The Nigerian top-flight was established in 1972 as the Nigerian Football League and it went by this name for the next seven years. In 1979, it became known as the First Division and numerous name changes occurred over the years (Nigerian Professional League in 1990), (Nigerian Premier League in 1993), (Nigerian Premiership 2000), (Nigerian Premier League 2003) until it adopted the Nigerian Professional Football League in 2013.
The league turned fully professional in 1989, with the first edition won by Iwuanyanwu Nationale and this professional status has been maintained in the intervening years.
Since the league’s inception, the league affairs were handled by the Nigerian Football Federation, but gross mismanagement of the league led to general apathy and deterioration in the Nigerian top-flight, leading to the creation of the League Management Company (LMC) in November 2012.
The LMC acts as a private entity that oversees the entire organization, structure, and prosecution of football matches in the NPFL and they are usually called in as arbitrators in the settlement of disputes involving clubs and players. The first edition of the Nigerian Football League was won by Mighty Jets of Jos and since then, a further 17 clubs have lifted the exalted trophy, with three of those, Iwuanyanwu Nationale (1987-1990), Enyimba (2001-2003), and Kano Pillars (2012-2014) doing so in three successive seasons. (Nationale’s won the title four times in a row)
The NPFL signed a historic five-year partnership deal with the LFP - organizers of the Spanish LaLiga - that would see the two leagues exchange talent and foster relationships that would yield dividends for both parties. Former Enyimba star Ezekiel Bassey was the first direct beneficiary of the deal, as he was transferred from the Aba club to Barcelona B, while an NPFL ‘All-Star’ Team has played yearly pre-season fixtures with LaLiga sides like Atletico Madrid, Valencia, and Villareal.
The NPFL is widely regarded as one of the most competitive leagues in Africa and achieved a continent-high ranking of 24th in the World by the International Federation of Football History and Statistics (IFFHS) in 2012. The league has adopted various formats throughout its 47-year history and currently has 20 clubs represented in a single log.
The 20 teams would all play each other in a round-robin home-and-away system that would bring the total fixtures for each club to 38 at the end of the season. Much like the rest of the footballing world, three points are awarded for a win, one for a draw and none for a loss and clubs are classified on the table according to the number of points they accrue in each gameweek.
At the end of the season, the bottom three clubs are relegated to the Nigerian National League (NNL) and are replaced by three clubs who qualified from the second-tier league.
Nigeria also sends representatives to continental competition and based on the strength of its league, the country is one of 12 allowed to field two participants to the premier club competition in Africa, the CAF Champions League.
The clubs that finish in the top two positions qualify for the playoff rounds of the CAF Champions League, while the third-placed team in the league, as well as the winners of the Federations Cup (National Cup competition), get to qualify for the CAF Confederations Cup.
Most clubs in Nigeria are state-owned and get their funding from the various state governments, although there are few exceptions of private-owned clubs such as Ifeanyi Ubah FC of Nnewi, and ABS FC of Ilorin. Very few Nigerian clubs have been able to maintain any form of consistency over long spells, as various changes in governmental policies and personnel usually have direct impacts on the fortunes of the clubs.
Rangers of Enugu and Heartland are, however, notable exceptions, with the Enugu-based club winning three of the first five editions, while Heartland is the successor of the all-conquering Iwuanyuanwu Nationale and the two clubs remain relevant in the Nigerian club football scene to this day. Enyimba, Plateau United, and Kano Pillars are some of the more recent upstarts who have gained footholds in the league, while Rivers United are a 2016 conglomeration of two former champions (Dolphins and Eagle Cement) as well as a third club Sharks FC.
Of the 20 clubs competing in the NPFL currently, only seven have been named League champions in the past, while Akwa Starlets would be competing in the top-flight for the first time in their history.
Ibrahim caused a splash in the nation, when, as a 17-year-old, he finished as joint-top scorer in the NPFL alongside Mfon Udoh in what was his first season in the league.
Expectedly, this has raised his profile and he no longer has the element of the unknown factor with him and defenders now pay him more attention. Although he is yet to truly get going this term, Ibrahim could still erupt in the latter stages of the season.
As far as Mfon Udoh is concerned, in the Nigerian Professional Football League, goals are always guaranteed from him. The 27-year-old is the all-time leading goalscorer in the league and has won the NPFL Golden Boot on two occasions as well as the CAF Champions League Golden Boot in 2016. Udoh is the quintessential predatory finisher and is always on hand to take chances whenever they are presented to him, while he also holds the record for most goals scored in a single NPFL season. (23 in 2014)
Sikiru Alimi showcased his abilities in front of goal with the Home-Based Eagles of Nigeria, where he scored a brace as Nigeria narrowly fell to Togo for qualification for the CHAN tournament in September 2019. He is Lobi Stars’ chief goal threat as they attempt to replicate their feat from 2018 by winning the league and is already on three goals for the current season.
Rangers are one of the most aesthetic teams in the league, with their attractive and expansive style of play garnering many plaudits. Their possession-based system is largely due to the displays of Tony Shimaga through the middle, as he constantly pulls the strings from midfield and acts as the chief coordinator of Rangers’ game. He is excellently gifted with the ball at his feet and possesses the knack of finding teammates with pristine passes. If Rangers are to go all the way as they did in 2017, Shimaga would be crucial to their ambitions.
Victor Mbaoma grabbed attention when he hit double-figures in his debut season with newly-promoted Remo Stars back in 2017. Following the club’s relegation, he was transferred to Enyimba and the ‘People’s Elephant’ would undoubtedly benefit immensely from his services.
He is very much the definition of a modern striker and is good in the air as well as with the ball at his feet. Enyimba need Mbaoma to be at his destructive best if they are to mount another title challenge.
Since most clubs in Nigeria are state-owned, the issue of clarifying the richest club in the country is a rather dicey one and more often than not, clubs in Nigeria are usually at the mercy of the government for the release of funds. However, given their recent track record and prestige, Enyimba receive the most support from their state government and are generally not plagued by the same issues that affect most of the other clubs. The same can be said about Kano Pillars.
Being the only privately-owned club in the current top-flight, Ifeanyi Ubah FC receive their funding directly from the coffers of Oil Magnate and business tycoon Ifeanyi Ubah but after an initial flurry of lavish spending in 2015, that included signing partnerships with West Ham and bringing Brazilians to the club, the relative lack of on-field success has seen a reduction in direct spending.
Mfon Udoh is the all-time highest goalscorer, with the Akwa-Ibom native having scored 65 goals across his spells with Akwa United and Enyimba. Isaac George of newly-promoted Akwa Starlets leads the way with four goals from six matches in the ongoing campaign.
For the first 45 years of the NPFL, Rangers and Heartland had the unique feat of having never been relegated from the top-flight but following Heartland’s relegation in 2017, Rangers are the only club with this distinction.
Defending champions Enyimba have been utterly dominant in the 21st century and won their first league title in 2001. In addition to that, they also lead the way for most titles in NPFL history with eight – one more than the seven managed by Rangers – while they are also the only Nigerian club to have won the CAF Champions League, doing so in consecutive years in 2003 and 2004.
Kano Pillars have enjoyed immense success in the last decade, having won three successive league titles between 2012 and 2014 in addition to their triumph in 2008. Masu Gida have turned the Sani Abacha Stadium, their home ground, into something of a fortress and once went on an unbelievable record of 12 years without a home defeat in the league, between 21 June 2003 and 24 August 2015.