By Onochie Anibeze
Uche Ejimofor will never forget that day in Gboko.
It could take good space if he were to chronicle his memoirs as team manager of Iwuanyanwu Nationale, once a top side in the continent.
In a charged atmosphere, one that was very hostile to all who didn’t support BCC Lions of Gboko, Iwuayanwu were in the stadium to prove that they were the best in the league.
Prince Lemmy Akakem was arguably the most prominent football chief at the time and he was chairman of the Owerri side. They had quality players, some of the best in the country. That meant nothing to Gboko and their supporters. You won a match at your own peril there.
Those were days the league was rich and reasonably credible. The element of surprise was in the league then and teams won away matches. This and the good football the teams played, brought reasonable crowd to the stadium.
But Gboko was a den many dreaded. Uncompromising referees were not spared the intimidation of the fans. Bribery or corruption was not as brazen as it is now. BCC fans, therefore, intimidated opponents and sometimes referees, like Stores did in Lagos. They won their home matches.
But on this day Iwuanyanwu scored first and were playing a game that appeared made in heaven. They attacked more and were creating chances to double their lead. Once, near the touch line, two huge men got close to the referee, drew their shirts open and showed the referee dangling knives and told him he was not leaving the stadium alive if Nationale won. How did they get to the touch line? They overpowered security. They were the security. The Gboko fans were ruthless then and even the police dared not confront them.
Out of fear, the referee ‘manufactured’ a penalty against Nationale. The goalkeeper caught it firmly and at the end of first half, the frenzy was such that many knew trouble loomed. Only the Nationale players felt different and appeared determined to win the match in Gboko. But the referee was also determined to avoid bloodshed. And as he walked into the dressing room, he openly said to the hearing of some Nationale players “this tika tika tika that you people are playing, if you don’t want to leave this place alive, me, I want. I’ll leave this place peacefully and will give them another penalty.’’ He did and the match ended 1-1. Ejimofor tells the story till date.
I have recalled the story to take another angle on the current news in town, the scandalous 146 goals produced by two clubs seeking promotion in the amateur league. Plateau United Feeders were said to have beaten Akurba 79-0 and Police Machine of Adamawa beat Bubayaro of Gombe 67-0. The two teams were fighting for promotion and they were on same points. It meant goals difference would determine who moved on if they all won their matches. The matches went on simultaneously and they were monitoring their results. The goals were said to be pouring in in Bauchi until we had the results that made news globally.
Nigerians have condemned the teams but not much has been said about the referees. They are key in football development and the neglect that they have suffered from the system is among the major factors that have held our football down. What was in the match reports of the referees that officiated the two matches? Did the reports give a clue to match fixing? Or were the referees compromised too?
What level of security did they have in those matches? If we can’t get it right with referees, we would not progress. Their reports will be key in ongoing investigations. The federation must take them seriously, protect them and ensure that they are above board. We have had a case where a referee was beaten to stupor by fans and the offending club knew that they risked heavy sanctions. They hurriedly took the man to hospital and stuffed his pocket with money. People heard what happened to him in the stadium but surprisingly he did not include the beating in his report. When officials asked him about it, he denied that he was beaten and the violent club fans got away with it. That is the level corruption and low morals have taken us to. Clubs approach the Referees Association to ask that specific referees be assigned to officiate their matches and the association obliges them. We can’t produce true champions like that. Etu Moses, the spokesman of Warri wolves is still at sea over the decision of the Disciplinary Committee of the Federation on their June 5 match in Uyo with Akwa United. The home team did not provide adequate security for the match and the referee could not continue the game after the end of first half because he was said to have been beaten up as he walked into the dressing room. The Disciplinary Committee later discountenanced the referee and match commissioner’s report and ruled that the remaining 45 minutes be played. If the rules were respected, Akwa United would lose the three points and faced other sanctions for not providing security for the referee or allowing their fans to manhandle him. Here is a case where the Disciplinary Committee flouted the rules of the game. How can our league grow this way?
‘’There were 15 police officers in the stadium and 10 of them were women. We played a free kick that hit the bar and they probably felt that if they allowed the referee he could award more of such free kicks. They attacked him. The match could not continue and the rules are clear on this. But can you imagine the decision of the O and D Committee?” Moses is still outraged. Aside the details Moses gave, there were accounts from Supersport men who were at the stadium. But what did NFF, the controlling body do? Will they continue to keep quiet while the rules of the game are flouted? I wonder why the new league managers, LMC have not made an issue over this. But do they need to? I think that they should all be working together to ensure progress in our league. We can never get it right if we address the issue of poor coaching, poor security, poor facilities and poor club management and leave out the referees. NFF should take note of this. If referees are not protected, they may not only be more prone to corruption, but will give in to intimidation to escape violence. I’ll not leave the Nigerian league until it develops into a huge brand that we will all be proud of. I say this because I saw the league when it was good. I saw when the plunge started like the Gboko incident I recalled. And I saw it collapse. Now, there are moves to revive it, I’ll always have my eyes on it. It is a difficult task because the rot is deep. We have to support the reforms the Nduka Irabor led LMC are carrying out. We have no choice because the league remains the bedrock of our football.
CONGRATS PA OJIDOH
Some time last year, I received a text message from Pa John Ojidoh, the veteran sports administrator and commentator, whose versatility in sports saw him coach football, track and field and also officiated as a referee and officiating official in athletics. As usual, the text was sports related but he ended it by reminding me that he was now on wheelchair and “just in my extra time.”
I told him that his extra time will be as long as his full time. But I was so touched when I visited him in his Illah home near Asaba. I met a bed-ridden man, so mentally alert that I couldn’t help taking notes in what turned out an exciting interview. He recalled dates, names and vividly described scenes that happened more than 50 years ago. Today, Pa Ojidoh is 87. May God continue to bless him, keep him, heal him and make him happy. May our blessed mother, ever Virgin Mary, all the saints and angels of God always intercede for him now and forever more. Happy Birthday, sir.