Nigerian fans create rival football league on Twitter

    Story highlights

    • Efeoghene Ori-Jesu has started a football league sourcing teams on Twitter
    • The league is not run as a business, but has attracted some big name sponsors

    (CNN)In Nigeria, football is more than just a sport.

    Bars overfill with excited fans at match time, and conversations about goals, penalties and scores continue online long after the referee has blown the final whistle.
      This vibrant social media exchange is exactly what inspired a group of friends to set up an alternative football league; one filled entirely with players recruited from Twitter.
      Called the Twitter Premier League (TPL) it started when Efeoghene Ori-Jesu, an oil and gas industry professional working in Port Harcourt, decided to ask opinionated online football commentators to prove their points on the pitch.
      "One day I half-jokingly challenged people on Twitter and said that since they know so much about football why don't they just put it on the field, show their skills," Ori-Jesu says. "Let's play football and let's see how good you are," he adds.

      Football and friendship

      Nigerian fans show their colours at the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil.
      It took Ori-Jesu and his friends, all young professionals with day jobs, less than a month to organize their first football tournament in May 2014. It featured four teams, and the organizers even secured sponsorship from Samsung.
      "About 500 people came to watch. We thought it would be a one-off but it built momentum through Twitter and we decided we had to do it again," says Ori-Jesu.
      Now the league has grown to nine teams with about 20 players each, including two women's squads - the Panthers and the Tsarinas.
      And even if you're not a football lover, you can still take part in the Twitter Premier League events.
      "We allow everyone to come and do something," says Ori-Jesu. "We have people who can cook and they bring their stalls, we have DJs who are interested in music, we have people who do yoga and stretching. If you want to showcase something we're like, ok come," he adds.

      Social media momentum

      Since its inception, TPL has held four tournaments which can draw a crowd of up to 1,000 people.
      The events are put together by volunteers who occasionally receive a small stipend, but mainly give up their time for free, and the league supports local charities which help underprivileged children stay at school.
      "Without our volunteers and players, none of this would exist frankly," says Deola Ibitola who acts as TPL's finance director.
      "Passion is the reason why we came together; passion is the reason we are all part of The TPL," she adds.
      The league also occasionally partners with ride-sharing companies and Uber to get discounts and even free transport to the venues.
      Propelled by their popularity, teams have also started accepting semi-professional players, but Ori-Jesu insists they are not actively trying to turn their initiative into a profit-making scheme any time soon.
      "It's always been about passion and now it's a little bit bigger -- teams have sponsors for their jersey, but it is not something that's really taken off so that we can pay players' salaries or anything like that," he says.
      "It's all pretty much ad hoc and for the fun of the game," Ori-Jesu adds.

      Still niche players

      Prominent Nigerian football commentator Colin Udoh says that while the TPL is nowhere near close to eclipsing Nigeria's official league, it appeals to young people who are active in football communities on social media.
      Nigeria's league has also been plagued by accusations of corruption in the past, but Udoh says that things have vastly improved in recent years.
      "People love football but still carry old stereotypes around in their minds, and the path of least resistance is to take it out on the establishment," he says. "That provides fertile ground for something like the TPL, whose allure might lie in the fact that there is a sense of shared ownership. Most of the fans who come to watch are either friends, relatives or colleagues of the players and officials," he adds.
      Ori-Jesu agrees that the league's main attraction is the sense of fun it brings rather than just football skills.
      "These are all our friends, these are people that we already know and follow online and it's exciting to know that this particular person that I've seen tweeting will be playing football on this day, so we just want to come out and watch," he says.
      "The professional league -- they have their fans but they're not necessarily online. We rule the online space they, they rule the offline space, especially for the big teams," Ori-Jesu adds.
      "We made TPL the way it is and that ownership is very important," says Ori-Jesu. "We have food and music in addition to football. It's for people who want meet other people; they come for fun and the atmosphere."