Towards making Nigeria’s Football League competitive, profitable

Football, like all other sporting activities in modern times, is big business. It leverages the action of players on the pitch to entice buyers (fans and corporate society) of its products.
Kano Pillars’ fans attacking officials after their match against Rangers International of Enugu at the Agege Stadium, Lagos
A battered referee

Football, like all other sporting activities in modern times, is big business. It leverages the action of players on the pitch to entice buyers (fans and corporate society) of its products.
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If well managed, a professional football league can become a billion-dollar business, which offers employment opportunities to millions of people directly and indirectly.

Such is the premium advanced societies pay to the administration of the game that they do everything possible to protect it from scavengers and undisciplined individuals, whose activities on and off the field, bring the game to disrepute.

Kano Pillars’ fans attacking officials after their match against Rangers International of Enugu at the Agege Stadium, Lagos

In Nigeria, the League Management Company (LMC) runs the Nigerian Professional League (NPFL), which is the elite cadre of the domestic competition.
With over 1000 sports games and events
The LMC, headed by Alhaji Shehu Dikko, has a set of rules governing its operations. These laws dictate the roles of clubs, referees and other stakeholders in the organisation of matches.

The LMC, alongside its parent body, Nigeria Football Federation (NFF), also ensures the laws governing the competition are strictly adhered to by the participants and supervise penalties for defaulters of the set rules.

Kano Pillars’ fans attacking officials after their match against Rangers International of Enugu at the Agege Stadium, Lagos

This is done to ensure that at the end of the season’s 38 matches, true champions emerge to represent Nigeria in continental competitions.

It also helps to ensure the sanctity and credibility of the league, which employs millions of Nigerians directly and indirectly.
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However, things have not been the way they should be, as many of those expected to enforce the rules are often active participants in events that bring the game to disrepute.

For many followers of the Nigerian Football Premier League (NPFL), the 2021/22 Season, which ends this weekend, will go down as one of the most controversial in terms of violence, rascality and assault on players, match officials and journalists since professional football started in the country.

Every week, the media is awash with reports of violence at league venues such that fans, who, hitherto, saw league matches as an opportunity to relax and enjoy the beautiful game, now have a second thought. From centres of entertainment, NPFL league venues have become theatres of war.

In most cases, this violence is a result of controversial officiating by referees, who, sometimes, act as if club administrators desperate to win at all cost, have compromised them. Sometimes, their officiating is so bizarre that you ask questions about the mission of those entrusted with guiding the competition.
Recently in Katsina, an NPFL matchday 35 encounters between Katsina United and visiting Remo Stars at the Muhammadu Dikko Stadium, had over 30 minutes of added time. Scores after 90 minutes were 2-2 before the bizarre happened. The host team scored a 90+34 minute goal to get the win before the referee ended the match.

Heading into the match, Katsina United were looking for a way to escape from the relegation zone.

The management of the game by the match officials caused an uproar, which put to question the sincerity of the custodians of the league.

The LMC, in its usual way of dousing tension generated at league venues, clarified that the added time in the Katsina United versus Remo Stars match was in order, saying that the match was disrupted by players of Katsina United, who protested Remo Stars’ second equalising goal late in the game.
“In the process of the players contesting the referee’s decision, there was an encroachment on the field of play and it took some time before the encroachment was cleared and normalcy was restored.

“The goal stood and the match duly restarted to conclude the remaining added minutes. It is not possible for a referee to allow 30 minutes of added time in a 45 minutes half. We appeal to fans and the media to always verify the information they share, especially such that are detrimental to the health of the brand,” LMC said in a statement.

Before the Katsina debacle, fans of Shooting Stars had attacked a Nigerian sports journalist, Tobi Adepoju, at the Lekan Salami Stadium, Ibadan. This has become a frequent occurrence in the NPFL League, where journalists carry out their duties under harassment by home fans and intimidation by club officials. In most cases, some of the journalists lose their valuables or got injured in the violence.

The Ibadan-based club had lost to Kano Pillars and was under pressure to produce a positive result at home against Remo in a regional derby. It ended 1-1, leaving their fans angry.
Hooliganism is not restricted to the NPFL. It cuts across the cadres of the league.

Recently, players of Warri-based J’Atete Football Club allegedly assaulted officials during their Nigerian National League (NNL) Group B1 match against Ekiti United at the Otu-Jeremi Stadium in Delta State. NNL is the second-tier league of Nigerian professional football.

The players beat the female referee, Ms Patience Nweke, into a coma. Nweke was revived four hours later in the hospital.

Following the attack, the NNL suspended six J’Atete players for one year, while the club was banished to the P.A. Oruta Ngele Stadium, Abakaliki, Ebonyi State. They are to play their last two home matches of the season under closed doors. The Otu-Jeremi Stadium was banned indefinitely and will not host NNL matches till further notice.
J’Atete FC was fined an N1million for assault on the centre referee and another N1million for breach of security rules.

League of shame, violence
BEFORE then, Nigerian football had witnessed an ugly incident during a match between Remo Stars and Bendel Insurance, while the Ikenne-based club was battling for promotion from NNL to the NPFL. That was in June 2021.

Video footage showing players and officials visiting Bendel Insurance scampering for their lives and jumping a fence to escape being maimed, with irate fans wielding clubs and sticking close on their heels went virile. It was one of the highest points of insecurity recorded at match venues across the country last season.

Earlier this year, fans and officials of Calabar Rovers, the home team, disrupted a match between the club and Nnewi United at the UJ Esuene Stadium, Calabar. They harassed the match officials and some Rovers’ players.
In Kano, fans of Shekarau Babes FC encroached on the field, beating up match officials after their NNL game against DMD FC of Maiduguri ended 1-1.

For the disturbance, Shekarau Babes FC was fined N1.5m and banished to the Lafia City Stadium, Nasarawa State, while team captain, Ali Ibrahim, Ojebisi Adewale, Mubarak Sani and Zaharadeen Abubakar (reserve goalkeeper) were banned for one year.

The Nigerian Women Football League (NWFL) is not left out of the show of shame in the nation’s football.

In February, a game between Bayelsa Queens and Edo Queens witnessed violence at the Samson Siasia Stadium in Yenagoa.
Bayelsa Queens were fined N2.5m and banished to the Dan Anyiam Stadium, Owerri by the NWFL over fans disruption and breach of COVID-19 protocols.

The NWFL established than that there was an encroachment, disturbances, and non-adherence to stipulated COVID-19 protocol by the home team fans.

Culture of winning at all cost
FORMER Green Eagles winger, Adegoke Adelabu played club football with Shooting Stars in the early 1980s.

Speaking with The Guardian, Adelabu stated that hooliganism in sport and importantly, Nigerian football, has become part of Nigeria’s culture of winning at all costs, just like it happens in politics.
“We seem to have lost control of human capacity management at all levels,” he said. “Despite various outrageous reports against the administration of sport and especially football in our country, we have not seen any responsible move by the government to take practical steps to curb the menace. Instead, our football is left to keep crawling like a physically challenged institution.

“This ignorance or ‘I don’t care attitude’ by the government is rendering a lot of our youths helpless. Things have gone out of control with the involvement of security agents who are ready to take sides with the highest bidder. The highest form of insecurity is the inability of the government to protect players and provide the environment for them to freely use their talents as professionals and punish every criminal tendency during matches. No one can challenge anyone because everyone is involved in one form of corruption or another.”

Adelabu, a sports scientist added: “My question to our administrators, players, referees and supporters, who are now babysitters for English Premier League and other leagues across the world, is: “If the other leagues across the world are run and marred with violence the way we do in Nigeria, will they be interested in them?

“Throughout my football career, I never thought a referee could determine who wins a match until I started Eko United FC. My players were so frustrated that they openly begged me to offer bribes to match officials so that they will stop robbing them of their victory.
“For the avoidance of doubt, Nigerian fans are too sophisticated to be fooled by any match official, who is ready to rob Peter to pay Paul. They want to enjoy the game and be guided by the performances of the teams to satisfy their emotions. But most of the time, some satanically possessed football managers and match officials always distort this psychological process, which often leads to violent reactions from the fans.”

Adelabu urged custodians of the game to ban football managers and referees in the NPFL, whom he described as toxic to the game.

He said: “Every football manager should be asked to defend how he spent his budget at the end of the season. Many clubs have a special budget for match-fixing. It is affecting the future of our players and the game beyond our imagination.

“When I was playing for IICC, I scored in so many away matches and won many away matches without any form of violence, because the fans witnessed a superior tactical display of football intelligence. These days, many match officials have destroyed some players’ careers through match-fixing; thereby provoking the players, as well as the fans, to violence.
“One of the best ways to deal with the issue of hooliganism is by encouraging responsible people like doctors, professors, lawyers, magistrates and army officers to be enrolled as referees and match commissioners.”

Being firm and ensuring justice
APART from on-pitch violence, many followers of the game accuse managers of the league of complicity in the disruptions that bring the game to disrepute.

They accuse LMC and its sister body, NNL, of partiality in the treatment of clubs.

A club official, who pleaded anonymity, said Kano Pillars and Enyimba, among some of the elite clubs, are treated differently from what other clubs experience.
“Kano Pillars have escaped with so much that other clubs’ supporters believe no matter what they do, nothing will happen to them.

“We saw their captain a few years ago leading his mates to beat a match official during an AITEO Cup game in Lagos. He was suspended and pardoned just before the beginning of the next season.

“What is the essence of banishing Kano Pillars to Kaduna? Is that a punishment?

“It is just like the case of banishing Enyimba to Calabar when they should have been taken to far distant centres, as punishment. There is so much inconsistency in the way disciplinary measures are applied.”
He pointed at a matchday 23 encounter between Kano Pillars and Katsina United, which was marred by violence and vandalism at the Sani Abacha Stadium Kano.

The incident was on a day Kano Pillars were returning to their home turf for the first time after a two-year ban due to fan violence and disruption of games. The referee stopped the match in the 82nd minute.

A few days ago, former chairman of Kano Pillars, Suraju Yahaya, allegedly beat up a linesman for not disallowing an equalising goal scored by visiting Dakada FC at the added time. He mounted pressure on the referee, who later cancelled the goal.

Not ready to bear the ‘frequent embarrassment’ from Yahaya as club chairman of Kano Pillars, the State Governor, Abdullahi Ganduje, brought in the chairman of Kano Sports Commission, former NFA Chairman, Ibrahim Galadima, as a replacement for Yahaya.
The task for LMC
INCORPORATED nine years ago, the LMC has as its mandate to “develop and exploit the commercial assets of the NPFL.”

Though some giant strides have been made in building the product, many Nigerians are not satisfied with the level of development in the country’s football.

Some Nigerians are of the opinion that hooliganism and violent conduct in the league are treated with kid gloves by the authorities.

The proprietor of Cable Football Academy in Delta State, Coach Edwin Onovwotafe, is of the view that Nigerian football league bodies have fed hooliganism with politically influenced decisions and inconsistent handling of cases.
“Not until LMC does away with ‘the usual thing,’ we will remain where we are,” Onovwotafe told The Guardian.

According to him, the ‘usual thing,’ which involves monetary sanctions for various breaches has fueled the negative trend.

“It is now a usual thing to beat referees, attack opponents and journalists and wait to pay a fine. It is not taking our league anywhere,” he stated.

The Guardian gathered that club managers, referees and others in the NPFL system, at the beginning of the season, were barred from commenting on the league, no matter what or how they feel about it.
A club official, who pleaded anonymity, said: “If you criticise the league or say anything they consider damaging to the system, you risk putting your club in danger.

“So, when club managers say no comment, they are simply protecting their clubs because any ‘bad talk’ can send referees against your team.”

He added: “But things must change if we are going get the league of our dream.

“Week in, week out, we are treated to heartbreaking and heart-wrenching happenings in our leagues.
“While countries, all over the world, are reaping wealth in their leagues, we are reaping anger, sorrow, devastation and total anguish in ours.”

He said that the only way to solve the problems is to ensure that people, who line their pockets with riches at the expense of the leagues, are thrown out of the system.

“Nigerian clubs celebrate their players signing for clubs in Algeria, India, and Morocco, among others. This suggests that every other league is better than Nigeria’s.

“Every season, clubs are aided and abated to survive relegation, to win the league or gain promotion. To what advantage, one will ask?
“Our stadia have all become a theatre of war, some brutal wars. Yet these go on with alarming frequencies and keep getting worse with each coming season, with no end in sight.

“Let all that are in charge now go and allow fresh people with fresh ideas and unblemished integrity to take charge of our whole football system and see if new lease of life can be breathed into our football. Let our football be pulled up to shine again.”

According to the stakeholder, “Anyone that has spent two terms in any given office, be him/her elected or appointed, should just quietly pack his/her bag and leave the scene. The system can no longer tolerate any “overstay.”

“If they want to remain relevant, then they should go own or buy a club. Then, they will understand the pains of dipping their hands into their pockets to run a club.
“There should be a massive uprising to save our football from those that have sworn to destroy it.”

He said some people see the league as the avenue to become rich, adding, “We see people come in penniless into the system and walk around in stupendous wealth, opulence and flamboyance, at the expense of the growth and development of the system.”

He lamented that the leagues, from amateur to NPFL, do not publish their statements of account in the last eight years.

“The NFF cannot compel clubs to publish their audited accounts yearly for public scrutiny. How can a potential investor know it is a viable sector to invest in? Every year, we keep posting revenues clubs in other leagues have made from the game. When will our clubs become profitable ventures?
“The reports we get of our leagues are that of broken heads, noses and necks, as well as vandalized cars and referees, beat to a pulp.

“Club owners and managers are reduced to bystanders in a system they should own. They are forced to swallow every rubbish thrown at them because they have nowhere to seek redress.”

He also accused club owners and managers of lacking the courage to collectively ground the leagues until things are done the right way.

He urged Sports Minister, Sunday Dare, and members of the Sports Committee of the National Assembly to compel the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) to implement the report of the NFF Football Reform Committee.
According to the stakeholder, the Football Reform Committee made some recommendations, which if implemented, will address the ills of Nigerian football.

However, the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the League Management Company, Davidson Owumi, has said that some of the things tagged ‘violence or assault’ are created just to overshadow the success recorded in the league.

Speaking with The Guardian, Owumi said: “In Nigeria, we dwell so much on negative issues. We have played over 350 matches in the NPFL league this season and if there are minor clashes in five of six centres, that should not be enough to overshadow all the successes we have recorded.
“We must agree that there is general frustration in our society due to insecurity, killings, kidnapping, fuel scarcity, unemployment, and high cost of living, among others. And there are some people who bring frustration from their homes into league venues. For such people, any little thing by the referee or his assistants (linesmen) will upset them and lead to trouble. I am not trying to say that everything about the NPFL league is perfect, but we deserve some kudos based on certain things surrounding our environment. But we will put certain things in place to checkmate or minimise it.”

Owumi continues: “One of the things is: We must always have fair officiating. To achieve that, the Referee Committee must pick only those who are not partial to officiating matches. The Match Commissioner Committee must pick only those who have integrity. And thirdly, the Club Licensing requisite has to come to play. The mere fact that a club gained promotion from the Nigeria National League (NNL) is not enough to operate in the NPFL. We have to look at the club’s financial status among other things.”

On the issue of security at match venues, Owumi said: “Most policemen are just at the stadium to watch football because of the passion associated with football. That should not be. The policemen are brought in by the home clubs, and in most cases, they are partisan. All that will change next season.”

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