Saturday, 30th September 2023

Echoes against poor officiating in local league keep pulsating

By Gowon Akpodonor
21 May 2023   |   2:56 am
In some other parts of the globe, football referees create a supportive sporting environment, which in a way, builds a positive climate on the pitch for players and spectators.

Referees heading for duty

In some other parts of the globe, football referees create a supportive sporting environment, which in a way, builds a positive climate on the pitch for players and spectators.

To some, the role played by these referees is key to the growth of football, as their behaviours and attitudes determine the experiences and multilateral development of young players.

Football is a team sports in which the referees interact with players many times and influence the course of the game. But their immediate actions go beyond the pitch, as it could either build or destroy the reputation of a country’s football, thereby making things difficult for managers of the league to secure quality sponsorship to run their affairs.

Over the years, poor officiating has been the talking point, both in the elite Nigeria Premier Football League (NPFL) and the lower divisions. Such alleged corrupt practices have ensured that Nigerian referees are not considered in competitions organised by the Confederation of African Football (CAF), and world football governing body, FIFA.

And for many managers in the league, the fear of referees is the beginning of wisdom, as cries of “daylight” robbery by the referees is a frequent occurrence at league venues. In some cases, the men in black uniform are made to pay for their “sins” by the fans, who find it difficult to tolerate their actions.

After his playing career with the IICC Shooting Stars of Ibadan, and the then Green Eagles, Adegoke Adelabu became the Manager of Eko United FC in Lagos. He was frustrated out of the business by the dubious attitude of some referees.

“Throughout my football career, it never occurred to me that a referee could manipulate a game, until I started Eko United Football Club, in Lagos,” Adelabu, a sports scientist, told The Guardian during the week.

“The health of the nation’s football is failing because many Nigerian referees are like cancer cells in our football system. It is obvious that they are benefiting from an organisation that they are systematically destroying.

“The first time IICC Shooting Stars of Ibadan defeated Rangers International Football Club of Enugu at home, I scored the two goals and the referees did an excellent job right in the presence of the then governor of Enugu State. These days, it is almost impossible to beat a team at home. It means we used to have excellent referees that had integrity in our league then.”

With nostalgic feelings, Adelabu recalled his sad experience in the hands of Nigerian referees, while managing Eko United FC. “I was shocked to discover that a particular referee was usually assigned to handle both the home and away matches of a particular team. Someone drew my attention to the name of a particular referee, who disguised with dark sunglasses during pre-match meetings, to avoid recognition. I stood up to protest to the match commissioner, not knowing that they were ‘members of same gang.’ They manufactured penalty kicks for some teams to get their goals at home throughout the league season. Most of the violence that we witnessed during football matches were due to poor officiating. So, I withdrew my team (Eko United FC) from the league because we were not getting value for our money.”

Adelabu continued: “As a sports scientist, I have made several attempts to evaluate how we win or lose matches, but with some of our referees, it is not possible. The absence of Nigerian referees at global competitions, to an extent, is indicative of the fact that they cannot be trusted at such levels of competition.”

He disclosed that the abnormality in Nigeria’s officiating system also involves some club managers, who want to “win at all cost” to justify the money that they are collecting from the clubs.

“I don’t think there is anything we can do now about the issue of referees, unless we have people without corrupt mentality. Corruption is really a big issue.

The psychological implication of a referee robbing a team of victory because of money is unimaginable, but many people may not be aware of it. In match situations, it is possible for a referee to make mistakes under pressure; but where a referee overlooks the destinies of the players on the pitch, and deliberately robs a team of victory, there can never be any progress or development in the referee association’s technical abilities as a whole. This is because, apart from the fact that a bribe debases the heart, the referee association has to get rid of the accursed behaviour before they can develop. There are multiple issues about our referees that I have not mentioned because they are not good for public consumption. But the fact remains that our referees need extensive technical training… they need to put their love for the game ahead of their love for money,” Adelabu admonished.

The ex-international who is of the opinion that Nigeria should have a radical approach to recruitment of referees, said: “Just like was done in the past, we need to, once again, get interested people among lawyers, doctors, members of the armed forces, magistrates and judges to become referees. Many of them love football and they have sufficient intelligence to understand the rules and regulations of the game and apply them pragmatically. It will be difficult for any team manager to approach them with a bribe, and they will not only help to develop the game, they will also protect the integrity of the game.

“It is highly recommended that the league’s disciplinary committee, as well as the referees’ association’s disciplinary committee, should help curb the unprofessional conduct of some of our referees, by dismissing/sacking anyone found guilty of corruption or gross technical/professional incompetence. This will definitely improve the health of Nigerian football,” Adelabu submitted.

In January this year, a new chairman was appointed to head the Referees Committee of the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF). She is Faith Irabor, who retired as a referee in 2010 after many years of officiating.

Irabor is the first Nigerian woman to occupy that position, and she promised to do her best to ensure that more of the country’s referees distinguish themselves to the extent of earning international recognition. She told The Guardian then that she would do everything possible to make her appointment a blessing to the nation’s football.

“I am excited about this unique opportunity that will enable me bring my wealth of experience and knowledge to the job,” she said. “I am grateful to the NFF President, Ibrahim Gusau, who is trying to bring in changes that will move our football forward. I have been in the field of refereeing for years. As a retired FIFA-badged referee and a one-time CAF instructor, I have seen it all. One thing I will do is to try as much as possible to encourage those who will take their jobs serious. It won’t be business as usual and I won’t tolerate anything that will damage the image of our football.”

Irabor, one of the first eight CAF instructors, who was picked by FIFA in 1995 as referee, assured then: “Those, who are disciplined on the field will get my support because this present NFF Board is ready to back our referees to the highest level. It is only those who prove themselves as good ambassadors on the pitch that will merit such opportunities. We have to follow FIFA and CAF regulations and we can see that everything is moving in the right direction. I won’t let Nigerians down.”

Despite the volume of reassurance, the usual cry of poor officiating keeps reverberating in the NPFL, and the referees governing body is uncomfortable.

The Nigeria Referees Association (NRA) has so far summoned a total of 11 match officials to a referees’ hearing committee following their questionable officiating this season. Irabor told The Guardian on Wednesday that the purpose was to enable the NRA to see where the referees did wrong in the course of their duties.

“We will play video clips of the matches where these 11 referees were involved to see if their actions were deliberate or not. It will enable us to know if those mistakes were of the head, and not of the mind by the referees. Nobody is above mistake, but there are certain actions that you take as a referee that are not justifiable. That is what I mean by “of the head and not of the mind,” Irabor explained.

Former Nigerian jumper, Yusuf Alli, who is currently the Chairman of Edo State Sports Commission, had cried out a few weeks ago over poor officiating in the NPFL.

Downcast and frustrated with what he termed biased officiating that is wiping off the gains made at the beginning of the 2023 NPFL football season, the sports legend called on the NFF and the IMC to urgently halt the trend before the league returns to its inglorious days.

Alli alleged recently that some top clubs in the NPFL were ganging up against Bendel Insurance, a club with a rich pedigree, which they see as a “small club” because it just gained promotion from NNL, and is currently dominating giants, and has remained unbeaten this season. Since the 2023 season began, Bendel Insurance has been in splendid form, winning home and away games.

“The gang-up against the club was particularly terrible in Aba when the team played against Enyimba FC. The referee gave a questionable penalty against Insurance, a decision that even the home team’s supporters found strange,” Alli claimed.

Despite intimidation from the referee, the Benin Arsenal still managed to leave Aba with a point. If referees are hostile to the club away, their home games are not different, the reason that Alli further claimed referees also play against the Benin-based side in their home matches.

According to him, in our home match against Akwa United in Benin, which was witnessed by the Edo State Deputy Governor, Philip Shaibu, and Davidson Owumi of IMC, Bendel Insurance was denied a clear penalty because Akwa United protested against the decision.

Said Alli, “These guys (referees) are supposed to be unbiased umpires, but some of them are biased. They and their cohorts are killing our league. Their postulation that Bendel Insurance just came from the NNL, and therefore, should be frustrated, shows their shallow thinking and lack of sense of history. Is it not in this country that Leventis United came from the lower division to dominate the FA Cup, Premier League, and even dominated on the continent and all and sundry applauded them.”

Alli said that instead of being envious and ganging up to destroy the good works of the Edo State government and the management of the team, “the detractors should have come for a tutorial on how to run a football club successfully, and the Edo State government would give them the manual free.

“Apart from our pedigree, which is as good as those of the best clubs in the league and better than that of most of them, a lot of work goes into our recent success. It was not as straight as a rope; it took a lot of sweat and blood. Apart from the personal commitment of Governor Godwin Obaseki, his deputy, Shaibu and the management of ESSC, we embarked on a nationwide recruitment of the best. All our players made the team on merit, not through any godfather, and our welfare package, medical and others, are first- class just as we abhor cutting corners.”

Alli revealed that the club sponsors and supporters were becoming frustrated, saying: “The NFF and the IMC must do something urgently to stop this ugly trend. I advocate severe sanctions for erring officials. This will deter others and stop the trend. As a sportsman, I know what it means to be a victim of cheating, that is why till today, I advocate a life ban for athletes who take performance-enhancing drugs.”

In January, the Bayelsa United Head Coach, Dipreye Teibowei, expressed reservations with the officiating of his side’s Match Day 4 fixture against hosts, Lobi Stars of Makurdi, in Jos.

Teibowei, shortly after the 3-0 loss in the 2022/2023 Nigeria Professional Football League (NPFL) Group B game said: “Even though Lobi Stars scored clean goals, the officiating has a lot of question marks, as one side was favoured above the other. How can you say you want to improve the standard of the league and the referees are still officiating this way,” he asked.

He stressed: “If we continue like this, our standard will never improve.”
Last month, the Technical Adviser of Gombe United Football Club, Aliyu Zubairu, lamented his side’s failure to halt Bendel Insurance FC’s unbeaten run.

According to Zubairu, his team’s plan was frustrated by poor officiating by the centre referee, Babayanje Saed, in the Group A Match Day 16 fixture at the Pantami Stadium in Gombe, which ended goalless.

However, while Bendel Insurance FC and others are lamenting alleged poor officiating, Enugu Rangers Football Club says that referees’ performance so far this season is not totally bad.

According to the media officer of the club, Norbert Okonkwo, referees have not in any way contributed to the team’s poor performance in the 2022/23 NPFL season.

“Even though we’ve had some issues with referees in some of our matches, I won’t say that they did badly this season,” Okonkwo said. “In our first home match against Abia Warriors, which we lost on our home ground at Awka, the referee did very well by providing a level playing field for both teams.

“But in our match against Wikki Tourists in Bauchi, the referee did not really do well; he worked against us. We could have won that game if the referee had awarded us a penalty, which everybody saw was well deserved.

“We had another bad experience in Port Harcourt in our game against Rivers United. The female referee did something, which did not go down well with a majority of the fans. One of our players was injured, and was asked to go out for treatment. The player quickly came back, but instead of allowing him to come into the pitch, the referee kept him outside for over three minutes. She refused to listen to her Assistant Referee, who had cleared our player to get on the pitch. We conceded a goal while our player was still awaiting clearance from the referee.

“I won’t say all the referees did badly because Rangers picked some points on the road, and also lost at home,” Okonkwo added. Enugu Rangers have been playing their games at the Awka Township Stadium, Anambra State for two years due to renovation work at Nnamdi Azikiwe Stadium, Enugu.

To prevent any form of manipulation in the last matches of the season, the Interim Management Committee (IMC) said it has engaged a security intelligence outfit to monitor the referees. The move, according to the Head of Operations, Davidson Owunmi, is to consolidate the gains so far recorded in the Nigeria Premier Football League (NPFL) this season.

The IMC was mandated at its inauguration to ensure a clean up of the NPFL and make it competitive, attractive to corporate support and aligned to the international football calendar.

Owumi said that part of plans put in place to achieve a season that would end on a high is the setting up of an intensive monitoring team that would be at all the venues.

“We are happy so far with the performance of the clubs, the conduct of majority of our match officials and the fans in most venues. But, it’s never perfect and we are working to plug all gaps, especially at this last stage when desperation has set in. We have reviewed all outstanding fixtures in relation to how crucial the stakes are to the clubs and we are confident of nipping in the bud, any misadventure by any club administrator or even our match officials,” Owumi stated.

Against allegations of possible compromise of games, he said the IMC was not leaving anything to chance, hence, it is working with relevant match security agencies, club administrators, Nigerian referees and the NFF.

“We have always worked with every organ, including security agencies, the referees body and the NFF to ensure that the very best standards are upheld, but being the last game of the regular season, we have upped the ante to deliver the very best”, the IMC boss assured.

He added that while it may not be in the IMC’s interest to disclose all the strategies it has in place, “it is also important to make it known that security intelligence unit is already monitoring some clubs officials in high-risk games with a view to nipping in the bud untoward developments.”

One key question on the lips of most followers of the Nigerian Professional Football League NPFL is whether the welfare of the referees is being taken care of.

At the beginning of this season, GTI Group entered into a partnership with the IMC. Among other things, GTI, through the partnership, cleared all previous indemnities owed the referees by past administrations.

Speaking with The Guardian during the week, GTI’s spokesman, Andrew Ekejiuba, said: “To us here, football is big business, and GTI is doing everything possible to make Nigerian football, particularly the league, to move forward. I can tell you that 48 hours before any MatchDay, GTI sends money to all the referees that will be on duty. The money is paid into the referees account through the IMC accountant.

“Weekly, GTI Group pay about N9.7 million to settle bills for the referees, the Assistant Referees 1 and 2, match commissioners and match assessors. Before now, referees were owed indemnities by past administrations. So, for them to perform better, GTI Group decided to settle the backlog of debts and even increased the payment for this season. The money being paid the referees and others is to enable them pay for their transportation, accommodation and feed well. We decided to do this to prevent the past experiences where referees depended on home teams to settle their indemnities. It is the list of referees supplied to us by the IMC that we take care of, weekly. So, nobody will say that referees are not being taken care of. Our mission is to grow the NPFL into a money yielding asset comparable to what the English Premier League and America’s National Basketball Association (NBA) are doing for their players, managers and other stakeholders,” Ekejiuba said.

Prompt payment of indemnities by GTI Group notwithstanding, some Nigerians believe the referees deserve more. A football fan, Okiemute Otomiewo, who has traveled round the country in the course of supporting the local league, told The Guardian that Nigerian referees face lots of risks in the course of officiating league matches and should not be blamed for all the wrongs.

“For me, it is a mixed feeling… if you have witnessed some of the things that happen in different match venues, you will describe our match venues as hell. Indeed, it is better imagined than witnessed because in some of them, security personnel even become fanatical.

“You can’t blame the referees for all the bad stories. The Nigerian Referees Association (NRA) always says that it is a capital offence to beat a referee, yet people have been beating referees to stupor and nothing happens to them. Weekly, we hear reports of referees beaten up at league venues, and the game keeps going on – no proper sanctions metted to the team or those involved.”

He continued: “If a referee dies in the course of performing his duty or on his way to a league match, his wife and children are left to suffer. They are forgotten. The Nigerian system is such that if you die on active duty, the next day, a league match will be played. If at all you are remembered, they will give you a minute’s silence, and that is all you get. Our attitude towards referees should also change.

“But that is not to say that all Nigerian referees are saints. There are bad eggs in the system. There are some referees, who think of their selfish interests more than the good of the game. Some referees have to be blamed for bad officiating in some league venues because they don’t interpret the law well. I expect that such referees should be sanctioned by the O and D or flushed out by NRA. Again, there are so many club officials who lure the referees with cash. Referees are human, especially with Nigeria’s bad economy. Many referees are exposed to manipulations. But now that referees’ indemnities are being paid regularly, I expect them to turn a new leaf,” Otomiewo stated.

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