On February 13, hundreds of people gathered at the Teslim Balogun Stadium in Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial center. The crowd was there to see a new club, Sporting Lagos FC, play its first-ever football match.
The match ended in a draw after Sporting Lagos equalized as a result of an own goal from Go Round FC, leaving supporters of the new club buzzing with excitement.
The club, which currently plays in the Nigerian National League, the country’s second-tier, is the brainchild of Shola Akinlade, co-founder and CEO of financial technology company Paystack, which he says was acquired for more than $200 million in 2020 by Irish American financial services company Stripe. Akinlade, who is also a tech investor, says he intends for Sporting Lagos to be a platform for community development and social change.
Football for change
Akinlade told CNN that his motivation to create the football club came during a moment of self-reflection in 2021. “I lost my dad last year and I was looking at my 75-year-old mum, and it occurred to me that I need to build something that has staying power,” he said. “Football is one of those things because it is built around communities.”
He says the goal of the club is to use football to create job opportunities for communities in Nigeria, and he plans to find young, untapped talents and train them to excel at the sport.
“There are so many people that are born with these skills, but it doesn’t convert to opportunity,” Akinlade said. “So I want us to spend the next 30, 40 years building something that helps the next generation of football talents in Nigeria.”
Akinlade pulled in some of his most influential friends as a brain trust — including ESPN journalist Colin Udoh and sports administrator Godwin Enakhena, both now part of the club’s governing body. “My brain cannot solve all these problems,” Akinlade said. “But if I have a lot of powerful brains solving the same problem, it will be helpful. I just shared it around and everyone just came up with their own ideas on how this could work.”
Sporting Lagos currently ranks third in the league, after ten games.
Investing in talent
Nigerian sports journalist Tolu Olasoji says that clubs are mostly owned and run by the government, and are often lacking in structure. As a result, many that are run privately, struggle.
“There is a lack of accountability in football clubs because the government doesn’t pay attention to how club money is spent or what football infrastructure to invest in,” said Olasoji. He added that “as a private individual in the football league who cares about making a profit or accountability, you will likely stay frustrated by the system.”
Olasoji thinks the lack of structure and accountability in Nigerian football will make things hard for Sporting Lagos, but he says the team is off to a good start. “He (Akinlade) has some of the best minds in Nigerian football on his team … and that creates the possibility for it to achieve its objectives,” he explained.
Akinlade, who is the team’s main backer, says the club is trying to overcome infrastructure challenges by “building a football arena with security (and) assisted parking.” The tech entrepreneur says plans are also underway to create a football academy to train young talent, which he hopes to launch in the next few months, starting with 11 to 15-year-olds. “We will be getting them the best coaches and sending them to the best schools as a way of developing their talents,” he added.
The tech factor
Sporting Lagos has the support of several other tech-based companies besides Paystack, with its matches sponsored by brands such as Abeg, PiggyVest, Renmoney and Helium Health.
Akinlade says a lot of tech-based companies are trying to find new platforms to promote their products and services. Sports, he said, has become one of those places. “I think for platforms like Abeg and PiggyVest supporting us, it’s also about figuring out how to use this as a platform, either for footballers or the football ecosystem,” he told CNN.
Akinlade says his dream for the club is “to move to the first division of Nigerian football and have players come out of Sporting Lagos play in the World Cup.”