By John Egbokhan
Flash your mind back to the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s, when a match between Shooting Stars of Ibadan and Rangers International of Enugu was billed to hold at the Liberty Stadium in Ibadan.Three days to the match day, the streets of Ibadan would be oozing with life as fans, while debating the impending showdown in public places, made last-minute frantic preparations to get set for the big.
The ones in Enugu and other eastern states would not be left out of the preparations as they search for money to make the long and treacherous trip down to the west. They would go in buses.
Fans always looked up to this fixture because of the high quality of stars that dot both teams. In the Rangers side, the name Christian Chukwu rang loud and clear while the Shooting Stars had their own mathematical Segun Odegbami. Both players, teammates at the national level, were seen as cult-heroes, leaving their fans to idolize them at any given opportunity.
The opportunity that presented itself on this looming match-day was not to be missed at all by these fans, who as early as 9am would start making their way to the stadium to watch every action of the league encounter live in full colour. By 11am, the stadium was packed to the rafters as security officials closed the gates to avoid any disaster emanating from overcrowding.
With a full four hours to the kickoff, everywhere was buzzing around the stadium as fans soaked in the pressure amidst wild chanting and ranting by both set of teams. The electrifying feeling in the stadium would reach feverish pitch when Sam Ojebode would lead Odegbami and his Shooting teammates for this eagerly anticipated tie. Chukwu, the gentleman in defence, would also lead out his Rangers mates as the stadium erupted into a frenzy, never seen before in the annals of Nigerian football.
Memories of Shooting Stars evoke joy. They were the first club to win the FA Cup on club basis in Nigeria in 1971, with players like Aderoju Omowon, Niyi Akande, the late Jossy Lad, Amusa Adisa very prominent in the squad. Shooting Stars are one of the most decorated clubs in the country alongside Rangers and Stationery Stores
In fact, Shooting Stars and Enugu Rangers are known as the traditional football clubs in the country, both dominating the football scene in the country during the 70s and 80s and drawing the most fans base. Every match featuring these teams was sure to witness a sold-out crowd at the stadium.
Come to the Onikan Stadium in Lagos, home of the darling Stationery Stores on a Saturday for their home match in the 80s and you would be amazed and mesmerized at the scenes that would greet your eyes. Garbed in their colurful stripes, Stores fans littered the nooks and crannies of the streets leading to Onikan stadium as they awaited the match. The festival around the stadium was breathtaking while the scenes in the stadium were simply unbelievable.
Take a quick flight to Benin, precisely the Samuel Ogbemudia Stadium on Saturday in the late 1970s for a league match between Bendel Insurance and Mighty Jets of Jos and the scene that greeted you would simply blow your mind out. Insurance fans, were at a time, rated as the most colourful and vociferous in the country. As early as 11am on match day, the stadium was jam-packed to the rafters.
The air in the stadium would be thick and almost suffocating as rival fans attempted to drown each other in an attempt to win the psychological warfare. The sight of Francis Monidafe, David Adiele, Felix Agbonifoe, Peter Iyharevba and Henry Ogboe sent thunderbolts through the Ogbe Stadium. If you were a first-timer, you would confuse this match as an Eagles affair. But know, you are wrong, it was only a Nigerian Premier League match, where fans were always packed to the rafters in the stadium.
Those were the scenes of the past, where fans were always in abundance at Nigerian league venues. Even with the high gate fees sometimes taken by the stadium managers, these fans were always aplenty at venues, in stark contrast to today, where scenes of scanty fans greet the eyes at league venues. Save for Aba and Kano, where Enyimba and Pillars hold sway respectively, sights of an empty stadium have become a regular stable of Nigerian league grounds.
The invasion of the English Premier League on cable and satellite television has been adduced as one reason why Nigerian fans have tuned into to soak in the fun and glitz coming all the way from England, shunning their own league matches , even at a give-away price of N300, leaving in its wake loss of revenue for Nigerian teams, who in the past, used to depend on gate fees to run the clubs.
Others have blamed the fans scarcity at league grounds on mismanagement by the Nigerian clubs and the general economic downturn that has beset the country since the late 80s.
So what exactly is the problem causing this apathy?
Veteran sports journalist and renowned CAF match coordinator, Paul Bassey, the major blame for scanty turnout of fans at Nigerian league venues was the Nigerian media, who he claimed have relegated coverage of the country’s league matches to the back-burner. Bassey, a widely traveled and thorough-bred journalist recalled that in those days when he was reporting stories from the Nigerian league dominated the sports pages of Nigerian newspapers.
Wondering how come today’s journalists have become the drivers of the English Premier League, Bassey, who edited the Sporting Champion said it was high time that Nigerian journalists made coverage of the Nigerian league the focal point of their sports reportage.
“The number one blame for this problem is the Nigerian media. In the past, we did not need the club owners or the league body to sensitize us to cover the league. In those days, when Rangers were playing Shooting Stars, the back page would be devoted to the match build-up, with pictures of the central players, coaches at war and profiles of both teams.
“We had interviews with the major casts running inside the pages and gave so much hype to the match that there was no way the reader would not be moved to go to stadium to watch the match. But these days, nobody talks about the league anymore. What we do is to give one page to the league coverage, which sadly is not enough to drive fans to the stadium”, added Bassey.
He also cited poor economic base, porous security situation in the country and poor club management as other reasons that have made the league unattractive for fans to attend. Bassey admonished the League Management Company to flow with their times in scheduling of match fixtures.
“If you know that the EPL has taken away your youths, then the LMC should not fix matches at 4pm on Saturday until fans start trooping to the stadium again. Even South Africa and other African countries are aware of this fact and we should not live in self-delusion because there is no way that you can compete with people who have gone far ahead of you.
“Even when the fans come to the stadium, we must ensure that the standard of things is high because if otherwise, those fans would not come again. The quality of play has to be appealing to compel a fan to come back asking for more”, said Bassey. On the culpability of the LMC in the festering situation, the respected sports journalist said that the Nduka Irabor-led NPL board was handicapped by the society that it operates in.
“You can’t take away the LMC from the context. They exist in a country where things are not going according to plan. There is so little that they can do to stem the tide because the odds against them are so much and consuming. That it will take a miracle for them to succeed. “Is it not in this country that Super Sports will tell you that they cannot go to Maiduguri or Yobe to cover a league match? For us to solve this problem, we need a big national debate”, Bassey said.
Former chairman of the Nigeria Football Association, Anthony Kojo Williams said the Nigerian Premier League will always play second fiddle to the English Premier League because of its poor standard and structures. Kojo, while deploring the low standard of the NPL, told Saturday Vanguard Sports that the NPL cannot compete with the South African Premier League and Ivorian League in terms of fans turnout at stadium.
“How do you expect fans to come to the stadium when we practice mediocrity in this country? Do you expect them to cough out their hard-earned money in these hard times to come and watch a bunch of rag-tag players play rubbish football on a Saturday afternoon? No it is not possible. People want value for their money but even at that, the security situation in this country is even very bad , so people will rather stay at home and enjoy their EPL matches on television.
“We do not have standard stadium and have poor coaches, coupled with poor organisation in the NPL. The best players in Nigeria are not playing in the league because most of the coaches are corrupt. The system is so bad now that you don’t expect fans to go to stadium to watch poor matches. I see the matches on television and feel ashamed with what I see.
“Imagine when other leagues are more than half-way through in the season, we are just about to start this weekend. Does that not tell you that we are living in the past? Other countries run the league at about the same time but in Nigeria, the standards are turned upside down and people just do things the way they like. Is it not in our league that when a player gets injured that you see officials rubbing his foot with ‘pure water’? What kind of backward country are we living in?
“Look at South Africa, forget the English Premier League, because you are even taking it far and you will know that we are yet to start. They should go to Ivory Coast, Congo and see how massive the fans turnout for league matches is out there. The answer is they have a well-laid out structures for players welfare, coaches education, referees courses, nutrition and things that will add glamour to the game.
“If you create a league with high standards, even if we are going to have only 10 clubs that meet the standards, our league will compete with other nations leagues because we were once up there. In those days when we were younger, our league venues were sold out several hours before the start of matches”, added Kojo, who berated Nigerian fans for being EPL fans.
“Imagine fans who have not been to the airport shouting that they are Arsenal fans, Chelsea fans, Barca fans. It is a thing of shame and we should all bow our heads in shame”, Kojo said. Also speaking, former chairman of the Gombe State Football Association, Shuaibu Gara-Gombe blamed the administrators of the league for the low fans turnout at league venues.
“If you know the level of dirty play that goes on in our league, you will not be surprised that our fans are no longer coming to stadium to watch matches.