By Ade Ojeikere
I’M calling my friend (Azeez Tade) out since the body he heads has been the safety valve of what we have been forced to watch – the domestic league riddled with several inadequacies. Tade has been quite cooperative as a major stakeholder of the game in Nigeria. He is the President of the Nigeria Referees Association (NRA) whose members are being owed their entitlements running into years, with the organisers pulling the wool over our faces by celebrating a certain television coverage, forgetting that the players, officials, and referees must be present at the match venues for such games to be televised.
How best can anyone capture the tomfoolery called television coverage than with the undiplomatic manner in which supposed host broadcaster NTA cut off the live transmission of the league game at half-time to allow for the Covid-19 press conference? It underscores the reason corporate firms won’t touch any venture owned by the government. Imagine if firms had paid for several of the marketing openings in the stadium for the Monday game, only for NTA to obey orders from the top which ended the live coverage unceremoniously. Viewers at home waited in vain for the commencement of the second half which didn’t come on the stream. Isn’t this an international disgrace? How do we expect any business-minded local or international firm to identify the goods or services with such a shameful setting?
An incident happened in one of the fixtures in the six-week-old league where the match referees who handled the home game which Ifeanyi Ubah FC lost were locked out of their hotel. From this scenario, can any set of referees be able to officiate fairly games involving Ifeanyi Ubah FC at home without ensuring that they win at dusk? No way, since they know the implication – sleeping outside in the open field except they have the cash to pay for one room to rest their heads until the wee hours of such unfortunate nights before heading home. Isn’t it a shame that clubs are being made to accommodate referees of their matches? Would the organisers refund such expenses when their so-called sponsors remit their contributions? No prize for guessing right that nothing has been given to the club by the organisers.
We are being deluded by fake news reports listing the Nigeria league that hasn’t produced a winner on the pitch as the 77th best in the world among the 211 football federations and 10th in Africa. Which firm would consider a league without known kick-off dates? How would a league whose players and coaches are being owed their entitlements with the organisers unable to apply the rules on such issues to the letter berated? Who rates a league without title sponsors? How do you evaluate a league that isn’t beamed live on television? Who reckons with a league whose workers are being owed salaries running into millions for close to nine months? Who is fooling who?
A league whose organisers beg clubs to foot the bills of the games shouldn’t be listed at all. A league where people are forced to burn their data watching games that ought to be on terrestrial television among others is deviant and should be stopped. The organisers should tell us what is holding back the sponsors’ packages, especially the cash now that the referees’ body is threatening to boycott the league soon? The referees’ body is right if they make good their threat because their members are family people who shouldn’t be risking their lives on Nigerian roads only to be told that what is due them isn’t available. Or are the organisers expecting the referees to fund their trips to match venues? Don’t they know that refereeing is a hobby? Who does that? Shouldn’t the organisers prioritise the referees’ entitlements knowing their importance in the game?
What do you expect any referee or referees if they get alerts or cash gifts paying for their flight tickets, names of the hotels booked for them and other pecks front-loaded to any account of their choice to do when they get to the match venue(s)? Any team that provides for referees in this kind of untoward manner expects victory in return. Anything short of the three points would attract the kind of punishment the referees who handled Ifenayi Ubah’s home loss got – bundled out of the hotel and possibly a refund of what they were paid – those that are verifiable.
This writer isn’t in support of open attacks on the organisers or referees after games. But where the hosts are made to do everything for referees, one won’t but align with these critics, especially for those matches shown live as the game between Heartland FC and Akwa United. Some of the referee’s calls left much to be desired of. Unfortunately, the so-called television coverage didn’t have relays or the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) machines for a proper review as we see weekly in European leagues. Nobody would watch his efforts destroyed by the incompetence or otherwise of an arbiter without expressing his reservations. It is only human to do so. Now that the coaches and officials have been punished, the organiser should critically study the match videos for further sanctions on the match officials’ conduct, especially this Heartland/Akwa United game.
What stands out clearly is that the domestic league’s problems would forever be swept under the carpet. Those who should support a paradigm shift have soiled their hands in the till and have no moral justification to demand a change in the way the game is administered here.
Yearly, these state-owned teams get budgets allocated to them. But the players and coaches get a mere pittance. They dare not grumble; otherwise, they get fired. Club chairmen operated like monsters, preferring to exploit the inefficiencies of the organisers to do what they like with the clubs’ funds. Today, nobody can say how much our clubs are worth. Nobody dares ask how much players earn since many cannot remember when they were last paid.
With this setting, the organisers had no product to sell to investors beyond trying to use their friends in high places to broker a deal. Simply put, no arm of the league is functional, culminating in the easy exit of most of our continental representative, beaten by clubs from less prominent football nations. Since the league was always in abeyance, the home-based players couldn’t compete with their foreign-based counterparts whenever they are invited to fight for shirts in our national teams. They are used as training materials. Ironically, the few lucky ones that get to Europe return as kings to get shirts – just because of their change of residence.
In the absence of a soccer calendar, domestic league players resort to heading out of the country to all manner of leagues in name of being foreign-based to attract an invitation to the national team. Such moves are shady, as shylock agents trade them into slavery. Many of such moves have also seen our young stars lose their form or go into oblivion.
The list of such lost stars is legendary. Where do I start? Who will I ask why such destructive moves still persist? Of course, when good players leave the country, those left are those still eager to bolt away to Europe or the Diaspora, knowing that they have no future remaining here. And with a system that worships discovered stars, attention to developing a nursery remains a conjecture. Without a nursery, no development. Players are left to copy what their idols exhibit on television, leaving the basics of the game to the period when they will get a foreign side to teach them.
It is sad that the organisers are celebrating away victories in the game in this covid-19 era, forgetting that the fans are not watching the matches live. Who doesn’t know that clubs and their leaders persuade the fans to vent their spleen on match officials if the result doesn’t favour the home teams? No away team can abandon a game if the results are in the favour. When you criticise a system here, those who should effect the changes resort to cheap talk of the writer doing the bidding of his paymaster. But like a sore thumb, the problems keep hitting our all-knowing officials on the face. The sports administrators’ saving grace so far is that nobody has been killed at league venues by those beasts who take the laws into their hands to cause mayhem and maim people. The saddening part of these urchins’ bestial acts is that nobody gets punished, no one gets caught and the teams get a slap on the wrists.
To avert deaths, the Inspector General of Police (IGP) should immediately prioritise manning of match venues before, during and after matches, through special squads. The IGP can place temporary police stations inside the stadium with Black Marias stationed to house hooligans when they are caught.
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