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‘Sporting is here to stay’ — fans excited as NPFL returns to Lagos

‘Sporting is here to stay’ — fans excited as NPFL returns to Lagos
October 03
17:19 2023

The Mobolaji Johnson Arena was a bouncing castle of noise from trumpets and vuvuzela as fans trooped out to watch Sporting Lagos’ first-ever match in the Nigeria Premier Football League (NPFL). The Lagos team was taking on Gombe United. From the snaky queues at the two major gates to the bubbling terraces, it was a carnival of blue and gold — the club’s colours. 

Top-flight football is back in Lagos. After Mountain of Fire Miracle Ministry (MFM) FC was relegated in 2022, Lagos fans suffered a year of hiatus from cheering their favourite clubs in the nation’s top league. The crowd was excited that Sporting Lagos had stepped up to fill the void.


‘Happy Corner’ still bubbly after the match

Sporting Lagos Football Club was founded by Shola Akinlade, co-founder and chief executive officer (CEO) of Paystack, in February 2022. Akinlade is 38 years old with a track record of successful enterprises. In 2020, Paystack was acquired by Stripe, the US fintech powerhouse, for $200 million. He was keen on extending his Midas touch to Nigerian football.


At the unveiling of Sporting Lagos, Akinlade said the death of his father in 2021 inspired him to establish the club “to deepen my involvement in our community”.

“Last year, I lost my dad and spent a lot of time with my 75-year-old mum. And for the first time in my life, I started thinking about what my life would look like at 75. The outcome of my reflection was a commitment to deepen my involvement in our community, which has given me so much,” he said.

“Football has always been a space that makes me proud to be part of this country and continent. That is likely because football is more than entertainment; it is identity, it is opportunity. Digging deeper into the sport has been a revelation. There is an entire ecosystem of time, activity, and talent that goes into those electrifying 90 minutes.”


Fans queue at the gate for Sporting Lagos’ first-ever NPFL game

Godwin Enakhena, former managing director of MFM FC, became the club’s chairman. The veteran sports journalist had a successful spell chaperoning MFM FC from an obscure church-baked dilettante to a club representing Nigeria on the continent.

With Akinlade and Enakhena, Sporting Lagos was born with youthful exuberance, yet well-guided by an experienced hand who knows how to navigate the pitfalls and chaos of Nigerian football.

The club began life in the Nigeria National League (NNL) — a rung below the NPFL — and made Teslim Balogun stadium its home ground.

Enakhena had promised that the club would “not spend more than one season in the second division”. But the travails of Nigeria football humbled him.


Sporting Lagos endured a tough first season. The club won only eight out of 24 matches and escaped relegation to the third-tier league by a goal-difference margin.

While the realities of the maiden season rocked the club’s boat, they paddled on. Sporting Lagos soon moved to Molade Johnson Arena, and the club’s character and determination became more visible. The following season, Sporting gained promotion to the NPFL — a little over a year after its creation.


Sporting Lagos fans jubilating Clement Nantuam’s goal

In its few years, Sporting Lagos can pride itself as a brand that has penetrated a demographic that has proven reluctant to follow Nigerian club football. The youths of Lagos are the core of the club’s growing fans. The fizzy atmosphere at the club’s first-ever NPFL game showcased that.


Chimobi Kingsley was already at the stadium well before the game began. He came from Festac town — almost two hours away from the stadium — to watch the team he has grown to love since 2022.

Chimobi was dressed for the historic moment. He was clad in the royal blue of the club’s replica home jersey with the number and name of goalkeeper Christian Nwoke.


He was vibrating with excitement as the kickoff whistle penetrated the air.

“Sporting Lagos made me start following the Nigerian league. I’m drawn to the club because of the way things are organised. And whenever I come to the stadium, I am not afraid of anything. If it were another stadium, I would rather watch it at home. But I enjoy watching Sporting Lagos live because of the liveliness and organisation,” Chimobi told TheCable.


“I am excited that Sporting Lagos is now playing in the NPFL, and I can’t wait to host big names Like Enyimba and Co.”

Shortly after, Chimobi began weaving and bobbing as Sporting Lagos poured forward for another attack on the pitch.


Jonathan Alikwe chopped the ball beyond his marker on the byline and sent a cross into Gombe United’s goal area. The ball sailed beyond the height of a United player before the slight figure of Rivio Ayemwenre met it with a header, which slammed into the ground and into the net.

Chimobi shot up from his seat, hands flailing in the air, and his jubilatory screams muffled by the jazz of trumpets and vuvuzelas reverberating through the stadium. Sporting Lagos had scored the first NPFL goal in the club’s history, and this crowd was delighted to witness history.

Semilore Emmanuel was also jubilating. He came to the stadium from Lekki and loved the club’s performance.

Emmanuel supports Shooting Stars of Ibadan, but the allure of Sporting Lagos’ shining brilliance overwhelmed his loyalty for the Oluyole Warriors.

“I started supporting Sporting when I moved to Lagos. I love the club’s structure,” he told TheCable.

“You simply cannot compare the club structure with anything else in the league. They have a chairman who understands the intricacies of Nigerian football and, importantly, the fan experience: marketing, merchandise and social media.”

Emmanuel added that he would watch all of Sporting’s 19 home games this season.

As the game moved on, the music, chants, and joy from a section of fans dubbed “Happy Corner”, dwarfed every other pockets of noise in the stadium.

The cheers of “Let’s go, Sporting, let’s go” were followed by a chorus of vuvuzelas and screams.

Toyosi Afolayan, a ‘Happy Corner’ member who came to the stadium from Surulere, said Sporting Lagos makes him feel connected to a big community.

Afolayan, a former fan of MFM FC, said he switched to Sporting after the church-owned club was disbanded.

“I have been supporting Sporting there at the Teslim Balogun stadium. I was an MFM fan. But when the team disbanded, I moved to Sporting Lagos in the NNL,” he told TheCable.

“The first Sporting game I attended, I paid N5,000, and I got drinks and food and the decorations. They have not stopped doing that, which makes me love the atmosphere.

“With Sporting, I feel like I am part of a bigger community. For you to pay to watch this team, you certainly feel like a member of a community. There is the happy corner where we hang out, gist, and we feel connected.

“I am excited that NPFL is back in Lagos, and I’m super excited because it is my club that has brought it back to Lagos. I am happy that this is a project that is not in another state.”

Before long, the stadium leapt up again in celebration as Clement Nantuam doubled the home team’s lead and ensured the newly promoted side secured a comfortable win in their first top-flight game.


Chimobi Kingsley watching on in the colours of Sporting Lagos

Sporting Lagos defeated NPFL powerhouses like Akwa United and Remo Stars to win the maiden edition of the Naija Super 8 in July.

Although the competition was a pre-season tourney, many fans believe Sporting’s performance indicates that they can compete against the best teams in the league.

Emmanuel said the Lagos club will certainly survive relegation from the NPFL this season.

“It is always good to start the league with a win, but this is our first year, and we are not here to win. But we are here to stay in the league,” he told TheCable.

For Chimobi, however, the ambition goes beyond just surviving but thriving and getting a continental ticket.

“Next season, we will be contesting on the continent. It is possible,” he told TheCable.

“We even have all it takes to win the league this season. It is just a matter of commitment.”

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