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Enoh is deceived by Nigeria’s huge population

Following the public outcry over the recent snub of Nigerian referees by the Confederation of African Football (CAF), the Minister of Sports, Senator John Enoh,…

Following the public outcry over the recent snub of Nigerian referees by the Confederation of African Football (CAF), the Minister of Sports, Senator John Enoh, held an emergency meeting with the leadership of the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF), the Nigeria Referees Association (NRA) and the Nigeria Premier Football League (NPFL) on September 15, to investigate into the immediate and remote causes of the latest disgrace from CAF.

The football governing body in Africa has made public a list of referees who are to undergo a training course preparatory to the forthcoming Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) Championship in Cote d’Ivoire and Nigerian referees are conspicuously missing. To put it more succinctly, no referee from Nigeria is considered good enough to officiate at the continental showpiece in 2024.

The unfortunate development no doubt came as a rude shock and embarrassment to Nigerians especially those who still believe that their referees are among the best in the continent. In fact, some would even want FIFA to accept that Nigerian referees are fit to handle World Cup matches.

Well, at the meeting with the concerned stakeholders in Abuja, the Minister reportedly expressed shock that despite Nigeria’s huge population, there is no single referee that has qualified to officiate at the AFCON. He went on to say the exclusion of Nigerian referees is an emergency that must be addressed immediately.

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North East Nigeria: Development to the rescue

Enoh said “With CAF releasing the names and nationalities of 85 match officials for training towards AFCON 2023, it is embarrassing that we did not have a single Nigerian on the list. As sports minister, I see this development as an emergency that we need to respond to, as quickly as possible. It gets even worse that two years ago, we only had one Nigerian official, who was an assistant referee, and two years prior, we had no centre referee.

“We keep getting confronted by this embarrassing situation and we have allowed it to reoccur, by doing nothing on the responsibilities within our volition and the responsibilities outside our volition. Therefore, it is important to interrogate this matter, because it is a real blow to the progress of our sports.”

It is difficult to disagree with the Minister that what has happened is not shameful. However, Senator Enoh is feeling this bad because he is just coming in. For those of us who have been around for decades, we are no doubt embarrassed by this latest humiliation but are not shocked by it. It has become a recurring decimal so we are already used to it. Any time it happens, we simply sweep it under the carpet. As a matter of fact, this is the 13th time that no Nigerian referee will be officiating at the AFCON.

Honourable Minister, I know you are wondering why a country of over 200 million people cannot produce a single referee at the AFCON but wonder no more. This is possible when you have quantity without quality. You will agree with me that with its population, India is yet to appear at the FIFA World Cup. The Chinese were there for the first and only time in 2002 but stopped at the group stage. So, Senator, in this case, don’t be deceived by our huge population. It is big for nothing.

The truth of the matter is that systematic failure has halted the growth of Nigerian football. From the NFF to NPFL and NRA, the system is in comatose and things are done haphazardly. So, I most respectfully want the new Minister of Sports to lower his expectations because it will take the special grace of God for the rot in the system to allow our referees to also shine.

Like I always say, there are good referees in the country who can excel if given the right environment. Unfortunately, the system is making nonsense of their efforts. As a certified referee, I know quite well that becoming an elite referee in Nigeria isn’t easy at all. And even when you have scaled the hurdles to get to the top, you must have the capacity to overcome nepotism to succeed. No matter how good you may be, you must have a strong godfather to officiate in the Nigerian league and be recommended to FIFA for accreditation. I know those who are concerned will argue over this, but deep down their hearts, they know it is the gospel truth.

The system is so defective that at a stage NPFL clubs were handed the responsibility of paying for referees’ indemnities. This abnormal policy entrenched bribery and corruption as referees became articles for the highest bidder. It was difficult for the league to witness fair officiating because he who pays the piper dictates the tune.

So, even as the new leadership of the NPFL has taken the responsibility for indemnities from the clubs, that mentality still exists because most of the referees still attach themselves to clubs that will pay them the highest amount for their services. It is now an open secret that clubs spend more on referees than their players. As this is happening, the whole world is following the ugly trend. The international football ruling bodies are also watching. They now believe all referees in Nigeria are the same. CAF and FIFA may be thinking that our referees are good but can be compromised easily.

However, it is also pertinent to add that the case of Nigerian referees is made worse by the non-visibility of the NPFL. The league is not on live television so it has become difficult for the good ones among them to showcase their abilities to the world. The league is nearly obscure so even if you are the best referee, once you are officiating in it, the world won’t recognise you. You are nothing more than a local champion.

My message to the Hon. Minister is that we still have good referees in the country but they are either concealed by the amateur league we call Premier or the corrupt system has sidelined most of them. It is a shame that we currently have 29 FIFA badged referees yet none of them is good enough to officiate at the next AFCON. So, who sent their names to FIFA for accreditation?  Maybe, they know someone who knows someone that knows someone in NFF and NRA.

As a matter of fact, I am happy that the minister went straight to the source of the present humiliation. What has happened to Nigerian referees is not new but, in the past, nobody was called to render any explanation. If Senator Enoh is able to ask questions and take appropriate decisions, everybody will be forced to sit up. We can’t fold our hands and wait for another international embarrassment.

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