On weekends in Nigeria, getting together to watch the English Premier League features on almost everyone’s to-do list.
Bars and restaurants draw significant crowds to screenings of live games, and at least four pages of most newspapers are dedicated to the Premiership – with the local league relegated to what little space is left. On social media you’d be forgiven for thinking Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal are Nigerian teams, such is the volume discussion and dissection after each game.
The country is football-mad, yet the local Premier League is sorely neglected. The Nigerian Football Federation is seen as corrupt and ineffective, and there is little interest in home-grown footballing contests. Attendance at league matches averages about 200 people, with stadiums left tellingly empty.
Things are so bad that Lagos and Abuja, the biggest cities, have no teams in the Nigerian league at all.
But in a bid to redress the balance, football fan Efeoghene Ori-Jesu has taken it upon himself to create a semi-professional league with the few resources available to him – his friends and his 4,000 Twitter followers.
In May last year, Ori-Jesu set up his own tournament, choosing a local AstroTurf pitch in Lagos as the venue. Four teams were formed from his Twitter followers and other users of the social network – a mix of rank amateurs and semi-professionals. With virtually no budget, talk of the new league spread across Nigerian cyberspace and locally, via word of mouth.
All of Ori-Jesu’s teams were named in homage to the most popular Premier League clubs: the Red Devils for Manchester United, the Blues for Chelsea, the Guns for Arsenal – and the Rebels for all the others.
“The Twitter Premier League [TPL] started with a challenge to all the coaches and pundits on the English Premier League on Naija [Nigerian] Twitter,” explains Ori-Jesu, who also works as a petroleum engineer outside Lagos. “We said ‘Hey, if you think you know so much about football, why not put your passion to work in an actual football league here in Nigeria?’”
The first match, held on 29 May last year, drew a crowd of more than 500 people – and the number has steadily increased at each game since. Since last year, there have been four TPL “seasons”, and with each the league has become the number one trending topic in Nigeria on Twitter.
But the organisers have gone further than just organising a few friendly matches: each team has its own website, weekly training sessions, cheerleaders, medics and all the accompanying paraphernalia of a standard football league team, engaging with their new fans through giveaways and club photo shoots in a bid to grow local support.
For the fifth and most recent edition, held on 5 September in Lagos, drones were even deployed to capture the games from above.
The teams are currently independently funded by corporate sponsors. Though the first edition of the TPL was free, now tickets are sold for up to 1,000 naira (£32).
“The TPL is now incorporated as a company with a board of directors,” Ori-Jesu says. The teams have market themselves with dedicated publicity reps, photo sessions and more, and have signed sponsorship deals with companies including Samsung and Smile Nigeria, a leading internet service provider that streams the football matches online for free.
Osisiye Tafa, a banker and former player for The Blues – who were runners-up in in the most recent edition – says the draw of the Twitter Premier League is the sense of camaraderie: “It’s like high school all over again because the TPL has been able to create a community that people want to be a part of,” Tafa says.
People across the country are beginning to take notice, with many observers suggesting it could be a successor to the floundering Nigerian league.
Ifreke Inyang, editor of the Daily Post and a respected sports pundit said: “The buzz that takes over social media – and the regular conversations before and after each event – is amazing. It shows that things can actually work when there’s an innovative, forward-thinking set of people in charge.
“The TPL has everything the Nigerian league doesn’t at the moment – buzz, organisation, sponsors, audience. [Nigerian football federation] officials need to study how they have done it,” Inyang said.
Ori-Jesu says TPL could be a local alternative to the English Premier League. “People just want something a bit more relatable, something a bit more within reach, and they may well find our events to be just that. One thing the Nigerian football scene lacks is the opportunity to enjoy football in a more informal setting, as well as proper youth feeder teams for our national team, the Super Eagles.”
The league now has six male teams and has been extended to include two women’s team, The Panthers and Tsarinhas. Interested teams can also contact the league board to join in, and Ori-Jesu says player signings and transfers could soon be introduced.
“Football teams in the developed world are in your space and in your face. You hear what the players are doing, you hear their voice and know their story even before you know the story of your local league side in Nigeria.
“That’s what TPL does. We are in your face, online. We tell you what is happening with the teams, and this helps the audience identify with us and share our passion.”