I remember the first time I went to a stadium in Nigeria to watch a top flight football match; it was in 1995. It was a professional league match as it was called then – Plateau United FC of Jos Vs Julius Berger FC of Lagos. I couldn’t gain entrance into the Jos Township stadium because I didn’t have any money with me to watch any match then. I waited patiently for the dying minutes of the match; that was when people without money are usually allowed to have a feel of what the people with money are enjoying. I was still a kid at that time.
The match ended in a stalemate; and I saw a joyous Joseph Dosu being lifted above every head in the stadium by supporters of Julius Berger. That was my first time of seeing any player of any Nigerian national team with my bare eyes. He was already a part of the all conquering Dream Team 1 which won gold at the football event in Atlanta ’96. I was very excited. I liked the ambiance around the stadium; everywhere was charged, horns were blaring, trumpets and drums were not left out of the ‘fiesta’. Apart from the stories my dad told me about football matches, I never had anything as close as this. I later understood that the reason for the extra noise was because it was almost a taboo for away teams to pick a draw in the league let alone win. In some cases, additional bonuses would be given to the away team for being magnanimous in a ‘foreign’ land. So, for the team from Lagos, the Adewale Bridge Boys as they were fondly called, the draw was more honorable than winning a home match.
After experiencing what happened that day, I vowed that I was going to be part of the coming season since the season in question was on a home stretch.
Fast forward to ten years later:
Empty seats welcomed you to the stadia which resulted to match not being interesting anymore. The fans are everything in football. The fans and the entire Nigerian football people lost hope in the game in the land. Plying their trade abroad became the in thing for the players. The league was characterized by allegations and counter allegations; board room points were awarded with reckless abandon. A team didn’t need to do very well in the field of play to win the league; as long as a team can play boardroom politics, the league was theirs. I remember vividly when the defunct Udoji FC garnered twelve board room points to win the league. Fans were fed up with the league and decided to look for succor elsewhere.
We only heard of the English Premier League and the other top European leagues from afar; satellite TV was very scarce then. We only depended on the almighty NTA and some state owned TV stations for updates and so on. As the years rolled by, the love for the foreign game skyrocketed in a flash all because we lost confidence in the domestic league.
If we are bent on bringing back the glory days and making our league a model in Africa and in the world, some of the points highlighted below should be considered, for these are my own point of view.
I could almost bet with my life that no away team was allowed to win a match outside their soil. Referees are threatened by home fans to either give decisions that would favor the home team or would be attacked. Referees on countless occasions have been attacked in my presence in stadia just because they failed to do the ‘right’ thing. If the league must be amongst the most powerful in the world, officiating must be done in all fairness and without fear. I must confess that there has been an improvement in the last two seasons but more has to be done; little wonder none of our referees is good enough to officiate in AFCON or CHAN.
Maximum security /crowd control at match venues
This issue cannot be over emphasized. Even in the developed leagues where the fans are more civilized than what is obtainable in Nigeria, we still see so many uniformed law enforcement agents looking ever ready for trouble. I have been in stadia where referees, coaches and fans alike are beaten to a pulp. Sometimes it feels as if the security agents don’t live up to expectation or they connive with the home teams to perpetrate this act. I am yet to hear that any law enforcement agent has been prosecuted for ‘sleeping’ on duty. Rather than be alive to the responsibility of cautioning the fans or watching them as a match is on, I still see police men in their numbers cluster in a particular position and discuss about the ongoing match.
Nobody wants to go to anywhere if their safety is not guaranteed. And any league that is continuously projected to the world in that light won’t go far.
In 1996, I almost died of a stampede in a match between Plateau United and Pepsi X1. The match was organized in Jos because Plateau United finished top of the table at the first half of the league and that made the team play a Pepsi (the then sponsors of the league) selected side from all over the league. The stadium was jam packed; and the resultant effect was that, after the match, we scrambled for the exit that couldn’t contain all of us at a time.
Knowledge of the game
I was at the Abubakar Tafawa Balewa stadium, Bauchi in 2013 and the referee spotted an infringement; the law says, if the referee lifts his hand above his head while responding to an infringement, the resultant free kick would be termed an indirect free kick which means that the ball can’t be played directly into the goal otherwise the goal wouldn’t count. In this match, an indirect free kick was awarded to the visiting team in which it was directly played into the net; but the referee disallowed the goal for it was supposed to be an indirect kick. Someone must touch it again for it to stand. Pandemonium reigned supremely that afternoon in the stadium, fans shouted, “Referee ojoro”. It took the effort of the literate ones among us to pacify the crowd by showing them a soft copy version of the law in the phone. I wonder what would have happened if it was the home team – Wikki Tourist FC whose goal was disallowed in such a manner. Probably I wouldn’t have been alive to write this story.
If our league must be reckoned with in Africa and beyond, the fans, players, coaches, journalists and referees must be conversant with new developments in the game.
More live matches on TV
Thanks to DSTV for saving ‘the giant of Africa’ from this deep shit. The reason why the English premiership is the most powerful league in the world is just because all the 360 matches are shown live on satellite TV. You cannot appreciate what you don’t see – if more venues can be TV friendly and their matches are shown live, this league would grow and more reputation will come. The 2016 season has by far been the best since the turn of the 21st century in terms of viewership; more centers are now beamed live on TV which has helped in creating more awareness in the league. It shouldn’t be limited to only Enugu, Ibadan, Kano, Awka, PortHacourt, Lagos and a few other cities. Makurdi, Jos, Maiduguri, Bauchi and other places should be considered too.
The organizers of the league should make the league more attractive by rewarding outstanding players, coaches, journalists and fans (if need be). This can be achieved by partnering with other organizations who are also interested with the growth of the league. We all know how it is been done in England and in other European leagues.
The social media angle
We cannot compare the EPL in the 90s with what it is today; the league has evolved in many facets especially with the embrace of the social media and the internet. As far back in 2000 and 2001, I would get an email from Arsenal FC every Monday morning, giving me a rundown of all that happened during the weekend. We are now in 2016 and none of our clubs can boast of this prowess. Most of these clubs in Europe have a running website that projects their club to the outside world. The question is; how many of the clubs in the NPFL have functional websites?
As a supporter of FC Barcelona of Spain, I get updated about live matches via its twitter handle and Instagram page which makes me feel as if I am either at the stadium or watching it live. Apart from the League Management Company (LMC) and Plateau United FC, no other club that I know of updates its fans like them. Most of our NPFL clubs are not even on any social media platform; even when you see them there, they are not active at all. They leave their fans to the mercy of other sources for information that concerns them. Nobody can project or promote you like you.
The LMC and Plateau United should be consulted for training on how to run a twitter handle.
To be a force to be reckoned with, we need to move with most of the sporting trends.
In Nigeria, only celebrities in the entertainment industry are usually considered for multi million naira endorsements. I am yet to see any NPFL player that is on any bill board or the pages of magazines or newspaper. These players are superstars in their rights. We have had goal scoring records being broken in the league, and these record breakers have never been considered for any endorsements. The question to be asked here is; do we even know our players? More need to be done to bring them to lime light.
Remuneration of players
Anything that’s not economically rewarding does attract value. For the league to attract investors and even foreigners, the welfare of the players and coaches must be the number one priority of all stake holders. Sign on fees, salaries and bonuses must be paid and at when due. The stories surrounding nonpayment of salaries should be the thing of the past. What happened to FC Taraba and a few other clubs last season should never repeat itself again.
There is a host of foreign legion in the South African, Tunisian, Algerian and other leagues in Africa; why can’t we make ours more attractive than theirs?
What are the reasons behind players like; Mido, Benny McCarthy, Hussein and others going back home to play in their home leagues after retiring from Europe? Is it that they are well received back home or the remuneration package is anything to go by?
I can’t answer these questions.
No shifting of goal posts
We have seen where different rules are applied in the same situation in our league. For example, some supporters of the expelled Giwa FC of Jos threw stones or missiles into the pitch when they hosted Rangers FC at the Rwang Pam Stadium in Jos; Giwa FC was out rightly banished to Ilorin and was made to pay a huge fine for not controlling its fans, whereas same thing happened in the match between Sunshine Stars and 3SC in the western derby, nobody was banished and they were made to pay lesser fines. One wouldn’t forget the incident in Kano, when Enyimba FC came visiting; they were attacked after the match, and Kano Pillars weren’t banished.
For the league to sustain the new found height, what is good for the goose should also taste good in the mouth of the gander. The LMC must always be able to rise to any given occasion no matter whose ox is gored.
A united house
No football association can perform optimally if it is divided. The crisis rocking the NFF as I write is more injurious than a cancerous wound. Any house that is divided against itself cannot stand. If this league has any potential of becoming a household name in the land and outside its shores, all stake holders must put aside all personal interests and forge on. If this rift continues, a time would come when the clubs wouldn’t know whom to be answerable to. One of the shortcomings about this incident is that, it would scare all potential investors away since nobody wants to put their hard earned money into a burning flame.
Photo Credit: YESWEFOOT