Tasty derbies, title aspirations and rekindling of old rivalries are some of the features that will characterise the opening day of the 2020/2021 NPFL season as twenty teams begin a seven-month battle for the topmost prize of league football in Nigeria.
Nine months have passed since the league was called off on March 18 with the raging Coronavirus pandemic already eating its way into the country. The last season had to officially end at that stage after the Nigerian government placed restrictions on sporting activities with that on contact sports (which football belongs) only lifted in mid-October.
As it is the norm ahead of every football season globally, preparations have been made, not just by the league’s organisers but also participating teams to make the new season better than previous ones, especially in a developing economy. The NPFL will be back on air after two years with clubs enjoying good shares of the TV largesse including merit award bonuses depending on their placement on the log at the end of the season.
On the pitch, players have switched clubs with the highlight being the departure of Enyimba’s experienced duo Ifeanyi Anaemena and Theophilus Afelokhai to Rivers United. Coaches have also switched bases with Kabiru Dogo and Gbenga Ogunbote swapping employers in Makurdi and Akure.
The Qua Iboe Derby in Uyo brought up new levels of local rivalry last season with two riveting encounters between city’s Big Boys Akwa United and less fancied Dakkada FC. The first installment ended in a thrilling, all-action 2-2 draw while the Promise Keepers edged the second contest by a lone goal. Both teams will set the tone for what promises to be an exhilarating league season in Nigeria on Sunday.
Continuity is key for United with head coach Kennedy Boboye (who had his contract extended) retaining many of his trusted legs but plenty has changed in the camp of their local rivals following the departure of head coach Caleb Esu and no fewer than eight of their top stars last season.
In nearby Aba, the always competitive Abia Derby will attain a new dimension this season as Abia Warriors will play their home games at the Enyimba Stadium in Aba. Both teams will come toe-to-toe in their opening game of the season and the stakes just got higher with former Enyimba man Imama Amapakabo now in charge of the Warriors.
There is also the little matter of a North Central Derby between 2017 champions Plateau United and Kwara United at the New Jos Stadium in Zaria road. Abdu Maikaba remains the boss in Jos, ready for full concentration on a title pursuit after early elimination from the CAF Champions League while his counterpart in Ilorin Abdullahi Biffo is even more backed in the transfer market by his management.
The battle between Rivers United and Rangers International at the Adokiye Amiesimaka Stadium is not specifically a regional derby but meetings between both sides since the days of Dolphins are always headline grabbers and this Sunday’s affair should not be different. United are returning from South Africa after a superb win in midweek but Rangers under Salisu Yusuf mean business this term and must show that from the start.
New environment for coaches
2016 league winner Imama Amapakabo leads the pack when it comes to coaches leading out new teams in the upcoming season. As mentioned earlier, the former Rangers boss is now with Abia Warriors after about a year and half away from the league due to his national team engagements.
Kabiru Dogo is now in charge of Lobi Stars while the man he replaced Gbenga Ogunbote has also replaced him at Sunshine Stars; Ogunbote’s return to Akure where he enjoyed great success in 2010 to 2013.
2013 and 2014 winners Kano Pillars also have a new handler in the mould of a Frenchman Lionel Soccoia with Ibrahim Musa-Jugunu demoted to the first assistant role. The Frenchman is sitting on a keg of gunpowder it must be said after Sai Masu Gida failed at the first hurdle of the CAF Confederation Cup.
A new NPFL season is incomplete without the return of players after sojourn to foreign land, whether successful or not. The return of former Super Eagles goalkeeper Dele Aiyenugba, 37, to his home state club Kwara United is one of the biggest news of their pre-season.
Record highest goalscorer in the league Mfon Udoh has also returned home to Akwa United after a short and unsuccessful stint with FC Tulsa in the United States while his former Akwa United teammate Aniekeme Okon Asuquo has also joined Kano Pillars after a few months in Turkey.
Former Rangers stars Godwin Aguda and Bobby Clement have returned to the league for Rivers United with the former already settled in the Treasure Base of the Nation having scored in each of United’s CAF Confederation Cup games so far, including the first goal in Wednesday’s triumph over Bloemfontein Celtic.
Adamawa United FC vs Kano Pillars FC
Akwa United FC vs Dakkada FC
Enyimba Int’l FC vs Abia Warriors FC
FC IfeanyiUbah vs Lobi Stars FC
Jigawa GS vs Sunshine Stars FC
Katsina United FC vs Heartland FC
MFM FC vs Warri Wolves FC
Nasarawa United FC vs Wikki Tourist FC
Plateau United FC vs Kwara United FC
Rivers United FC vs Rangers Int’l FC