The growth of grassroot football in Nigeria has been mainly stomped by the lack of a systematic approach to developmental strategies of football which is largely represented by amateur competitions, a crucial aspect of the sport industry. A situation that has led to the underdevelopment of local coaches, player scouting, game officials and facilities.
Crucial was the introduction of the Higher Institution Football League (HiFL) which was created & managed by PACE Sports and Entertainment Marketing Ltd.
This higher institution league has mitigated the negative narrative about grassroot football especially in higher institution as it has led to the organization of intercollegiate football games which has led to the development of footballers, coaching staffs and sport facilities. It has also gone a step further by creating a sustainable volunteer system which allows university sport enthusiasts contribute to the organization and execution of their favorite sport.
HiFL is an annual football competition for higher education institutions in Nigeria. The League is open to all member universities of the Nigerian University Games Association (NUGA). Established in 2017, it kicked off its first season in February 2018 with 16 universities with eight (8) from the South (Coastal Conference) and eight (8) from the North (Sahel Conference).
The participating teams for the maiden edition were recommended by the Nigerian University Games Association (NUGA) based on recent performances in the NUGA games and government endowment. The 2018 season ran from 28th July 2018 to 3rd November 2018, and the University of Agriculture, Makurdi (UAM) Tillers emerged as the maiden winners after defeating the University of Calabar Malabites 5 – 4 on penalties.
The 2019 season began in late April with a qualifying round played by over 40 universities across different zones. The surviving teams joined the top four teams from the 2018 season to the final quota of 32. The 32 teams were then drawn into 8 groups of four teams and play in a round-robin system. The eight group winners (including the seeded teams from last year’s Super Four – UAM Tillers, UNICAL Malabites, OAU Giants and UNILORIN Warriors) and eight runners-up proceeded to the knockout phase that culminated with the Super Four Finals in late October in Lagos. The 2019 edition of the Higher Institutions Football League (HiFL), ended with University of Calabar, UNICAL Malabites defeating defending champions UAM Tillers (5-4) on penalties in Lagos to emerge champions of the league’s second edition.
Asides the football games organized by HiFL; they have also created the HiFL Coaching Clinic in 2019 tagged “Coaching the Coaches.” A two-day training session facilitated by Coach Lewis Childs, Andy Smith, and Luke Roberts from Manchester City Football Club. The coaches were trained in mental/educational aspect of basic training, coaching methods, player development and preparation, tactical innovations amongst others. Which we believe has been essential in the development of local coaching staff due to the introduction of modern coaching techniques.
The HiFL has also provided more visibility for local coaches by recognizing their work with their respective team. We have had the opportunity to observe the tactical genius of Priscilla Vande, the coach of the University of Agriculture (UAM Tillers) maiden winner of the HiFL in 2018 and a host of other amazing coaches across Nigerian universities.
The HiFL has also provided a platform to showcase exceptional student athlete like Odu Robert, former UNILAG Marines and Remo Star striker who has been signed by the Hong Kong Premier league club Happy Valley. The creation of HiFL improves both players and coaches because it organizes the games needed to improve skills and give experience which is crucial in the all-round development of players and coaches. It also provides the trail through which student athletes (footballers) can navigate during their transition from student footballers to professional footballers.
In 2019, the HiFL created the HiFL Volunteer force because they desire to be seen to be more than a body that organizes intercollegiate football matches, but rather as an institution that inspires student by giving them an opportunity to be a part of creating and enabling change in their community. This platform has provided a means through which students contribute to the planning and execution of a game. Their activities include setting up match venues, ensuring that the spectators are taken care of and directed to their seats, sale of match tickets and working closely with sponsors and partners within their respective campuses.
The 2020 edition of the HiFL couldn’t hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic in the country as every plan was disrupted to obey government guideline to mitigate the pandemic. Currently, the competition is only open to the male football teams of the participating universities with the female teams to be added in subsequent editions to allow for more inclusivity in the league. The HiFL has been an incredible platform in improving university sport in Nigeria especially Football which is the predominantly played sport. Plans for the 2021 season are underway and it promises to be better.