From the edge of uncertainty, the NPFL finally resumed on the 13th of January 2019. The league season grinded to a highly unsatisfactory conclusion last year, as erstwhile leaders, Lobi Stars advanced as the country’s representative in the continental Champions League. The league itself was discontinued, but even that resolution seemed to spark further confusion and led to greater confusion in the promotion and relegation stakes.
An uneasy compromise has led to something approaching normalcy, but if anyone was under any illusions that the lengthy break would precipitate a change in terms of practices in the league, the opening fortnight of the league season has swiftly proved otherwise.
The pesky, delicate matter of matchday violence is one which has always cast a shadow on the best efforts of the League Management Company (LMC). While the LMC has made it a point to project the league in a more positive light, even to the point of waging virtual war on any less than complimentary feedback, the activities of hooligans in the stadiums has repeatedly thrown a wrench in the works.
This season has been no different. Already, there have been three incidents bordering on intimidation and downright assault of match officials in the wake of unfavourable results for the home sides.
First, troubling reports and images would emerge from the Jos International Stadium, home of Plateau United; and the following week there were similar gory pictures from Sagamu, the home of newly-promoted Remo Stars. Incidentally, these two stadiums have been flashpoints before: Remo were forced to play behind closed doors two seasons ago, while last season, Enyimba made their way out of the away dressing room in Jos through a police cordon.
The ever-present sense of volatility is only worsened by the format of the league this season which has been split into groups, with the top three from both groups advancing to a Championship round. This means there is significantly less margin for error, and as such, greater desperation for points at home. In all of this, the LMC finds itself in a testing situation. There is only so much it can do to save face without dealing with the actual infraction in a manner that fits the gravity of the offence. It is on this front that the league organisers have fallen short, and seem to lack the will to bring the hammer down with maximum force.
Plateau United, in the wake of the violence in their home stadium, have been banished to Lafia in neighbouring Nasarawa State, while Remo are now forced to play in Ogbomosho. Both clubs have also been required to pay fines, both to the LMC and to the referees who were assaulted. Aside from the fact that these fines are almost never paid (and the LMC cannot simply deduct from the clubs’ prize money either, as even they reportedly do not pay that), there is the sense that these punishments are mere slaps on the wrist.
Playing behind closed doors or banishing teams to play away from home is hardly a deterrent. It is not uncommon for games to be designated as behind closed doors and yet feature packed VIP stands. Besides, it is the gruelling distances which visiting teams have to travel that place them at a disadvantage, not so much the usually scant home support.
There is a lesson in decisive action which the LMC should follow from Confederation of African Football (CAF), who booted Egyptian side Ismaily out of the CAF Champions League. The home supporters took to hurling objects at the match officials, and the match was duly abandoned in the 88th minute. In keeping with the letter of their rule book, and with no consideration or prejudice, CAF proceeded to expel the Egyptians from the competition. More than anything else, this sends a message: the integrity of the competition is sacrosanct above all else.
LMC’s defence seems to be that the punishments they have prescribed are in keeping with their rules and guidelines then stronger laws are required. There is no reason why teams who allow miscreants to enter the stadium and molest match officials should not have points deducted. Only by laying out the most extreme of penalties will teams learn what should be obvious: the security of everyone present in the stadium on matchday is their responsibility.