Undoubtedly, the oldest and most glamorous football competition in Nigeria is the Challenge Cup now known as the Federation Cup. It is the tournament that came into existence in the same year that the Nigeria Football Association now Nigeria Football Federation, NFF, came into existence.
Nigeria’s football ruling body, the Nigeria Football Association was established in 1945. Interestingly, it was in the same year that the first edition of the competition named ‘Governor’s Cup’ was won by Lagos Marine who defeated Corinthians 1-0 in the final match.
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The competition was dominated by teams in Lagos until 1953 when Kano Pillars from the north sneaked in to defeat Lagos Dynamos 3-2 to cart away the trophy.
However, Lagos’ firm grip on the competition loosened a bit beginning from the year 1954 when it was renamed the FA Cup. The era of FA Cup saw teams from cities like Calabar, Port-Harcourt and Ibadan emerge winners of the competition.
From 1960 till date, the competition has witnessed change in nomenclature from The Challenge Cup, COCA-COLA FA Cup, Federation Cup and until recently, Aiteo/Federation Cup, with different teams featuring on the honours list.
It must be said that the FA Cup has produced some memorable moments for Nigerian football fans especially in the 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s when formidable club sides like Lagos Railways, Lagos Marine, Ibadan Lions, Stationary Stores, Enugu Rangers, IICC Shooting Stars, Bendel Insurance, Kano Pillars, Iwuanyanwu Nationale, Leventis United, Abiola Babees and BCC Lions held sway.
Although the rivalry which characterised the epic matches of the competition in the days of Enugu Rangers, IICC Shooting Stars, Bendel Insurance, Water Corporation and Kano Pillars is no longer obtainable, the competition has remained a prominent feature in Nigerian football due to its ability to produce giant killers.
For instance, a hitherto unknown Lagos club, Smart City FC went all the way to the quarter-finals of the 2019 edition of the FA Cup as they eliminated more formidable opponents in the process.
For this alone, football fans yearly looked forward to the competition which apart from the football artistry participating teams display, produces one of the country’s continental representatives. The winner of the FA usually represents Nigeria in the CAF Confederation Cup.
Unfortunately, it is now an open secret that the once popular and widely followed football competition has become a shadow of its old self and is at the risk of going into extinction due to lack of sponsorship.
The first corporate sponsor of the competition was Coca-Cola that came into it in 1999 till 2008 when the then Nigeria Football Association, NFA, resumed sponsorship of the competition which is usually competed for by all the 36 states and the Federal Capital Territory.
From 2009, the new born Nigeria Football Federation, NFF, shouldered the responsibility of sponsoring the competition as Federation Cup till 2017 when the leadership of the football federation under Amaju Pinnick announced the sponsorship agreement with Aiteo Group.
The oil company which had entered into a five-year deal with the NFF to pay salaries of national team coaches also agreed to take over the sponsorship of the Federation Cup for an undisclosed sum of money.
The NFF, however, revealed that henceforth, winners of what was to be known as Aiteo Federation Cup in the male and female categories would take home a whopping N25m and N10m while runners up would earn N10m and N5m respectively.
Before then, no one could tell exactly how much clubs were paid for winning the once prestigious competition. Clubs were content with the honour of taking home the giant trophy to their state governors for cash reward and pledges many of which were left unfulfilled in the end
Against this background, the deal with Aiteo Cup was applauded as a major breakthrough because apart from the prize money, the new sponsor was said to have agreed to support the states’ football associations to organize the competition in their states.
However, the winners of the competition from 2017 when Aiteo Group came on board to 2019 when the last edition was held are said to be waiting for their prize money from the Nigeria Football federation.
Akwa United defeated Nigeria Tornadoes 3-2 on penalties to win the trophy in 2017, Enugu Rangers won it in 2018 at the expense of Kano Pillars before the ‘Masu gida’ boys as Pillars are known made amends in 2019 when they edged Niger Tornadoes 4-3 on penalties for their second title in 66 years.
Although Enugu Rangers’ Nobert Okolie said they were paid their prize money, Akwa United kept mum while Kano Pillars told Trust Sports that they were yet to be paid.
“Yet to be paid” was the response from the Media Officer of Kano Pillars football club, Alhaji Idris Rilwanu Malikawa when asked if the N25m cash prize for emerging winners in 2019 has been paid.
Sadly, the new bride, Aiteo Group have developed cold feet and are said to have pulled out of the sponsorship deal over what informed sources have attributed to ‘mismanagement and misapplication of sponsorship of funds’ by the football federation.
Apart from the Aiteo/Federation Cup headache for the NFF, there is also the problem of salaries of the national team coaches who were to be paid by the oil company.
Left in the cold, the Nigeria Football Federation is now with no option than to revert to self sponsorship of the Federation Cup as it was in the past. Unfortunately, the federation’s financial challenges are well known.
In view of the foregoing, most football stakeholders are afraid that this year’s Federation Cup may not hold again making it two years in a row. It will be recalled that the 2020 edition was wiped off by the COVID-19 pandemic but the defending champions, Kano Pillars were given the nod to represent Nigeria in the Confederation Cup.
However, expectations were high that with the return of on field football activities, the 2021 edition of Federation Cup will hold but as the ongoing season draws to an end, the competition is yet to kick-off.
Already, the Confederation of African Football, CAF, competitions committee has given June 30 deadline for registration of clubs and players for the 2021/2022 Inter-club competitions.
It is, therefore, going to be a herculean task for the competition to start from the state and end at the national level before the expiration of the deadline.
However, even as many have concluded that Kano Pillars will once again be called upon to represent Nigeria in the Confederation Cup, the NFF has said it is willing to organise the 2021 edition of the competition.
In a chat with Trust Sports, a Director in the NFF said “He (Pinnick) said he thinks we will organise the competition.” The above statement may not be inspiring but it is an indication that the NFF is not unaware of the Federation Cup.
The Spokesman of Lobi Stars, Austin Tyowua, therefore, called on the NFF to do everything possible to save the Federation Cup.
“It will be a disaster if this year’s Federation Cup is not staged. It means Pillars who won the last edition in 2019 will automatically be called upon to take the last continental ticket again.
“This will deny other clubs the opportunity of playing continental football. Many of us are thinking that even if we don’t pick a ticket through the league, we would achieve our aim in the Federation Cup,” he said.
For people like Tyowua, the pledge from the NFF may be assuring but most Nigerians are waiting to see the magic the federation will perform to get the competition of over 72 teams played in 25 days.