowd already thick with love for European club football. While Lagos’ metropolitan nature and its 21 million population might suggest these two clubs have a huge market to tap into for various reasons, several questions must be answered and some of them includes – how many of those people care about the NPFL and among the few who do, how many of them can be said to be deliriously passionate enough to support teams whose only appeal might be the fact they play in Lagos?

Not to mention those from other states who already have clubs they support. Which all adds to the fact that they will be games this season at the Onikan Stadium and at MFM’s Agege Township Stadium were the away support would dwarf the home support. If every game in Lagos is going to play out as a Fed Cup Final rather than as a home league match, then there’s every chance of both Ikorodu United and MFM struggling at home, while occasionally holding their own when playing away.

With the way things to tend to work in the NPFL where the primary concern and idea is often to win at home and accept whatever you get away, that can’t be good for their prospects of staying up. After years of being starved off important football matches, going to the stadium for most Lagosians has become no different to going to the cinema, where all you do is sit, watch and head straight for home when it’s all over with little or no emotion.

Basically, to survive this season both teams need to build an air of invincibility around themselves when playing at home, but if every match is going to play out as one taking place in a neutral venue, then you fail to see how that could happen.

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