Before I conclude this piece, it will pertinent to take us back, down memory lane at how England cleaned up their game.
England may have been worse than Nigeria
According to Wikipedia, it was because of hooliganism that the English league began to build fences at football grounds.
In the 60s, the United Kingdom had a worldwide reputation for hooliganism in football that it was called the English Disease.
“Football hooliganism in England dates back to the 1880s, when individuals referred to as ‘roughs’ caused trouble at football matches. Local derby matches would usually have the worst trouble, but in an era when fans did not often travel, roughs would sometimes attack the referees and the visiting team’s players”- Wikipedia.org
Names like The Herd (Arsenal), Villa Hard-core (Aston Villa), Suicide Squad (Burnley), Chelsea Head-hunters (Chelsea) and Red Army (Manchester United) amongst others were names of organised Hooligan firms that wreaked havoc on grounds in the UK.
History tells us that in 1974, after Manchester United were relegated to the old Second Division, the Red Army (Man United hooligans) wreaked havoc on many grounds around the UK.
That same year a Bolton Wanderers fans stabbed a young Blackpool fan to death at Bloomfield road in a second division match while an FA Cup quarter final match between Newcastle United and Nottingham Forest in 1974 saw hundreds of fans invade the pitch, one of them attacking a Nottingham Forrest midfielder, Dave Serella Wikipedia.org
Fans also fought on the pitch in 1975 in the relegation battle between Tottenham Hotspurs and Chelsea before Spurs finally relegated Chelsea in the return fixture.
On 8 August 1986 rival gangs of Manchester United and West Ham United hooligans were involved in violence on a Sealink ferry bound for Hook of Holland. Eight football hooligans, all either Manchester United or West Ham United supporters, received prison sentences totalling 51 years 16 months later. Wikipedia.org
The point of this historical class is to show that the fans violence and hooliganism was maybe worse in the English game than in Nigeria, but how did the English clean up their game?
In the 80s, the UK government made concerted efforts to crack down on thugs and hooligans in stadiums. Note that it was a UK government problem, and not a football league problem. In Nigeria, the government seems to look away, making it like a football league problem.
But, it wasn’t just the government alone because the clubs joined in the clean-up.
Leeds United were the first British club to have Closed Circuit Television Cameras (CCTV) installed in their stadium, I believe in the 70s.
Security was increased at the grounds and then seats were numbered and tickets sold according to seats.
Violent people could be traced to their seats and their names and addresses retrieved. They were banned from turning up for matches. It was a concerted effort to clean up the game.
The English banned alcohol at their stadiums. They created early start of games that had the probability of violence.
The idea of moving games from 3pm to noon was to give the trouble makers less time to drink and get drunk.
They also banned fans from stadia (closed door bans as we call it in Nigeria) and of course introduced fan coaching to educate their supporters on the dangers of hooliganism.
How can we get rid of our hooligans?
My friend, Biola Kazeem has this crazy idea that the Nigerian league clubs should do away with the current set of fans and get a new one and I seem to agree with him.
The Nigerian league, he says, does not need most of the current fans that watch games. The ones who do not pay to get in, yet destroy the reputation of the league. They add little value to our football yet they are the first at the grounds. They sit in the VIP section looking unkempt and prevent the real VIP from getting in. The league does not need them.
The League needs the next generation, the generation that currently sit at home to play games on their computers and handheld devices; the generation that currently prefer to watch the European Leagues. The generation that will fill up a stadium for a social media league, yet will not watch the professional league is the group we need at our grounds. The generation that will pay N5,000 (Five thousand naira) to watch a music or comedy show. These should give more value than the current set that cannot pay N300 (Three hundred naira) to watch a Nigerian League game.
No manager of a bank in Nigeria would go to the stadium, jump the barricades and physically assault a referee; no doctor would go for a league game and beat up a referee, neither would an engineer who just returned from a three week job offshore. They will also buy tickets to watch games, and not beg for free tickets. I also doubt if students at our private schools that go on a school bus trip to watch a League game would eventually jump the fence to assault referees. Shouldn’t these be the group we woo to watch our games and adopt our clubs are theirs?
What have these hooligans done to make the League better? But from the foregoing, especially, the first part of my piece, it has become evident that the violence problem in the Nigerian League is not just about the fans. These days even club officials are part of it. The situation this season with Abia Warriors, Dakkada FC and Niger Tornadoes are testament to this.
The next generation
In April 2018, while preparing for the celebration of my 1000th football game watched at a stadium, I visited three secondary schools (two private and one public) and the idea was to chat with the kids about a couple of things, one of them being to follow Nigerian sports and football.
In fact, the administrator of one of the schools I was at held discussions with me regarding taking their students to a League game as a group. We were still working out modalities when the news of a stadium fight broke out in one of our League games.
That is the generation we should target. The 10- 16 year olds. They should be top priority as new set of fans for our league, but how do we do away with the old?
Would the clubs agree?
Therein lies the problem of the League and why the violence may not go away so soon.
The commentary is always about the League increasing the punishment for erring clubs but what is the guarantee that it will change anything?
The penalty for examinations malpractice in our higher institutions is rustication (to suspend or expel temporarily from school) but has this in any way stopped or reduced malpractice? In Nigeria, the penalty for armed robbery is death, but has it stopped armed robbery? As long as the hooligans are hired and paid by the clubs, the violence would be rife at our grounds.
Will the clubs do away with those that help them
win games through ‘Behind the curtain’ means?
The Nigerian League will not improve any time soon and a lot of the blame lies with the chairmen of the League clubs who are under pressure from the state sports commissioners to win the League, qualify to play on the continent or avoid relegation. These state sports commissioners are also under pressure from their state governments because they had probably collected so much money to run the clubs and made promises that would be difficult to fulfil. So the club chairman who wants to justify the expenditure and ensure they still have a job finds a way to win that is totally different from improving the quality of playing personnel or the coaching. The day we all sincerely decide to clean up the league, then it will be clean.
Also, while looking at this to happen, clubs should begin to look at the kind of personnel they hire as staff. Those that slap referees and point bloodthirsty mobs against match officials are certainly not needed.
However, while we wait for this decision to be made, the clubs must realise that they need new sets of fans and staff as the current set of hooligans do not just destroy whatever is left of the League, but prevent the real fans from going close to the stadium. Those that add value that will fill up the grounds enjoy the games, buy replica jerseys, tweet about being at the grounds, and will not help to bring the game to disrepute. But can these club chairmen take the risk?
Let us start by the entrance to most Nigerian League venues. The men at the gates, selling tickets are, for lack of nicer words, are straight up thugs and cut throats. The faint of heart will not go near the gates of our stadia on match days. Can we make a real change in the way we portray our football? Eventually, the Nigerian league is the only league we have. We have dug the pit and thrown it inside already, but we should not bury it.
We can revive our football, but is this a risk we are ready to take? I hope so… In my lifetime.