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Why rich Nigerians are investing in European football

April 28, 2023

Nigerian businessmen are showing a keen interest when it comes to investing in European football clubs. Could their control on the pipeline of local talent also help change the landscape of the Nigerian football world?

Nigeria Shola Akinlade mit Lars Kruse, CEO Aarhus Fremad
Shola Akinlade (2nd from right) took over Aarhus Fremad in MarchImage: Lolade Adewuyi/CampsBay Media/IMAGO

The Nigerian millionaire who owns a Danish football club

Where buying a football club in Europe was once considered a vanity acquisition for billionaires, Nigerian businessmen are approaching things differently. In March, Nigerian tech entrepreneur Shola Akinlade acquired a majority stake in the Danish second division side, Aarhus Fremad.

It wasn't Akinlade's first venture into the world of football since he sold his payment processing platform Paystack for $200 million (€181.7 million) in 2020. Two years later, he founded Sporting Lagos for whom he's investing in a new stadium in Lekki, a plush suburb of the Nigerian capital.

Furthermore, he has set up an academy to recruit some of the best talents in the country and therein lies the key, as the aim is for some of those players to find their way into Europe's elite via Fremad, who themselves are hoping to climb into the top tier of Danish Superliga.

"We want to provide a pathway for some of the best players and the best talent we can find in Africa," Akinlade said during his first visit to the club in April. "I think football is about opportunities. Just to be able to provide opportunities for the best talent to move is something that we are excited about."

A growing trend

Kunle Soname was the first Nigerian business to test the waters when he purchased a 70 per cent stake in Portuguese club side CD Feirense in 2015. Soname, a politician and founder of one of the biggest betting platforms in the country, owns Remo Stars, a Nigerian Professional Football League club.

Portugal PK Clube Desportivo Feirense
Kunle Soname (l.) bought Portuguese club CD Feirense in 2015Image: GlobalImagens/IMAGO

He proved to be the trend setter. Recently, cement and commodities magnate Aliko Dangote was reported to be close to purchasing a 100 per cent stake in French Ligue 2 side Valenciennes. He has even mooted the idea of investing in Arsenal Football Club after completing his integrated oil and gas refinery in Lagos which produces 650,000 barrels per day.

Meanwhile, a takeover bid for English club Sheffield United made by another Nigerian businessman Dozy Mmobuosi fell apart after he could not meet the requirements of the English Football League board. Through his foundation, Mmobuosi has funneled millions into funding local football competitions in the last two years to improve his public image ahead of the Sheffield United bid.

Controlling the market

But just why are Nigerian businessmen turning their attention towards Europe for club acquisitions? According to the Neuchatel-based CIES Football Observatory, Nigeria is the African country with the most talent in European football.

Since the 1990s, when Nwankwo Kanu and Finidi George won the UEFA Champions League with Ajax, European clubs have regularly recruited Nigerian players. International success at the FIFA U17 World Cup and the Olympic football victory in 1996 proved significant factors in that regard.  

However, the tried and tested rule was that teams waited for European scouts to come looking for the best young talent to take to Europe. But these Nigerian businessmen are hoping to cut out the middle man.

"They are acquiring those clubs to make the journey easier and smoother," said Adedamilola Adedotun, sports finance expert and head of sports at Lagos-based agency Temple Company. "The objective is still the same; they want to get young players into the European football market."

There have been success stories too. After Soname acquired Feirense in 2015, Oghenekaro Etebo, the most exciting player in the Nigerian league then, was transferred to Portugal. He played in the Feirense team that gained promotion to the Primeira Liga before moving on to England, where Stoke City signed him for €7.2 million ($6.5 million). Two Nigerian players are currently in the Feirense first team, while one is on loan.

A similar business model had been trialled in Ghana, where former Manchester United scout Tom Vernon set up the Right to Dream Academy in 1999. Following their success in transferring top Ghanaian talents to Europe, Vernon's Pathway Group acquired Danish club FC Nordsjaelland in 2016.

Fußball Frankreich Rennes Kamaldeen Sulemana
FC Nordsjaelland sold Kamaldeen Sulemana to Rennes for huge profit in 2021Image: imago images/PanoramiC

Ghana's top talents, including Mohammed Kudus and Kamaldeen Suleimana, made their first sojourn into European football using those stepping stones with Kudus sold to Ajax for €9 million ($8.1 million) in 2020 and Suleimana to Rennes for €17 million ($15.4 million) a year later.

Why not start at home?

Among the businessmen, Dangote is the only one with no investment in Nigerian football ownership. Africa's richest billionaire has refused to get involved locally. According to critics, his recent moves to acquire a club in France further his disdain for the local league.

"Dangote is a global brand built in Nigeria," said Harrison Jalla, chairman of the board of trustees of the Professional Footballers Association of Nigeria. "If Dangote puts some money into Nigerian football, other investors who see him championing the cause of Nigerian football will invest in taking Nigerian football to global attention."

But the complexities in football management in Nigeria make it unattractive to many businessmen. Most clubs are state-owned and are therefore more driven by political motivations than profit.

The few privately-owned clubs like Remo Stars and Sporting Lagos are keen on changing the way things work in Nigerian football business. They have set up their own academies and built their own stadiums while prioritizing the match day experience for their growing fan bases.

"The thing that will change the landscape of football in Nigeria is the quality of owners," said Adedotun. "We are beginning to see business-minded people get into sports."

The hopes are that the growing trend and investments being made by the likes of Shola Akinlade and Kunle Soname continue to work in both directions as they funnel Nigeria's best football talent into Europe whilst opening doors for further investment in efforts to grow the game locally.

Edited by James Thorogood