VIOLENCE, OFFICIATING RAISE CONCERNS IN NEW NPFL SEASON

The violence, which broke out in venues on the opening days of the Nigerian league, is giving football stakeholders cause for concern, reports ’TANA AIYEJINA

Followers of the domestic league had anxiously awaited the kick-off of the 2017/18 Nigerian Professional Football League on January 13, but fans violence, which reportedly left a Kano Pillars player, Junior Lokossa, and an official injured in the league’s opening game between visiting Sai Masu Gida and Katsina United, left a sour taste in the mouth.

Lokossa had silenced the home fans at the Mohammadu Dikko Stadium in Katsina, when he slotted home in the 33rd minute, after being put through by Victor Dennis.

Pillars were then reduced to 10 men two minutes before the break after Dennis was sent off for a two-footed tackle on Eric Gwammy. Katsina United made it count when they equalised in first half added time through Ajanachinedu Chukwujekwu, who nodded home Destiny Ashadi’s free kick.

Pillars went ahead again in the 61st minute through Ibrahim Alhassan, but Ashadi ensured the home side earned a share of the spoils when he converted from the spot in the 95th minute.

It was Katsina United’s second penalty after Pillars goalkeeper David Obiozor saved an earlier one from Muhammed Hassaini in the 83rd minute.

However, violence broke out after referee Sani Mohammed’s final whistle.  Katsina fans, who were allegedly irked by Mohammed’s officiating, attacked the visiting team, throwing objects at them.

First goalscorer of the season, Lokosa, reportedly collapsed while an official escaped with a minor injury, Pillars spokesman Idris Malikawa said.

“Everything was going well until the final whistle when the fans started throwing objects at our players and officials. They were not happy with the officiating, and after the final whistle, they found an avenue to vent their anger,” a dazed Malikawa stated.

“Immediately the fans started throwing things and it was going out of hand, the policemen at the stadium, had to use tear gas to control the crowd and in the process, Junior Lokosa and one of our medical officials got injured. Lokosa actually fainted and we had to revive him later.

“We were later led out of the stadium by the security personnel and some officials of the Federal Road Safety Corps on our way back to Kano.”

The following day, the negative trend continued in Lafia City Stadium, where champions Plateau United confronted home side Nasarawa United.

Angry fans assaulted Nasarawa chairman, Isaac Danladi, and lady ref Mimisen Iyorhe was virtually stripped naked after the Lafia club lost 1-0 at home to champions Plateau in their opening tie of the NPFL season.

Danladi was allegedly slapped and his ear pulled by fans who were angry with the home defeat. The match officials were also attacked during and after the encounter with Iyorhe having her uniform almost torn to shreds. It took the intervention of heavily armed security officials to get them to safety.

Sports journalist, Amar Ignis, who was in Lafia to run the match’s commentary said, “It was not a pleasant day. Referees Abubakar Abdullahi, Tejiri Digbori, Iyorhe and Aminu Saliu were held hostage at the end of the first half, they were stoned and hit by irate fans.

“The same scenario repeated itself at the end of the match and referee Iyorhe had her uniform almost torn to shreds. Chairman of Nasarawa was slapped, his ears seriously pulled in pains and his cap removed,” the reporter added.

The Nigeria Referees Association lamented the double incidents and the continued victimisation of their members.

“In the Week One matches, the referees, who were on duty in some centres received unsavoury treatment that poses danger to the lives of the match officials in the games ahead,” the NRA said in a statement by their National Publicity Secretary, Kelechi Mejuobi.

NRA president, Tade Azeez, said the threats and mischievous tendencies against referees wouldn’t stop NRA members from being fair and firm in the course of discharging their duties.

Players protest against referee's decisionHowever, referees have often been accused of collecting bribes to swing results in favour of certain NPFL clubs.

In fact, former Secretary-General of the NFF, Bolaji Ojo-Oba, once described Nigerian football as “cash and carry” during a football seminar in Lagos in 2016, due to the activities of referees.

He said, “Teams want to win, the managers know that if they don’t win, they are gone; the coach knows that if he doesn’t do well, he is gone too.

“So, what is happening now (in Nigerian football) is cash and carry. And it is due to the level of poverty among referees, because most of them don’t have any other means of livelihood.”

Veteran league reporter, Emma Jemegha, says club officials would prefer to “settle” referees rather than taking care of the players and coaches.

He stated, “No club in the NPFL gets less than N300m annually but most of the top officials prefer to take care of frivolities and settling referees, instead of paying the players.

“Between 2003 and 2004, a prominent team in the South-East won the league but their coach got sacked. When people raised eyebrows, some board members of the club said, ‘we know how we won the league’.”

Indeed, a recent high-profile case of referees being induced to swing results was on September 1, 2011, when referee Chrysanthus Okoro and assistant referee Chukwuma Durunna were banned by the NFF for their involvement in a match-fixing scandal.

Okoro and Durunna conspired to disallow a goal scored by Lobi Stars against Sunshine Stars in Akure. But Dominic Iorfa, Lobi chairman, contested the decision with pictorial evidence of Okoro and Durunna inside a car belonging to Divine Benjamin, a senior official of the Ondo State Football Agency, which runs the Akure club.

On August 17, 2017, Jumbo Awala, an ex-footballer and Chairman of the National Association of Nigerian Footballers’ Monitoring Committee of the Nigerian Professional Football League matches, wrote a petition to the Chairman, NFF’s Ethics Committee, accusing Ahmed ‘Fresh’ Yusuf, Chairman, NFF’s Referees Appointment Committee, of aiding Plateau United in winning the Premier League last season.

He alleged that Yusuf appointed all the match officials from his home state Niger for Sunshine Stars versus title chasers Akwa United’s match, and was also present at Ijebu Ode, the match venue.

The referee awarded a penalty to Sunshine after their player was fouled on the edge of the box, through which they scored, but Akwa were denied a clear penalty after Sunshine goalkeeper hacked down the visitors’ player.

Awala said the officiating was pre-planned to ensure that Akwa didn’t garner any point in Ijebu Ode, to aid Plateau’s title ambition.

“That match was clearly manipulated in favour of Sunshine. A thorough review of the video of that match will clearly indicate that the chairman of the referee’s appointment committee and the referees were induced to ensure Akwa United lost that match,” the petition read.

Poor officiating extends to the other divisions of the domestic league.

A few seasons ago, a game between two lower league sides, J. Atete and ABS, was replayed in Abuja after the first encounter was called off due to hooliganism.

ABS needed a win to gain promotion to the elite league while J. Atete needed a draw to avoid relegation. However, there were allegations of plans to prompt the referee to swing the replay in ABS favour.

The referee in charge allegedly awarded a controversial penalty to ABS just after the restart of the second half and then mysteriously ended the game before 90 minutes. It was a sight to behold watching the J. Atete players and officials gathering and consoling themselves in a circle and praying and cursing, with their owner weeping profusely, while ABS laughed their way to the Premier League.

The following season, ABS were relegated from the topflight while J. Atete gained promotion back to the NNL.

“God answered our prayers,” an official of J. Atete said.

According to football administrator, Mohammed Edewor, bias officiating in the domestic league has caught the attention of the international football community, saying it has cost the country in terms of sponsorship.

“I was told in South Africa that one of the reasons we are having issues with our sponsorship is that you can determine who’s going to win the next match, all the home games are won and the away games lost,” the former chairman of the defunct Concord FC said.

Violence at match venues has become an ever-present subject in the domestic league. Many a time, irate fans take laws into their hands, beating up referees, club officials and even players, with security operatives incapable of tackling the menace.

Last season, the NPFL tie between Sunshine Stars and Lobi Stars at the Ondo State Sports Complex, Akure, was marred by violence after the home team’s fans attacked match officials for disallowing their side’s goal.

The game ended 1-0 in favour of visiting Lobi but trouble started when the referee disallowed a Sunshine goal he adjudged offside. Immediately, the fans descended on the referee and his assistant, throwing dangerous objects at them, forcing the game to be stopped for a few minutes.

On April 10, 2017, several Akwa United players and officials were injured and their team bus damaged after attacks by Kano Pillars fans during a league game at the Sani Abacha Stadium.

Christian Pyagbara’s goal gave Akwa the win but midway through the second half, fans threw missiles into the pitch, which hit and injured the referee. The home fans then pounced on Akwa defenders, Ofem Inah and Kodjo Dadzie, and assistant coach, Moses Effiong, after the encounter, inflicting injuries on them.

Ahead of the new season, our correspondent spoke with the League Management Company, organiser of the league, on the steps it was taking to curb violence at match venues across the country but LMC spokesman, Harry Iwuala, said it was the job of the Nigeria Police Force to provide security at match venues.

It was learnt that the LMC pays a certain amount to the police in their efforts to fortify match venues.

Iwuala stated, “Security is not the job of the league organisers, it’s the job of the police. If there’s going to be a demonstration in Nigeria today, it’s the police who quell the situation. The police should know that some of the stadiums have capacities like 10,000 and 20,000, and it is their job to secure these places.

“Football matters draw more crowd than political matters. The police should begin to see football issues as security issues, so that they can do their statutory job of securing the place.

“They should know that security at match venues is security for the nation because it is Nigerians that go to watch matches at these stadiums. We are happy that with all the crises in the North-East, there hasn’t been any issue.”

But Force Public Relations Officer, Jimoh Moshood, blamed the LMC for not informing the NPF of inadequate security at match venues.

“Who did they (LMC) complain to? We provide adequate security for all matches, not just the league. We have an elaborate security to do that, said the police spokesman, a Chief Superintendent of Police.

“We are not aware of any complaint from them in that regard, we haven’t received any. If they have such complaints, they should report to the command or state where such inadequate security is observed. To the best of the knowledge of the NPF, we are providing adequate security.”

Jonathan Akpoborie, an U-17 World Cup winner in 1985 and ex-Julius Berger striker, attributed the current trend to the win-at-all-cost syndrome that has plagued the league.

“I once saw the home team supporters beat up a referee because the game ended 0-0,” the SuperSport pundit recalled.

“But I played in the same league before I travelled to Europe and we were going away to win games because we were good enough and our football was solid. We also lost some home games in Lagos.”

Secretary, NFF’s Security Committee, Christian Emeruwa, said on an online platform that poor security at match venues had given hooligans the opportunity to wreak havoc on match days.

He stated, “Those who disrupt match venues are simply hooligans and until we start treating them as criminals, we won’t get out of this disorder. These hooligans capitalise on the inadequate security at match venues to attack and intimidate match officials.

“I have had referees tell me that they did what they did because their lives were in danger and this is the obvious truth.”

Speaking on solutions, Emeruwa said, “After my review of last year’s activities of the league, I came to the conclusion that this season we may witness people being killed in our stadiums if care is not taken.

“No league can survive without a corresponding safety and security architecture. Each club should be made to appoint a security manager, who must be trained by the league regulator with support from the NFF.

“Each club must be compelled to set up a pool of stewards, all of whom must come from the locality of the club. These persons must be screened by the police and cleared to be of good records before they can be enlisted.”

He added, “Given our peculiar situation, the league body should approach the respective commands of each state to enter into an operational agreement for an intervention squad to be set up from these commands, not from the divisions that are already familiar with the area. The job of this intervention squad is to maintain law and order outside the stadium and to specifically protect the match officials.

“Venue approval experts should be invited to be part of the venue inspection teams and any stadium that fails to meet the requirements should not be approved as venue for the league.

“Sanctions should be very hard on teams and administrators alike. Most of the team administrators are the paymasters of these hooligans.

“The league should also be able to classify matches into various risk levels: high, medium and low, and take action before match days by appointing an experienced security officer as an additional official for the match.

“I don’t think that safety and security issues should be treated with kid gloves; the time to act is now.”

But Iwuala said if officials involved in securing match venues shun corrupt practices, and take the welfare of those mandated to control fans seriously, violence would be stemmed across the country.  “Corruption must be cured for meaningful progress. LMC releases money to relevant officers, money goes to the security coordinators, usually police officers, but the policemen and women sent to the stadium receive less than N200. What kind of work do you expect them to do?

“After the Nigeria-Ghana 2000 AFCON, a policeman told me, ‘na we work, some people chop (we did the job, others got the pay)’. This was because they were given N100 each per match. So, it’s about those in authority being morally upright. Does the money provided serve the purpose it is meant for?”

Akpoborie added that the insecurity at venues and poor officiating have conspired to keep fans away from match venues.

“Some people think the fans are not aware of these things happening; they are fully aware and until it stops, you cannot bring the crowd back to the stadiums. You can’t stop it at once, it has to be gradual.”

According to ex-international and 1994 Africa Cup of Nations winner, Edema Fuludu, “the start of the new NPFL season is raising issues like wildfire in the harmattan season.”

PUNCH.

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