Several factors have conspired to hinder the progress of professional club football in Nigeria since its conception in 1990, writes ’TANA AIYEJINA in this report
In November, IfeanyiUbah midfielder Ikenna Hilary posted on his Facebook page after the Nnewi club hired new manager Ladan Bosso, amidst salaries and allowances owed the players, “They (IfeanyiUbah) are here celebrating the unveiling of a new coach and a new car given to him, while players who played for the club are yet to get their money and papers to move on to other clubs and face their careers.
“Too bad we celebrate bad things and we want our league to grow, how then can it grow if we don’t punish clubs who don’t keep to rules?”
One of the major problems of the domestic league is the issue of unpaid salaries and entitlements of players and clubs officials since the formation of the Nigeria Professional League in 1990.
Thus, when Ifeanyi Ubah was founded in 2015 following the acquisition of Gabros International by billionaire businessman and oil mogul, Ifeanyi Ubah, there was hope that the club would become a model for others in terms of welfare of players and officials in the Nigeria Professional Football League. And they were aptly nicknamed “Billionaire’s Club.”
But that was not to be. Just few years after their formation, the club have been enmeshed in controversy over their inability to pay their players’ salaries, allegedly ranging from two to five months.
One of the major reasons for the professional league’s creation almost three decades ago was to make clubs “self-sufficient.”
And to make this possible, clubs were to be run as limited liability companies, with each required to own their own stadium within five years of being registered with the league authorities, who granted each club a five-year tax cessation on all income.
But the clubs have only barely managed to stay afloat with lack of funds a major issue despite getting millions as budget from the government.
Former Eagles midfielder Garba Lawal said he was shocked when he learnt that Kaduna United players had no personal bank accounts and were owed salaries for as much as seven months, when he was appointed chairman of the club in 2014. United also didn’t have a club house, team office and good buses, according to the 1996 Olympic gold medallist, who said the club received about N51m as yearly subvention from government during this time.
“They did table payment; the sports ministry gave the club raw cash and they spent days paying players and officials inside a hotel. I couldn’t waste my time doing that, so I opened accounts for all the players in Sterling Bank,” Lawal said.
From Owerri to Akure, Port Harcourt to Maiduguri and Warri to Zamfara, there have been series of players protest over unpaid wages. In fact state Government Houses in Port Harcourt, Akure, Owerri, Jalingo and more have turned second homes for the protesting players.
Despite concerted efforts by the League Management Company in virtually ‘forcing’ the clubs to pay the players, the problem remains.
A player of disbanded Taraba United, who pleaded anonymity, said they were barred from revealing their plight to journalists, adding that if they did, their careers would be on the line.
“We are treated like slaves by the corrupt club officials, who divert money budgeted for the players into private pockets. These officials warn us not to discuss issues of money owed us with journalists so that they are not exposed. If we talk, we are sidelined and no other club will come for us because the officials there too fear that if we come, we may expose their dirty deals to the world,” our source said.
Even though it’s been glaring that no domestic club is “self-sufficient” in terms of taking care of the financial welfare of their players, several other features apart from unpaid salaries have conspired to hinder the growth of the domestic league in the last 27 years.
Some of these include government ownership of clubs, shady transfer deals, bad pitches, poor officiating, empty stands, match-fixing, insecurity, win-at-all-cost syndrome and boardroom politics.
Shady transfer deals
Some fraudulent officials of government clubs have allegedly conceived dubious means of swindling the state government from revenue generated from transfer of players abroad.
They use funds from government to buy players for their private academies and loan the players to the clubs. But in the players’ contracts, they belong to their academies. If these players seal moves abroad, the money from their transfers go to the academies and nothing is remitted to the club account and government loses.
The likes of Efe Ambrose, Emem Eduok, Ejike Uzoenyi and several others were involved in controversial transfers as issue of player-ownership almost marred their moves.
Israeli club MS Ashdod refused to pay Kaduna United the US$ 70,000 agreed for Ambrose’s move in 2010, but Lawal said he discovered that the club’s erstwhile officials had given the Israelis a personal account, rather than that of the club, which prompted the Europeans to renege on paying the amount.
“The Israelis wanted a club account, not a private account, and they didn’t agree to pay because they wanted proof that the account they were going to pay into belonged to the club. Ashdod paid the money when I was chairman of the club but it was when I came in that I started making the contact.”
The domestic league scene has been awash with stories of clubs fixing games with the authorities most times incapable of meting out punishment to the erring clubs.
In 2006, Akwa United gained promotion to the topflight league in questionable circumstances. Going into the last game of the season and needing to win 12–0 to beat Bussdor on points and goals difference, Akwa routed rivals Calabar Rovers 13–0 to advance to the Nigeria Premier League amidst cries of match fixing.
The probe instituted by the league body came out with a no-case verdict against Akwa, thus confirming their promotion to the Premier League.
However, the Uyo club were on the receiving end of another match-fixing debacle, when they were relegated back to the Pro League Division 1, again on the final day of the 2008/09 season, after Zamfara United beat Kaduna United 9–0.
Akwa filed a protest but the result stood. Even though close followers of the league saw it as pay-back-time for Akwa, both match-fixing incidents put a huge blemish on the integrity of the league.
However, the most outrageous cases of match-fixing that rocked the football world happened in Bauchi in July 2013.
In what the Nigeria Football Federation described as “a mind-boggling show of shame,” Plateau United Feeders defeated Akurba 79-0 while Police Machine FC demolished Bubayero 67-0.
The four clubs were involved in promotion play-offs in which the winners would qualify to play in the Nationwide League Division 3, the country’s lowest professional league.
Plateau and Police won their opening games of the play-offs 2-0 and then drew 0-0 when they clashed in their second matches, meaning both teams needed to outdo the other with goals scored in their final games, which were played simultaneously, to gain promotion to Division 3.
Plateau reportedly scored 72 of their goals against Akurba in the second half: which meant they scored a goal about every 40 seconds non-stop for 45 minutes.
Stanley Wirba, a Bubayero player, told SUNDAY PUNCH that they conceded the loads of goals after the club officials ordered them “not to take the match seriously anymore,” after they discovered that the Plateau and Akurba game had been sold.
He stated, “We played normal football in the first half. They (Police) were leading us 1-0 before half-time but we gave them so much pressure. At half-time, officials told us that the other teams (Plateau Feeders and Akurba) had sold their match.
“We were sitting on the ground and everybody was talking. They told us not to take the match seriously any more. We followed their instructions and we were no longer marking.”
The Nigeria Football Federation placed life bans on officials and players of the four teams involved.
Ex-international Taribo West, who played for Enugu Rangers, Sharks and Julius Berger in the professional league in the 1990s, lamented the situation.
“The league has deteriorated, and despite efforts by the LMC to make it better. it’s still struggling. Now we hear that clubs pay money to win games. In our time, you couldn’t predict a Berger versus Shooting Stars score line. Rangers can beat (Super) Stores in Lagos; the league was lucrative,” he stated.
Poor officiating/bribery allegations against refs
Quite often, when Nigerian clubs lose matches, especially away from home, the coaches’ language of defence is “poor officiating by the referee.”
There have instances of referees given bribe by club officials to swing results their way. A recent high-profile case was on September 1, 2011, when centre referee Chrysanthus Okoro and assistant referee Chukwuma Durunna were banned by the NFF for their involvement in a match-fixing scandal.
Okoro and Durunna conspired to disallow a goal scored by Lobi Stars against Sunshine Stars in Akure. But Dominic Iorfa, Lobi chairman, contested the decision with pictorial evidence of Okoro and Durunna inside a car belonging to Divine Benjamin, a senior official of the Ondo State Football Agency, which runs the Akure club.
On August 17, Jumbo Awala, an ex-footballer and Chairman of the National Association of Nigerian Footballers’ monitoring committee of the Nigerian Professional Football League matches, wrote a petition to the Chairman, NFF’s Ethics Committee, accusing Ahmed Yusuf ‘Fresh’ of aiding Plateau United in winning the Premier League.
The NANF official attached to the petition a video footage and photographs made available to our correspondent, which he said was at a reception organised in Jos by the management of Plateau United for Yusuf, to ensure the club “win this NPFL season at all cost.”
Awala in the petition titled ‘Petition against the Chairman of the Nigeria Football Federation Referees Appointment Committee Alhaji Ahmed Yusuf Fresh for bribery, graft, perfidy and gross manipulation of the 2017/18 NPFL season in favour of Plateau United,’ alleged that Yusuf appointed all the match officials from his home state Niger for Sunshine Stars’ versus title chasers Akwa United match, and was also present at Ijebu Ode, the match venue.
The referee awarded a penalty to Sunshine after their player was fouled on the edge of the box, through which they scored, but Akwa were denied a clear penalty after Sunshine goalkeeper hacked down the visitors’ player.
Awala said the officiating was preplanned to ensure that Akwa didn’t garner any point in Ijebu Ode, to aid Plateau’s title ambition.
“That match was clearly manipulated in favour of Sunshine. A thorough review of the video of that match will clearly indicate that the chairman of the referee’s appointment committee and the referees were induced to ensure Akwa United lost that match,” the statement read.
The petition added, “The match between Kano Pillars and Plateau United was another case of clear robbery. It was a match where the home side (Pillars) were superior in every department of the game.
“For those of us who were present at the match venue, it was nothing but daylight robbery particularly when the centre referee did the impossible to ensure the game ended 1-1.”
Close observers are of the opinion that the reputation of the Nigerian referees perhaps, explains why they are regularly excluded from major FIFA competitions, with none once again selected to officiate at next year’s World Cup in Russia.
But Gabriel Adigwe, a retired Nigerian FIFA-badged referee, refutes the bribery allegations.
“Someone should come out and say ‘I gave bribe to a ref.’ I don’t believe that. When a ref makes a judgement that doesn’t favour a team, the next thing they say is that such ref has collected bribe. The major problem of refs is security,” Adigwe stated.
Violence/insecurity at match venues
Truly, insecurity at match venues has been an ever-present subject in the league. Many a time, irate fans take laws into their hands, beating up referees, club officials and even players, with security operatives incapable of tackling the menace.
Last season, the NPFL tie between Sunshine Stars and Lobi Stars at the Ondo State Sports Complex, Akure, was marred by violence after the home team fans attacked match officials for disallowing their side’s goal.
The game ended 1-0 in favour of visiting Lobi but trouble started when the referee disallowed a goal he adjudged offside. Immediately, the fans descended on the referee and his assistant, throwing dangerous objects at them, forcing the game to be stopped for a few minutes.
On April 10, some Akwa United players and officials were injured and their team bus damaged after attacks by Kano Pillars fans during a league game at the Sani Abacha Stadium.
Christian Pyagbara’s 19th minute strike gave Akwa the win but midway through the second half, fans threw missiles into the pitch, which hit and injured the referee. The home fans then pounced on Akwa defenders Ofem Inah and Kodjo Dadzie and assistant coach Moses Effiong after the encounter, inflicting injuries on them.
Also, Katsina United fans attacked players and officials of two-time African champions Enyimba, after Fatau Dauda, goalkeeper of the Aba club, allegedly punched a ball boy in the face at the Karkanda Stadium in Katsina.
The Ghanaian keeper had to be escorted by policemen from the pitch after the match but the fans attacked the Enyimba team, destroyed their bus and injured some of the players and officials.
“We’ve lost it. I only witnessed crowd violence once when Obanta United played Enyimba in 1989 in the second division; that was even before the professional league started,” Taribo said.
“These days fans beat up refs, coaches and players with reckless abandon. Nobody flourishes in a war zone, so how will the league progress when the fans have turned it to a war zone?”
Adigwe recounts his ordeal in the hands of irate fans.
“I’m retired and I have peace now but assaulting refs in the league is a major issue. I was a referee for 20 years, 11 years of that was in the Premier League and I was physically assaulted severally,” Adigwe stated.
“I have been beaten, battered and chased about on the field. My experiences in Kano, Bako Kotangora Stadium, Minna and Heartland versus Enyimba in Enugu, which was live on SuperSport, are still fresh in my memory. Enyimba won 3-2 but I was beaten and chased around even though it was on TV.”
Before now, sponsorship of the league had frequently been tainted with controversies.
At a point, two telecommunication giants MTN and Globacom were locked in a battle of wits, as they sought to be named the official sponsors of the league. The league, thus suffered for two seasons without title sponsors as the fight continued.
An agreement was finally reached and Globacom was named as sponsors.
In February, SUNDAY PUNCH exposed how N244m TV rights money meant for the league was transferred from the Nigeria Football League Limited (as the league was then known) to the Zenith Bank account of the Club Owners Association by Tunji Babalola (then NFLL secretary) and Esther Adesuyi (NFLL clerk) after it was lodged in the NFLL account by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission in November 2016.
NANF had petitioned the EFCC seeking the release of the money by broadcast rights holder Total Promotions. On the directive of the ant-graft agency, Total Promotions lodged the N244m, which was part of the money for three league seasons, with the Lagos division of the EFCC on June 23, 2016.
But apart from N120m paid to 25 clubs from the money, how the remaining broadcast rights money was shared has been shrouded in secrecy.
Adesuyi said she was not aware of how the money was spent or shared by the club owners, who are not recognised in the Articles and Memorandum of the NFLL. But she confessed that she was given “little” from the N244m but refused to state how much she collected.
“They (club owners) are the ones that disbursed the money. We moved N243m to the club owners’ account and the money was paid to some people that we owe.
“As a signatory, I moved around with fuel and for the stress, they gave me little and they said by the time they (Total Promotions) pay the remaining money (N100m), they will try to do something more,” she stated.
Despite repeated calls for government to hands off ownership of clubs, 16 of the 20 clubs in the domestic topflight last season, were funded by state governments, with the exception of IfeanyiUbah, MFM, ABS and Remo Stars.
However, state governments often use the clubs as tools to score cheap political points, rather than as professional and money-making ventures.
Thus, club officials, who time and again are political allies of the governors, frequently cash in to rip government off revenue that should have accrued to the clubs by embezzling money budgeted for the clubs by the states.
The players are left to suffer as they are owed backlog of salaries and allowances. Cases of placard-carrying footballers protesting and sleeping in front of state Government Houses have become a common occurrence in Nigerian football.
Last month, the Taraba State Government disbanded their male club Taraba United and the women’s team Taraba Queens after a lingering row between players of both clubs and the government over unpaid wages.
In 2015, several Taraba United players were beatn up by armed soldiers for daring to stage a protest in front of the state governor’s office for the non-payment of their salaries for almost a year.
The Taraba State Government in a statement said it discovered that the players, technical crew and management of the two clubs including staff were being owed salaries for some months in 2015, 2016 and eight months in 2017 amounting to over N205,090,000.
It added that both clubs had over bloated the number of players in their squads and further uncovered that there had never been records of revenue generated by the clubs, either through gate takings or sales of players even when the government was aware that some players were sold.
Other issues like bad pitches, win-at-all-cost syndrome and empty stands are problems that have trailed the league since inception in 1990. With the new season set to kick off in January, several of these problems have been left unsolved.
How do the authorities hope to improve on the fortunes of the league?
LMC spokesman Harry Iwuala admitted that the league was faced with several challenges but added that they have put in place measures to rectify the problms of the league in the new season, which begins in January.
“Like every sphere of life, there will always be challenges. We are not in charge of security, it’s the police that is in charge of that, even though the LMC pay them (for security at match venues).
“On other aspects of the league that we need to improve on, we have put everything in place to make the new season the best so far,” he stated.
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