Hooliganism in Nigerian football: Whose benefit; who is to blame?
Hooliganism between supporters of rival football clubs is not unique to Nigeria. But its destructive effect seems to be more visible in the nation’s league.
In the glorious days of football, players, football administrators and the fans adored referees.
All over the world, referees are major actors in the game of soccer, which helps to bring people from different backgrounds together, and in the process, break down barriers created by ignorance.
However, despite the beauty of football, gangsterism has become associated with it, particularly in Nigeria. Weekly, referees, fans, coaches and journalists get the bitter taste of the ‘deadly concoction’ served at most league venues.
It is no secret that in the Nigeria Professional Football League (NPFL), many of the clubs deliberately lose on away grounds, gifting the home sides cheap penalties because they want to avoid the wrath of the home fans. To pick three points at away grounds and still be safe, a visiting team must totally outclass the home team in such a way that the fans would see no grounds for agitation.
At a point, the Nigerian leagu032e was rated the best in Africa. But the frequent cases of hooliganism across many match venues have cast a dark shadow over its development.
Some years ago, Kadiri Ikhana led Enyimba FC of Aba to a league match in Kaduna. He returned to Aba limping after his legs were badly damaged following an attack by hooligans in Kaduna. It took weeks of intensive medical care for Ikhana to walk again.
A referee, Paul Umuagu, and his assistants, Auwalu Barau and Abdulwaheed Dauda, got the beatings of their lives when Aba fans pounced on them in a match between Enyimba and Heartland FC of Owerri.
The game ended in a draw but supporters of Enyimba were not satisfied, turning their anger on the match officials. By the time the dust settled, all three men were left lying critically on the treatment table.
Barau, the unluckiest of the bunch, who was hit with stones, metal bars and sharp objects, never fully recovered from the injuries and trauma until he died in December 2011.
In 2014, referee Charles Ozigbo wished he had not presided over a league match between Ranchers Bees of Kaduna and Kwara United of Ilorin in Abuja.
After awarding a penalty to Kwara United, fans of the opposing team invaded the pitch in protest, turning on anyone seen as an enemy. Ozigbo was caught in the melee. Till this moment, the memories still haunt him.
The 2019 NPFL league was barely three weeks old, when violence erupted in the match between Remo Stars and Bendel Insurance at the Gateway International Stadium, Sagamu.
For years, Bendel Insurance played in the lower division before it got promoted to the elite league last season. Their visit to Sagamu on January 20 was almost tragic for the referee Bethel Nwanesi, who officiated the match. Supporters of the home side attacked him after the match ended 1-1 draw.
The supporters, who were not impressed with the way the game ended, beat Nwanesi mercilessly. Like Bendel Insurance FC, Remo Stars also recently gained promotion from the lower division to the NPFL.
Before that sad incident in Sagamu, the league had witnessed a violent clash on the opening day of the season in the game between Plateau United and FC Ifeanyi Ubah in Jos. Supporters of the home team attacked the match officials.
The League Management Company (LMC), placed a fine of N5 million on Plateau United, and banished the team to Ilorin for three home matches. Plateau United were the champions at the end of the 2017 NPFL season.
Apart from the N5 million fine and banishment to a new venue, the LMC also gave Plateau United within seven days to identify and ensure the apprehension and prosecution by relevant security agencies of one Attahiru Babayo, who was named by the match officials for leading the assault.
Failure to ensure that Attahiru Babayo and other culprits were apprehended and prosecuted would lead to Plateau United paying a fine of N25, 000 per day until the culprits were brought to book.
A member of the LMC, Harry Iwuala, told The Guardian that Plateau United actually apprehended Babayaro and handed him over to the police shortly after the incident in Jos.
“But one thing is for the club to hand a fan over to the police, the other is for the police to prosecute him,” he said.
Iwuala however debunked claims in some quarters that home clubs pay referees for accommodation and match allowances.
“Anybody saying so is not doing our league any good,” he said. “The clubs are not supposed to have any contact with the referees. Before any referee embarks on a journey to officiate a match, the LMC makes sure his or her accommodation money is paid directly to the hotel we pick in that city. The LMC also has the account numbers of all the referees, and we credit them accordingly.”
On security issues around the league venues, Iwuala hinted that security is a function of the state FA. “But it is the clubs that pay for it. We always make it clear that the minimum number of security personal required at a league venue is 50 policemen. There could be a mixture of civil defence corps members. We even encourage the clubs to have their match stewards as seen in the English Premiership and other leagues,” Iwuala stated.
For several years, Adegoke Adelabu played his football in the Nigerian domestic league with crowd pulling IICC Shooting Stars of Ibadan. He rose to become a regular player in the senior national team, the Green Eagles.
Now a sports scientist, Adelabu is of the opinion that club management should be blamed for the rising cases of hooliganism in the nation’s football. He also blames referees for the crisis, saying sometimes the fracas is caused by bad calls.
Speaking with The Guardian, Adelabu said: “The issue of hooliganism in our football has become part of our culture of winning at all cost.
“My question to our administrators, players, referees and supporters who are now baby sitters for Premiership Football and other leagues across the world is if the other leagues across the world are run and marred with violence the way we do here, will they be interested in them?”
Adelabu recalled his sad encounters with Nigerian referees when he was the manager of a football club. “Throughout my football career, I never thought a referee could determine who wins a match until I started EKO United Football Club. My players were so frustrated that they openly begged me to offer bribe to the match officials, so that they would 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 times, some satanically possessed football managers and match officials always distort this psychological process, which often leads to violent reactions from the fans.”
He continues: “There are some football managers and referees that should be banned. Every football manager should be asked to defend how he spent his budget at the end of the season. Many clubs have special budget for match-fixing and it is affecting the future of our players and the game beyond our imagination.
“When I was playing for IICC Shooting Stars, I scored in so many away matches and won many away matches without any form of violence because the fans witnessed superior tactical display of football intelligence. These days, a lot of the match officials have destroyed many players’ career through match-fixing; thereby provoking the players as well as the fans to become violent.”
Adelabu suggests that one of the ways to deal with the issue of hooliganism is by encouraging ‘responsible people’ like doctors, professors, lawyers, magistrates, and army officers to enrol as referees and match commissioners.
“In my secondary school days, there was this referee named Col. Uko. If there was any form of disturbance on the field of play, by the time he moved to the spot, his hand was already on his pistol; every one of us were forced to behave ourselves.
“Since most of our matches are televised, there should be a responsible set of people outside the NFF who should study the games, and sack any referee found guilty. Such referees should never be allowed to officiate again.”
Adelabu advises that Nigerian players be educated on how to control their temper when some decisions are made against them. “There is room for teams to protest, rather than beating the match officials and disrespecting the integrity of the game.
“Also, the sponsors must come out and tell us if violence is part of the sponsorship deal. They know that our league adds nothing to the image of their brands; otherwise, they would have called the league management board to order or withdrawn their sponsorship if hooliganism cannot be checked.”
To eradicate hooliganism due to bad officiating and match fixing, Adelabu wants clubs’ management to sack any manager who demands money for such exercises.
“I am so surprised that despite the high level of commitment to English Premiership and other leagues across the world by our football managers and administrators, they have never learnt anything from these leagues to help transform our own. For how long are we going to circle around this mountain of mediocrity?”
Like every other noble profession, the act of being a referee, the football arbiter, that has the final say in any match, comes with its benefits and bad sides in Nigeria. They are the biggest targets at league venues across the country.
There was an infamous case several years ago when a referee in the Nigerian league, Dogo Yabilsu awarded a penalty to Sharks FC of Port Harcourt against Kwara United, and fans invaded the pitch.
Yabilsu, a colonel in the army, took out his service pistol and chased the fans off the pitch for play to continue. But Sharks were still afraid of what would happen if they scored, so their player deliberately missed the spot kick.
Edema Fuludu was part of the Clemens Westerhof’s Super Eagles squad that conquered Africa at Tunisia ’94 Nations Cup. He featured for various clubs in the Nigerian league, including New Nigerian Bank of Benin City, NNPC of Warri, BCC Lions of Gboko and Julius Berger FC of Lagos.
Speaking with The Guardian, Fuludu stated that though hooliganism in football is as old as the game, it was not rampant in his playing days.
“Playing in the Nigerian league of the 1980s to mid 90s when we had more fans at the stadia did not witness what is obtainable in these contemporary days,” he said. “Then, we had problems of crowd control after games, but usually not fans disrupting a game or attacking match officials.”
Fuludu listed some of the problems responsible for hooliganism in today’s Nigerian league matches to include insufficient police or security presence at match venues. “Where and when we have reasonable numbers as agreed at pre-match meetings, they are made of more women than men and often policewomen with high-heeled shoes.
“Most match commissioners do not insist on appropriate deployment of combat ready police officers, especially on high-profile matches. Most fans are really not fans because they support a team based on what they earn from managers or chairmen of the clubs, and so in an attempt to please the chairmen, especially at home games, they resort to attacking or intimidating match officials because a win means monetary rewards for them. I have heard of a club paying match bonuses to members of their supporters club as they pay to the players.
“Another factor responsible for hooliganism is the fact that the responsibility of welfare of match officials is left to the home club instead of the state FA. This alone means match officials are deemed compromised before a game and therefore if they handle a game almost perfectly well, then they are supposed to return any supposed hospitality treatment, which most often is in the imagination of the fans.
“This is a country where players dare to ask referees if their clubs’ management did not settle him? Hooliganism will persist as long as erring clubs are treated with kid gloves,” Fuludu stated.
Compared to the situation in the English Premiership, LaLiga in Spain, the German Bundesliga, Italian Serie A and even the South African ABSA Premiership, the Nigerian league is overshadowed by poor turnout of spectators due to crowd violence. Local league venues across Nigeria are fast becoming terror grounds, putting the development of the game under severe threat.
In 2015, a cameraman with Lobi Stars of Makurdi, James Bumkeng, was attacked by supporters of Sunshine Stars in Akure. Before that fixture against Lobi, Sunshine Stars had lost its last three matches against Warri Wolves, Kano Pillars and Akwa United, and so needed a win desperately to boost their chances of qualifying for a continental competition the next season.
But the visiting Lobi, who were sitting on the 13th spot on the league table before that match, seven places behind their opponents in sixth, were not willing to take things easy. Leading by a lone goal scored in the sixth minute, the Akure fans went gaga, venting their anger on the centre referee, Ahmed Rufai, whom they accused of failing to award Sunshine two penalties they believed could have changed the tide in their favour.
Bumkeng was on the camera stand doing his job, when all of a sudden, about 10 men said to be supporters of Sunshine Stars started to rain punches on him. “I thought I was going to die, Bumkeng said when he recovered from the injuries he sustained during the attack.
“If I managed to free myself from them and run in a particular direction, more people from that side would chase and hit me. The attack lasted a little above five minutes but those few minutes were like eternity. I was beaten from the camera stand to the pitch, and was only revived at the hospital.”
On his return to Markudi, Bumkeng’s parents told him to quit the job because they were traumatised as a result of the attack. “My mother actually thought I had been killed when she received the news. It was the second time. I was earlier attacked in Gombe, where my camera was also smashed,” he said.
As part of punishments for the unruly behaviour of Sunshine Stars’ fans, the League Management Company (LMC) banned the Akure Stadium from hosting matches for a year while the team was ordered to play its remaining home matches of the season in Lagos.
In addition, Sunshine Stars were fined N5 million, while their supporters were banned from attending the rest of their games for the season.
To Edema Fuludu, the most serious and active way to curb hooliganism is immediate deduction of a minimum of three points and ordering the offending club to play three consecutive home games without fans. “A repeat within the season is relegation. I suggest also that fans or supporters be given periodic enlightenment and education. The win at all cost at home must be deemphasized.
“Officials/referees must become more professional and be remunerated well. Remuneration is a function of sponsorship by the league management or owners,” he said.
A former manager of Warri Wolves FC, who pleaded anonymity, feels some referees in the Nigerian league are ‘born wicked.’
He said: “So many of them deliberately officiate badly to force club chairmen and managers to bring out money. We had a situation where a referee sent his account number to a club chairman demanding a huge amount of money for his team to win a match. If you fail to play along, he (referee) will frustrate your players from beginning till the end of the match. He is deliberately doing so for the home fans to react negatively. If a fracas happens, and he is beaten or injured by the fans, the club chairman or manager is forced to settle him heavily to avoid the club being banished to a neutral venue. The referees are the major causes of hooliganism in our league,” he said.
Reacting to the allegations against referees, the President of the Nigeria Referees Association (NRA), Tade Azeez says ‘professionalism’ is the best way to solve the problem of hooliganism in Nigerian football league.
Azeez, who was recently re-elected president of the NRA, told The Guardian: “Clubs should be taken from government and handed over to professionals. It does not necessarily have to be a former player or administrator that can run a club. But the idea of a football club being headed by a governor’s brother or political associate is doing more harm to our league than good.
“While waiting for professionalism to take its course, organisers of our league must abide strictly to the rules. Whatever applies to club A must apply to club B. There should be no special treatment for some clubs.”
On allegation that some Nigerian referees deliberately throw up matches to extort money from club chairmen/managers, Tade Azeez said: “No Nigerian referee will deliberately throw up matches to collect money from the club officials. Our referees are at par with their counterparts around the world. Those making such allegation against our referees should consider the security situation Nigerian referees face on a weekly basis. It is not good for a referee to go to a match venue with his mind seriously troubled by security issues.
“The absence of television at our league venues is another major issue that must be addressed. In some other countries, you have over 22 cameras recording one league match. There is a special camera focused on the referee. But in our league, only one cameraman carries out the job of 22 people. Some people even record matches with their handsets. That is not good for our league,” Azeez stated.
Beyond the threat posed to the lives of referees, visiting club sides, their fans and journalists, at many local league venues, hooliganism has also had a rippling effect on the overall outlook of the game and its revenue-generating potential.
In recent years, the NPFL has lost lucrative sponsorship deals worth millions of naira following incessant crowd violence and disruption of matches, forcing companies like Globacom, a telecommunications firm, to sever ties with the division.
Glo, which sponsored the Nigerian league for years, now sponsors the Ghanaian Premier League, as well as the country’s national teams.
South Africa’s Premier Soccer League boasts the most lucrative sponsorship of any professional league in Africa. Established in 1996, the South Africa league is one of the youngest in the continent. In 2007, the PSL entered into a $61m deal with ABSA, a South African financial institution.
In the same year, it signed a deal with SuperSport worth $195 million for broadcast rights. Today, the South African league is ranked among the top 15 in the world in terms of revenues accruing from broadcast deals.
Sadly, the Nigerian Premier League which in 2012 was rated by the International Federation of Football History and Statistics as the best in Africa and 24th in the world, one spot above the league in Scotland, cannot be compared to the GPL and PSL in terms of revenues and turnout at match venues today.
In August 2013, the LMC announced it had secured a television rights deal worth $34 million with satellite broadcaster Supersport. It was meant to commence in 2015 and end this year, 2019. But midway into the deal, Supersport stopped the coverage of league matches across the country, accusing the LMC of not maintaining its part of the deal.
So many of them deliberately officiate badly to force club chairmen/managers to bring out money. We had a situation whereby a referee send his account number to a club chairman demanding huge amount of money for his team to win a match.
If you fail to play along, he (referee) will frustrate your players from beginning till the end of the match. He is deliberately doing so for the home fans to react negatively. If a fracas happens, and he is beaten or injured by the fans, the club chairman or manager is forced to settle him heavily to avoid the club being banished to a neutral venue. The referees are the major course of hooliganism in our league.