By Linus Mba
One of the resolutions adopted at theÂ Congress of the Nigeria Football Federation [NFF] on Tuesday August 04, 2009 wasÂ to acknowledge the high quality of officiating standard of the Nigerian referees, at least in the Premier League competition.
The commendation seems to corroborate the impression expressed by football analysts during the just concluded season. As I stated in one of my previous write-ups for this column, I can assure that there has been a sustained drive for good refereeing in Nigeria over recent years fuelled by well-coordinated development programme by the NFF.
The leadership of the Federation, at the inception of its mandate, assembled virtually all experienced technical manpower in Nigeria to review the existing refereeing development programmes with the objective of proposing new strategies for the way forward.
It was noted that the leadership of the NFF and the Nigeria Referees Association [NRA] had that common objective to fight the level of indiscipline and what appeared as recklessness in the refereeing system and to re-establish some level of discipline without which quality refereeing would have been difficult to extract from our referees.
Things were really bad, apparently caused by bloated number of referees struggling to be appointed for matches each week.
Among these were referees who failed the required national physical fitness tests – a pre-requisite to officiate in the national football competitions. Somehow some of those who failed the tests found their way on the officiating lists at the expense of those who met the standard. Worse still was seeing some referees who refused presenting themselves for the physical fitness tests claiming the â€˜rightâ€™ to allotted many matches.
Again there were those age cheats who were ever ready to blackmail the NRA leadership to gain match appointments.
The most glaring of the negative impact of age cheating is that it frustrated development planning. Some of these class of referees fail to respond to programmes that had been designed for referees who attain certain age range, when expected to do so, because they were too old.
Sometimes I had tried to remind the obvious age cheaters that they were, so to say, indirectly rejecting Godâ€™s plan for them when they reach certain age bracket by reducing their exact dates of birth. It is like telling God that one does not want the blessings of an older age because one wants to fall within the official refereeing age.
Unfortunately young capable referees were sort of bottled up – not getting the opportunities to express themselves because of the limited opportunities to offer match slots to them after majority of matches were hijacked by ineligible older referees were no longer there.
The Way Forward
It is important to state here for a start that we have always had very good referees in Nigeria but most of whom were not able to surface. The number of referees bloated by the unqualified had ensured that the good ones were sparingly spotted.
Today everything has changed. Discipline has virtually been restored in the refereeing system; so also transparency in the administration of refereeing by the NFF with active support of the NRA. The past few years have witnessed growing changes in the quality of football refereeing in Nigeria which was eventually acknowledged by the last Congress of the Nigeria Football League in Lokoja, Kogi State of Nigeria.
The New Strategy
The seeds of these achievements were re-sewn on Monday 28th April, 2008 with the approval of the Executive Board of the NFF of the Policy GuidelinesÂ proposed by the Referees Committee.
In the Guidelines, it was decided that from the 2008/2009 season, only referees who are successful in the theory; physical fitness; and medical tests as well as other forms of assessment may be listed to officiate in the various league divisions.
This was strictly enforced. The Referees Committee organized the conduct of theÂ FIFA Endurance Tests [no longer the Cooper Test] centrally in Abuja for all referees eligible to officiate football matches nationally under the watchful eyes of the national refereeing experts. The referees from their various geo-political zones took their turn to be tested in this exercise that lasted over six days at the National Stadium Abuja.
The results of the tests were amazing. The exercise was conducted in the most transparent manner with the results declared on the spot and officially documented. Ages of all successful participants were verified. The ages were reconciled by matching their dates of birth with the normal childrenâ€™s growth rate as Affidavits have sometimes proved misleading.
Among those successful in the physical fitness tests last year and indeed for the forthcoming season are mostly those young talented referees who were bottled up by the older ones who now have the opportunities to showcase themselves.
They wereÂ listed to officiate in the various league divisions based on their previous performance record and experience.
Their mobility during the games last season matched those of the players who are equally very young these days propelled by the new velocity of the FIFA approved footballs in use for competitions these days. Instead of two matches per year for the lucky ones, the new league referees have opportunities to be designated for seven or up to nines matches in the season.
This development has physical rewards to the referees which have gingered their determination to take on boldly challenges of refereeing.
According to the same Guidelines, the NFF is desirous of ensuring a continuous levelÂ of development of referees in the structure – at least eighty per cent of referees promoted each year to the Premier League division shall not be more than thirty two years. The remaining twenty per cent may be reserved for older referees not more than thirty two years at the start of that season.
To Sustain Performance Momentum
The Policy Guidelines spelt out also that referees officiating in the varying competition levels, who exhibit serious technical deficiency shall be de-listed to officiate in lower competitions where they are expected to be guided to brush up on their experience which eventually will prepare them for higher refereeing assignments. .
Again referees who, for whatever reason, failed to officiate in their normal competition level in the immediate past season, have lost performance momentum for his or her previous higher competition level. As such the affected referees shall be de-listed to the immediate next lower competition levels.
Women FIFA Referees
Finally, it is not automatic for Women Referees and Assistant Referees who are decorated with the FIFA to be elevated to officiate in the Premier League for Men.Â For a start, they are not subjected to the same stiffer qualifying demands as Men to become FIFA as they are expected to officiate only in the Women competitions.
In exceptional cases, Women referees and assistant referees may be appointed to officiate in the Premier League for Men provided they meet all the requirements demanded of Men for national and international refereeing.
Currently some women FIFA referees and assistant referees are officiating in Premier league to prepare them for leadership role for the growing number of women refereeing in Nigeria. This concession was not meant to be permanent; indeed by the current Policy Guidelines of the NFF the concession has been withdrawn for new women referees.
It is conclusive that the injection of strict discipline into our refereeing system and the transparency in administration are the key elements that have produced the good refereeing we are witnessing today. We can only build on what has so far been achieved.
A sustained effort by the leadership of the NFF, in collaboration with the NRA should continue to ensure that higher landmarks are achieved in the growth ofÂ high standard of football refereeing in Nigeria.