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Absorbing Aiteo Cup final masked tournament's flaws

Nigerian fans were treated to an absorbing Aiteo Cup final, which saw Enugu Rangers come from three goals down against Kano Pillars to draw level, and then win on penalties. PIUS UTOMI EKPEI/AFP/Getty Images

The Stephen Keshi Stadium in Asaba had a carnival-like atmosphere ahead of the 2018 Aiteo Cup final on Wednesday, contested by traditional powerhouses Enugu Rangers and Kano Pillars.

Dignitaries, including state governors from Delta and Enugu States, the Deputy Governor of Kano State, and the top brass of the Nigeria Football Federation, graced the match, while A-list entertainers thrilled the spectators attending the conclusion of the Nigeria Cup, sponsored for a second year running by energy giants Aiteo.

Befittingly, it was the first football game played on the lush green natural grass, and it took only five minutes for Rabiu Ali of Kano Pillars to score the first goal at the venue, the veteran midfielder's sixth of the competition.

Pillars' quick-fire start suggested the 2018 final was going to be headlined by numerous talking points, and that was indeed the case. Rangers played the game of their lives in the final 13 minutes to find an unlikely route back from a three-goal deficit in a six-goal thriller, clinching a sixth Cup title in the ensuing penalty shootout.

The final would probably rank as one of the greatest comebacks in Nigerian football history, as it got fans engaging on social media, despite the game being played on a work day.

The above scenario could fit the description of a perfectly organised tournament, but that was far from the truth for a competition which was hurriedly put together in less than two months, to enable Nigeria to register its representative for the 2019 CAF Confederation Cup.

Following a two-month league break, created by the FIFA World Cup and a legal tussle between two factions of the Nigeria Football Federation, the League Management Company unanimously agreed with the 20 NPFL clubs to abruptly conclude the 2017/18 season at the 24th week, and proceeded to organise the Aiteo Cup to beat CAF's October deadline.

The first notable sign of a flawed tournament was the impromptu commencement of the competition, with barely 72-hours' notice before the Round of 64 matches in the first week of September.

The lack of communication with the participating teams ensured that walkovers were recorded in the Rounds of 64 and 32, notably from teams outside the top division, who couldn't secure funds to participate in the matches within the short window given.

If the organisers displayed teething problems with basic publicity, a bigger issue led to questions about the credibility of the tournament.

Kogi United were handed a two-year Aiteo Cup ban and fine by the NFF after violence broke in their Round of 64 clash against Enugu Rangers at the Confluence Stadium, in August, 2017.

However, despite the widely publicised disciplinary action against the Nigeria National League team, they finished as runners-up in the Kogi State FA Cup, thus securing, and keeping, one of two available slots to the national tournament.

The Lokoja-based team beat Igho FC 4-0 in the Round of 64, before proceeding to create an upset against NPFL side Niger Tornadoes in the next round, and subsequently booked a place in the group-stage.

Despite the outcry which followed Kogi United's participation in the tournament, neither the organisers nor club publicly clarified why they were allowed to compete despite being banned.

KweséESPN reached out to the club's media officer, Wale Mustapha, who confirmed the club were pardoned by the NFF, though a communiqué was never sent out to the media.

"We pleaded with the Nigeria Football Federation by sending a letter through our state FA, asking the federation to be lenient with us, while offering to pay the imposed fine," Mustapha revealed.

"The NFF replied to us through the FA stating we had been pardoned and made us understand any subsequent misbehaviour wouldn't be tolerated."

Branding and fan value were other issues which were poorly handled this year. While both Rangers and Pillars donned Aiteo crested jerseys and used branded match balls in the final, the reverse was the case in the previous rounds. Teams were made to wear jerseys with the NPFL logo and used league match balls.

The gates were thrown open and minimal security provided for the semi-final clash in the commercial city of Lagos between Kano Pillars and Katsina United. Both teams travelled 708 miles from the North-West to the South-West to play in Nigeria's oldest Cup competition, and despite the two sides enjoying a large following in the Agege area, not a dime was charged for a game of such magnitude.

Then, the decision to hastily organise the tournament and then shift the final at the last-minute might have cost Enyimba a shot at the title. The People's Elephant had to juggle a congested fixture list, with continental and Aiteo Cup matches happening just days apart.

Fatigue played a huge part in eliminating the four-time champions as they shuttled between Aba and Gombe, playing straight three days in the group-stage.

For a competition which has N25 million ($69,000) prize money and a CAF Confederation Cup ticket at stake, greater priority should be given to the tournament in the future, as the final was the only bright spot in an event dominated by organisational head-scratchers.