Winning away from home in Nigeria’s top flight isn’t an option. Violence, intimidation and corruption are rife across the country.
Some teams are very strong at home. Often, they know how to exploit the uniqueness of their narrow, sloped or muddy pitch. Usually, though, the home side’s edge is down to their fans: loud, passionate and intimidating. In Nigeria that takes on a new meaning.
It was a Nigerian Premier League match at the Sani Abacha Stadium in May 2010. Visiting team Dolphins FC led Kano Pillars by a single goal. The packed stadium was heaving as 25,000 angry, red-eyed home fans threatened a dozen different kinds of painful retribution if the score was the same at full-time.
Kick-off had been at 4pm; as darkness set in approaching 7pm, the final whistle still hadn’t been blown. The fourth official had added four minutes of injury time but was prevented from raising the board, leaving the referee with little choice but to go on. And on.
As danger loomed closer, the frantic match commissioner sent a desperate plea to the ref, imploring him to award Pillars a penalty. “He didn’t want to at first,” says Emmah Godwin, then Dolphins captain. “We all knew he’s one of the best referees in the league and we were happy when we saw that he was the one handling the game, because he always plays by the rules. But things were getting worse in the stands and some of our players begged him to do something.”
There seemed little choice. When the referee eventually awarded the penalty, for a complete non-offence, Godwin went over to him and “told him not to worry – that we understood”. Godwin then approached Sunday Rotimi, his goalkeeper, and made it clear that this was not the time for heroics. Rotimi followed his captain’s orders and Ahmed Musa, now of CSKA Moscow, converted to draw Pillars level.
But it wasn’t enough. At full-time, Dolphins were set upon by Pillars fans irate at not having won the match. Sunday Mba, who would score the winning goal in the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations final, was knocked unconscious. With the aid of fully-armed riot police and the home team disguising them in their jerseys, the visiting team escaped, while the match officials changed into the medical team’s uniforms and were smuggled out in an ambulance.
This sounds like either fiction or an extreme example of one group of ultras. It’s neither – it’s simply the reality of playing away matches in the Nigerian Premier League.
Teams routinely travel to away games expecting to lose, even if they are top of the table. A draw away is celebrated like it’s worth more than one point. Looking at last season’s table, perhaps it is.
The table on the left shows last season's away games.
Reigning champions Kano Pillars won one of their 18 away games last season. That’s right, one. Their title triumph was secured on the back of impeccable home results: 16 wins, two draws, no defeats.
Such near-spotless home form is a defining feature of the domestic game in Nigeria. Niger Tornadoes and Jigawa Golden Stars were relegated despite each winning 14 of their 18 home games, losing none. Normally that’s title-winning form. Every team dominating as hosts makes for a close league – Tornadoes and Golden Stars in 17th and 18th both took 48 points, just four fewer than Sunshine Stars in fifth – but, naturally, one without many shock results.
“When you lose a home game, it feels like someone has died,” former international striker Victor Ezeji says. “Everyone knows that if you win your home games, one or two draws away can make you champions.”
The table on the left shows just how good home form is.
That’s not an exaggeration. Incredibly, eight of the league’s 19 teams last season were winless on the road. No team won more than two. On the rare occasion a team wins away, bloody mayhem can follow as intimidation turns to violence, with referees easy targets. No wonder some take measures to protect themselves.
In the late 1990s, Kwara were drawing 0-0 at home with Sharks, who had a young Ezeji playing for them. With five minutes remaining, a Sharks forward was hacked down in the box. The referee, Dogo Yabilsu – who would die in a motoring accident in 2005 – gave the penalty, enraging Kwara’s home support who began to storm onto the pitch.
Yabilsu, an army colonel, calmly walked to his bag on the sidelines, picked up his service pistol and headed back to put the ball on the spot. The fans dispersed.
But fearing for his own safety, the Sharks’ penalty-taker deliberately missed the spot-kick, prompting a huge cheer from the home support. “I can’t remember who took the kick,” says Ezeji. “But on the bus home he said he found it harder to miss than score!”
Should more match officials take a stand? “Referees are usually blamed, but it’s not quite that simple,” warns Felix Anyansi-Agwu, chairman of Eyimba FC and a member of the Nigerian Football Federation Executive Committee. “What can a ref do when his life is threatened? Sometimes corruption is involved but one of the major reasons is lack of security at venues.”
Ah yes, corruption. One referee, speaking anonymously, admitted the practice of being’settled’ by teams to tilt results in their favour is widespread.
“That is why you see some incompetent referees get more games than other, competent ones,” he reveals. “In fact, clubs reject certain refs for their home games because they’ll get no advantage, but celebrate when they see unbiased refs at their away games.”
And as our insider explains, it can get even messier. “Club officials will collect money from their bosses and tell them the ref has been ‘settled’ when they haven’t. Then when things don’t go their way, fans take it out on the ref, believing he cheated them or took more money from the opposition.”
“Everyone knows what is going on,” adds Ayansi-Agwu. “The rules are there – we just need them enforced. Otherwise, this embarrassing cycle will continue.”
Written by Colin Udoh and originally published in FourFourTwo May 2013 issue