In this special report ABIODUN ADEWALE takes a look at the plight of Nigerian referees who have been victimised while doing their jobs in the domestic league
At the mention of Nigerian referees, two perceptions easily come to mind.
In the first instance, they are largely perceived as one of the ‘enemies’, if not the principal ‘enemy’ of Nigerian football.
On the other hand, they are pathetically seen as the ‘victims’ of the dangers of Nigerian football. Depending on who you ask, either of the perspectives would be proven beyond reasonable doubts.
An average Nigerian league player or coach has the most horrible stories to tell about referees in all the tiers of the country’s league, but ironically, a lot of them maintain relationships with these refs off the field of play.
Football administrators are also on either side of the divide, depending on how mutual their relationships with the men in the middle is. For the fans, they can only watch from afar and wonder why certain things they can’t comprehend happen in the game they love so much. And when results don’t go their way, they vent their anger on the refs, inflicting serious injuries on them, in some cases.
From the Nigeria Professional Football League to the Nigeria Women’s Football League and the lower tiers of the men and women’s game in the country, there are different circumstances that have shaped these perspectives.
As a result of being perceived as enemies of their teams by overzealous fans, Nigerian refs have been assaulted on many occasions due to circumstances beyond their control, thus making them the victims and enemies of the game at the same time. It is hard to recall any situation where the referees have been applauded openly as much as they are given the stick.
While the crazy culture of assaulting referees has been a long-time occurrence in the Nigerian leagues, our correspondent first witnessed it in 2015 at the Ondo State Sports Complex in Akure, during an NPFL game between Sunshine Stars and Lobi Stars.
It was the run-in to the end of the season and Sunshine were on course for the title as well as a return to the continent. Needing a win to keep up their neck-and-neck race with Enyimba and Warri Wolves, the Akure side were frustrated by their resilient visitors, who struck them against the run of play to take a 3-2 lead with time fast running out.
With about 10 minutes left on the clock, projectiles began to fly onto the pitch after what the fans perceived as unfavourable officiating towards their darling team. The home fans made the atmosphere uneasy and it became impossible for the centre ref and his assistants to continue the game, much to the anger of the fans.
Sunshine Stars players, perhaps aware of the consequences of such acts, went round the stands to appeal to their fans, but their pleas fell on deaf ears. Eventually, the game did not continue as the officials were stranded on the pitch, leaving them at the mercy of unruly fans, who were bent on dealing blows and sticks on them. The referee and his assistants had to be wheeled away in a vehicle thought to belong to the then chairman of the Ondo State Football Agency, Akin Akinbobola, which was driven straight onto the pitch and the sticks that could have landed on the officials landed on the car instead.
The last 10 minutes of the game was played in Abuja and Sunshine Stars were subsequently banned to the Teslim Balogun Stadium in Lagos for the remainder of the season.
Refs beaten again in Akure
Not the NPFL this time around but a Nationwide League One game between Akure City and Hammola FC from Osun State in 2022. In what would have been described as a good outing for the away side, who got a 2-1 victory over their hosts, the outcome of the game set up the officials for beating as locals perceived them as biased against the home team.
Just before full time, the fans converged on the side of the pitch, with various items they could lay their hands on, threatened all cameramen to stop recording and pounced on the centre ref and one of his assistants, who ran across the pitch helplessly.
Players and officials of the home team were as surprised as their visitors and the actions of their unruly fans cost them their slot in the NLO.
In 2019, during the Nigeria Professional Football League Super 6 playoffs at the Agege Township Stadium in Lagos, Kano Pillars captain Rabiu Ali was in the middle of one of the biggest assaults on match officials after charging towards referee Adebimpe Quadri over what he perceived as biased officiating against his team.
His action fuelled the rage of the fans, who wielded sticks against the helpless officials. Although the player later denied abusing or attacking the referee, Ali was eventually banned for 12 games and Pillars fined N8m by the then League Management Company.
Before the playoffs in 2019, the Nigeria Referees Association, threatened a boycott of games if their security at match venues was not guaranteed. This came after an attack on a ref, Bethel Nwanesi, during an NPFL match-day three game between Remo Stars and Bendel Insurance in Sagamu.
“The weekly reports of attacks on referees at the match venues whenever home teams fail to win on their grounds since the 2018/2019 league commenced may have caused a change in the association’s approach,” the NRA said.
“Recall that the sore point witnessed so far in the top Nigeria league that is in week three is the `one week, one attack on referee’ incidents.
“In the week one match in Jos, Plateau, Plateau United vs Ifeanyi Uba FC, the referees were beaten blue and back by supporters of the home side because they drew at home. We also urge football authorities in the country to wade into the matter because the association is on the verge of asking its members to keep away from the league to avoid being killed by rampaging supporters,”
the NRA added.
Perhaps that NRA’s statement was seen as a mere threat and truly they didn’t boycott matches. Rather, the only thing that changed was the pattern of attacks as it continued through 2020, 2021 and 2022.
In 2023, there has been at least two cases of assaults on match officials, which resulted in docking of accrued points and goals from the erring clubs after investigation by the authorities.
Bayelsa United were the first club to be caught in the web of the Interim Management Committee of the NPFL after an assistant ref Ebenezer Ojeleye was attacked during their match against Doma United.
Bayelsa United later identified the perpetrator as Joseph Zidougha, popularly known as ‘One Man Riot’, but they were found guilty of breaching the frameworks of the league and subsequently had three points and three goals deducted from their accrued tally.
Towards the end of the regular season as well, Plateau United were also found wanting of security breaches during their 2-1 loss to Remo at the New Jos Stadium. Aside from points deduction, a fine of N2.5m was imposed on the club.
Notorious lower leagues
Perhaps due to sanctions that are meted out to teams in the NPFL over fans trouble, there is usually a level of diplomacy that comes with burying it after it happens – although the punishment of fines and suspended points deduction didn’t totally prevent it from happening until recently.
However, the lower leagues in the country are notorious for assaulting match officials with three barbaric cases in the 2023 Nigeria National League alone.
Earlier this year, Smart City and Crown FC were charged by the Nigeria National League following the unruly behaviour of their fans, which led to an assault on referee Oni Stephen and his assistants. In a viral video which was obtained by our correspondent, the fans of Smart City made their way onto the pitch, assaulting match officials, inflicting bodily injuries and stealing items from them after the ref sent off one of their players, Tunde Adejokun.
In another instance this year, a match official from Kano State, Shaarani Guza, lost his teeth after he was assaulted by irate fans of Yobe Desert Stars during their match-day five encounter with DMD FC of Borno. Yobe were fined N3m and forfeited three points and three goals from their accrued points in Group A4 of the Northern Conference of the NNL as a punishment.
The most recent and uncivilised incident in the lower league was at Awka, Anambra State, during a game between Edel FC and Giant Brillars, where the ref Charwal Wilfred, from Delta State, had his head broken, his assistants Asoluku Ihuoma from Imo State and Uhuegbu Femi of Delta State sustained varying degrees of injuries as well. The match commissioner Oyekezie Ekene from Enugu State was also not spared during the ugly incident allegedly spearheaded by Edel players.
Before the fans can tag refs as enemies of the game, the people directly affected by their decisions are the players and they also have harrowing tales of how they had been affected by poor officiating, even if they have also been caught in the web of leading attacks on referees.
“One of the reasons Wikki Tourists didn’t survive relegation last season was due to poor officiating. So many crucial decisions went against us in different matches and there was no probe whatsoever,” Wikki forward, Fu’ad Ekelojuoti, told our correspondent.
After their 2-2 draw against Enyimba in the opening game of the 2022/23 NPFL Super 6 playoffs, Remo captain Junior Nduka could not hide his anger after the champions were awarded a penalty for a foul he claimed to have committed outside the box.
“I believe everyone saw this one on live TV, yes it was a foul but that was outside the box,” Nduka fumed.
“I have seen all types of officiating, in the NNL where I played a year ago, there was this away game we went for and we had the game under control, but then the referee frustrated us to ensure we lost because his life was at stake,” former 3SC striker Anthony Okachi also told The PUNCH.
“Even in the NPFL people talk about how the home team always win. Then when I go for away games I feel like we are just going to honour the game. I can’t state all the really crazy decisions I have witnessed because there are so many.”
For the fans, no member of their group will charge at an official.
“We know ourselves and we are usually in uniform during our matches. None of us can do that because such can easily be pinned on the club. Our job is to support and entertain, which we do with passion. These acts are carried out by the so-called stadium boys that we cannot really tag as fans,” Tunde Adeboboye, the chairman of the supporters’ club of Sunshine Stars, told our correspondent.
Refs horrible experiences
Assaults have brought near death and traumatic situations for the men in the middle and most of the experiences point in the same direction; they are always at the mercy of the home fans, especially in the no-coverage areas of the stadium. According to them, not even live television coverage guarantees their safety.
“The fact that a match is streamed live does not even factor into the protection of referees. This is because there is no coverage of what happens in the tunnels and even dressing rooms at half time. A lot has been reported by journalists, but you will only report what you see,” an active NPFL ref, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told The PUNCH.
“Ahmadu Bello Stadium in Kaduna is notorious for this, a referee was almost killed there in 2022, in a game between Niger Tornadoes and Lobi Stars. The match did not continue. The same thing happened during Jigawa Golden Stars versus Rivers United and Kano pillars versus Plateau United, all in Kaduna,” he said.
A retired FIFA-badged referee, Henry Ogunyanmodi, narrated how he was assaulted in the dressing room during a live NPFL game in 2013/2014.
“It happened to me in 2014 during a league game in Uyo between Akwa United and Warri Wolves. Interestingly, it was a live match and everything seemed to be going on well until halftime. In fact, Akwa United were leading 2-0. But surprisingly, when we got to the dressing room, they started beating us,” Ogunyanmodi told our correspondent.
“Nobody knew what happened in the dressing room, so I decided we won’t continue the game because of our safety. After I observed the tunnel properly, I ran onto the pitch and I drew attention to the incident.
“The second half of the game was played in Katsina and Akwa incurred the cost for the away team as well. I also remember that two of our colleagues had been victims there before. One retired FIFA female referee Felicia and another were beaten at the same venue before.”
Even while the home team was in control of the game, Ogunyanmodi insisted that it is natural to suspect the home when such an incident happens because the state football associations of the home teams are supposed to provide adequate security. If there will be any breach, it will be as a result of their negligence or compromise.
After passing through all these difficulties to get their job done, there are instances where referees don’t make it back home, not because they were killed by fans but sadly because of road accidents caused by long journeys.
In February this year, an Imo State referee, Dr. Kingsley Eneogwe, died in a road accident on the Abuja-Kogi-Enugu road after returning from a match-day five game between Nasarawa United and Plateau United in Kaduna.
Why always refs?
Amid all the patterns associated with the safety of refs while carrying out their jobs, sometimes the urge for soul searching will call for the question; ‘why would anyone even beat a referee?’
The popular opinion is that, most times, they are bribed by the home team to turn results in their favour, thereby leaving the away team at the mercy of poor officiating. But in contrast, assaults are allegedly carried out by the home fans.
The PUNCH gathered that refs under the then LMC were owed indemnities for several seasons, leading to an arrangement in which home teams took care of their fees like transportation, accommodation and even feeding.
The inability of the defunct League Management Company to fulfil its financial obligations to the men in the middle further cemented the notion that refs were at the mercy of home teams or even the highest bidders.
“No, referees are not being offered money. Would you offer money to a man you know cannot change the outcome of a match? Poor officiating is definitely not about money, it’s either about security, poor understanding of the laws of the game, lack of equipment for referees and poor physical, emotional and mental form,” Olalekan Daramola, an NPFL referee, told The PUNCH.
According to Ogunyanmodi, in cases where home teams offer incentives in the guise of augmenting transportation or any form of allowances, it is more dangerous to reject such money than to accept it.
“The mentality is that when you refuse, you have connived with the away team. And whether you accept or not, the away team will also suspect you. Due to the situation we had then, they are the one that will house you in a hotel and feed you. They are always with you. So, they will think you have something against them if you refuse,” Ogunyanmodi said.
He maintained that safety becomes an issue as soon as money is involved.
“Regardless of the inadequate situation of the league body then, no referee will ever ask clubs for money. It is not possible, but it is the clubs who put us in difficult situations with their money,” he said.
For the sake of neutrality, the state football associations are supposed to be in charge of arrangements such as security, transportation and accommodation of the referees.
“The state football associations are in charge of accommodation and feeding of the referees. But the FA is resident with the home team. Until we get to a point that home teams won’t know the whereabouts of designated officials for their games, that is when these notions will disappear,” Ogunyanmodi added.
Daramola rates the performances of the whistle men highly.
“Officiating in the NPFL since I have been in the league has been relatively good. Sometimes at par with even the English Premier League. However, we have had some instances where there are some bad officiating, mostly caused by poor understanding of the laws of the game,” he said.
Evidently, the results over the past three seasons have an average of at least one away win and three draws per week. A statistic that was hard to come by in the NPFL years ago. Also, match-day one of last season produced four away wins, while two other teams got invaluable draws away from home.
FIFA, CAF shun refs
In recent years, there has been public outcry within the football sector about the inability of Nigerian refs to officiate in African and world football. As a successful footballing nation, the expectations of enthusiasts is to see Nigerian officials go as far as Nigerian football stars, but they have been overlooked for major duties in Africa and at the global level.
On this, Ogunyanmodi told to our correspondent that the problem was internal. He claimed the promotion and projection of refs for international tournaments and even getting the FIFA badge had been characterised by politics, a situation he said led to his early retirement from officiating.
“My mates in other countries are still actively officiating, but I am retired. Not long after I got the FIFA badge, it was stripped off me due to ethnicity. Surprisingly, it was handed to another person from the south west on the claims that the badge was not supposed to come to Ondo State when it came,” Ogunyanmodi lamented.
President of the Nigeria Referees Association, Sanni Zubairu, explained that there had been a gap in that area, which the body is now trying to adequately fill.
“In terms of performance, Nigerian referees are equal to any referee in the world. We have been watching and projecting the younger referees, some of them are now badged as FIFA referees and we have been moving on with them. There is a sort of gap between the ones we had before and now, and that is what we are trying to fill up,” Zubairu told The PUNCH.
NFF wants to install VAR
Global football globally hinges on technology and one of the most important reasons for that is to reduce controversy to the barest minimum. World football body FIFA introduced the goal line technology in 2012 and more recently, the Video Assistant Referee, which gives the men in the middle the benefit of replays and reversal of decisions.
Before these two technologies, there were other basic communication technologies for refs that Nigeria is yet to invest on. In order to improve the performances of these officials, it becomes necessary to provide them with all the necessary support that will aid their work.
Earlier this year, the Nigeria Football Federation boss, Ibrahim Gusau, announced that the body would build VARs in selected stadiums across the country, a proposal the NRA is already anticipating its implementation.
“Football is now being played with technology and we must move with the pace of the world as well. If the NFF provides VARs in some centres, it will help the performances of our referees as well,” NRA president, Zubairu, said.
“On our own, according to our plans, we will ensure the adequate training of our referees to meet up with the best global practices.”
Before the start of the abridged 2022/23 season, Chairman of the Interim Management Committee of the NPFL, Gbenga Elegbeleye, revealed that the defunct League Management Company owed referees to the tune of N500m.
As a result, the IMC created a new structure for the payment of referees’ indemnities through their partners.
“Their money is calculated by the distance they travel to their match venues. We spend close to 10m on match officials every match-day. The least amount a ref can earn is N200,000 or N150,000 per match for transport and feeding,” an official of GTI Group, strategic partners of the NPFL, told our correspondent.
“All the officials have their accommodations paid for, 48 hours before they arrive at their match venue. As they take off, they get their money and they know where they will lodge. We pay accommodation straight to the hotel, while feeding and transport allowances are paid in cash before they (refs) leave for their match venues. Things have changed, it’s not like before.
“The total money we spend on match days is between N9m and N10m and we pay all the FAs that are hosting matches for logistics. They don’t have anything to do with referees, match commissioners or assessors.”
This move by the IMC is attested to by NRA boss Zubairu and Daramola.
“Before the start of the season, NFF president Gusau met with us and gave us his assurances, particularly about the welfare and security of referees, and I can say that we saw it manifest last season,” Zubairu said.
“The indemnities are being paid, most times days before you even go for your match. It makes it easy for referees to prepare for matches, referees don’t need to look around for money for transportation,” Daramola said.
Aside from the improved welfare of the referees, the IMC did not hesitate to slam punishments on clubs, just as it did not hesitate to punish any referee that was found wanting for questionable calls.
The IMC deducted three points and three goals each from Bayelsa United, Remo Stars, Wikki Tourists and Plateau United over reports of violence against match officials during their matches. After investigation, Remo and Wikki were spared but Bayelsa and Plateau didn’t escape the hammer.
In the case of referees, the committee of the NFF in January suspended Ndubuisi Ukah (Imo), Otuwho Morrison (Delta) and Faro Abdulrahman (Lagos) for questionable officiating.
But the questions remain — will the Nigerian football faithful ever trust the country’s refs to diligently carry out their duties without fear or favour? And how soon will these defenceless middle men be protected from irate thugs, who in the guise of fans, bruise and brutalise them because results don’t go their?
When this happens, then they will certainly be assured that rather than sow tears and sweat and reap blood, sorrow and deaths, they can earn a living in a safe environment where they will reap joy and meaningful lifestyles.