The long, hazardous road to Nigerian Premier League games
Football leagues all over the world thrive on a lot of travelling by teams, supporters and officials detailed to supervise the games. The bigger the number of teams and the larger the distance between the venues, the more kilometres the participants have to cover. In more advanced countries, moving from one venue to the other is not so much of a problem because there exists easy means of transportation across such countries.
Thus, teams in some parts of Europe, Asia and the Americas do not have to leave for match venues days earlier than the kick off date because they have easy means of getting to their centres. Such means of transportation as effective rail system, affordable aviation service and even smooth water transportation make it easy for teams to get to their destinations without much hassles. However, such is not the case for teams in most African countries, especially in Sub-Sahara Africa, which do not have easy means of movement.
In Nigeria, movement from one venue to the other has become the club managers’ nightmare due to the bad nature of the roads and the danger posed by armed robbers and insurgents. Whereas in the past, the managers had only the bad state of the roads to worry about, armed robbers’ attacks and other criminal activities on the highways have added to the clubs’ worries.
Over the years, teams in the Nigeria Professional Football League (NPFL) have suffered various forms of attacks from armed robbers and gunmen, who often take advantage of the poor security situation on the highways to unleash terror on players. Travelling from the Eastern part of the country to the West can take as much as eight hours, while a journey from the North to the East lasts sometimes more than 24 hours. While the longest a team can fly from one end of the country to the other is two hours, most teams cannot afford the luxury of air travel because they lack the finances to accomplish that.
So, the teams are left at the mercy of the elements on the highways each time they are billed to play outside their region.Recently, a Nigerian National League (NNL) team, Ikorodu United, was involved in an accident en route its game venue in Makurdi. The team’s bus collided with a trailer along the AMA Brewery Road, Ninth Mile town in Enugu. A team official and seven players were treated in hospital for minor injuries, with 11 players and six officials of the Lagos-based side escaped unhurt after jumping out of the bus’s windows.
The trailer was said to be speeding in the direction of the Ikorodu bus, but the driver quickly swerved before the trailer crashed into another passenger bus, leaving it completely flattened.“It was a scary moment but we all managed to get out of the bus through the windows,” team media officer Babatunde Ayoola told BBC Sport. “We are lucky to be alive because the crash impact killed all the passengers inside an 18-seater bus on the spot. The team is leaving Enugu and returning to Lagos. It’s an awful experience but we thank God for our lives.”
Nigeria’s roads are among the most dangerous in the world – killing thousands of people every year due to poor roads, badly maintained vehicles and reckless driving. As the country’s economic problems continue to worsen, clubs have been forced to cut their travel expenses, making hazardous road journeys unavoidable for most clubs.
In December 2008, 18 female players were killed in Plateau State when their team bus was involved in an accident. Barely a month later, 15 players from FC Jimeta of Adamawa were also killed in a road accident near Akwanga on their way to Abuja for a professional league match.
Staying at a hotel overnight in order to travel the following morning is also an expense a few clubs can now afford. In 2015, five Kano Pillars players were shot by gunmen in an attack on the club’s entourage, as they travelled to Owerri for the start of the Nigerian Premier League season. In 2016, a bus carrying Enyimba players and officials was attacked by robbers in the central part of the country. They were also stripped of all valuables but luckily no player or personnel was injured.
A tweet from the club said no-one was injured in the incident: “We can confirm that our team bus was attacked by armed robbers this afternoon in Okene, Kogi State, on our way to Kaduna for the #SuperFour.”Two months ago, an FC Ifeanyi Ubah entourage was attacked by men disguised in NYSC uniform near Lokoja, injuring the players and driver. They were travelling for a game against Jigawa Golden Stars in Kano.
After the latest attack, FC Ifeanyi Ubah said in a statement: “The driver was shot while some members of the coaching crew and players were critically injured.“We wish to use this medium to appeal to the Federal Government, as well as football regulatory bodies, Nigerian Football Federation (NFF) and the League Management Company (LMC) to further intensify security efforts to ensure the safety of teams, who often have no choice than to travel long distances by road, especially clubs owned by private investors, who are made to invest their hard earned money in the growth and development of Nigerian football.”
These attacks have once again brought to the fore what NPFL players are subjected to in their travels to honour away matches by road. Things were not this dangerous in the local game years ago. In the 1970s and 80s up to late 1990s, teams travelled from city to city to play matches without being attacked by armed men. Although there were occasional accidents involving the teams, the roads were quite better maintained than they are now.
Rich teams like Leventis United, Abiola Babes, Julius Berger, Iwuanyanwu National and BCC lions, among others, often flew to distant match venues. Apart from giving the players the opportunity to rest before matches, it also ensured they arrived the venues safely. However, the current economic situation in the country has made it difficult for most of the teams to travel by air. Only a few like Akwa United and Heartland, which signed an agreement with DANA Air, airlift their players to match venues.
According to former U-20 national team coach, John Obuh, who coached Akwa Unite until early this month, it has come to a stage where the stakeholders should sit to examine how to make teams’ movement safer.He said, “Nigerian players suffer a lot of psychological damage when they travel by road for league games, especially when the journey is long. As a coach in the domestic league, each time I travel with my team, I feel pity for myself and the players. You should understand that the way things are in the country is worse now than before… bad roads, reckless drivers and the high level of insecurity in the country.
“These players have to face the long journey and at the same time honour league games the next day, which affect their performance. These domestic players are gripped by anxiety each time they are traveling for a game. “Most of these players always look for the opportunity to leave the country and play abroad where things are well organized.”Obuh said the solution lies with the clubs owners, who are saddled with the responsibility of looking after their players’ welfare.
“The clubs can sign up with airlines for sponsorship or deals that would make it possible for their teams to travel by air,” he volunteered. “These airlines will have the opportunity to advertise their brands through the clubs. I also think the League Management Company (LMC) should also come hard on clubs in their guidelines by making it compulsory that teams must be airlifted to far distant venues.“In the area of insurance for players, I don’t think the clubs are serious on paying the premiums. Nigerian domestic players face tough challenges traveling by road, which is really not good for the country’s image abroad. The frequent robbery attacks is enough to show that something drastic has to be done to protect players in the country.”
Former Enyimba of Aba’s Assistant Coach, Ike Shorunmu, believes the current security challenges in the country has made it pertinent for a well-tailored strategy to ensure the safety of players.“You see, if we still keep talking from now till tomorrow, I don’t think there will be a solution to players’ travelling by road,” he said. “The way things are structured in the country, players will continue to get poor treatment when travelling for away games.
“The alternatives are the railway system and air, but there is no good rail network in the country. Strict measures have to be put in place to ensure players get the best treatment when traveling. In South Africa, players are well taken care of. The South African league is even better structured and organised than the North African leagues. Their players are well taken care of.
“Nigeria needs good structures that would take teams from one part of the country to the other. In the absence of that, the clubs should arrange for adequate security whenever they are travelling for away games.” The former Super Eagles’ number one goalkeeper said a good rail network would solve the problems teams face on their journeys, noting, “When we took some professional league players to Spain, we travelled from Valencia to Madrid by rail without issues. The Nigerian transport system is another issue that is affecting the movement of players.”
Former Super Eagles defender and Insurance of Benin player, Ifeanyi Udeze, said the effect of long journeys on the players account for their poor performance on match day.
According to him, “Travelling by road to honour league games is not an easy task. I pity the players. They face a lot of danger, especially now that the country is facing challenges of security. These players are humans; they need to be treated with respect. Travelling by road to honour a league game requires confidence and commitment.“In the 1980s and 1990s when I was playing for Bendel Insurance, when my team travelled by road, apart from the fear of armed robbers, my legs are always weak after long journeys. I found it difficult to sleep well because of the discomfort in the bus. So, it affected me on match day.
“Sometimes some players pretend they are sick or injured to avoid the traumatic situations they will face on the road. They will not travel with the team. All these things still happen today in the league. When club managements say they don’t have funds to improve players’ welfare, I am surprised. Do you know that some club chairmen use clubs’ names to get money from companies, but they will not use it to fund their teams? They leave the club’s financing for the state government. That is why it is better for the private sector to run football clubs in the country.
“Adequate contracts have to be signed to ensure players get well deserved treatment when travelling for league games.” Veteran coach, Joe Erico, said Nigerian players’ persistent sufferings on the roads could be attributed to lack of care shown by the clubs’ management.
“Football is big business,” he said. “This issue of players facing attack on the roads is an issue that has always been talked about. I get angry when questions like this come up due to the fact that players’ welfare should be made important. All clubs’ management think about is for players to win games. They don’t care about their welfare and safety.
“In my days as Julius Berger coach, we travelled by air to some away games. Other clubs at that time like Union Bank and Iwuayanwu Nationale, among others, also travelled by air. Although flight was cheap at that time, but to do it now, clubs need to partner with airline operators to get it done.“This is how it is run abroad. The league also should be made attractive to attract investors. The only way I think things can be achieved is for the private sector to take over the ownership of clubs. When governments run clubs you expect a lot of administrative bottlenecks. They should provide the conducive environment for the private sector to invest in club management.”