As the 2023 Nigeria Premier Football League (NPFL), abridged season enters Week 3 today, the desire of many football stakeholders no doubt is for the fair officiating and the resultant away victories recorded so far to continue unhindered. Some people may rightly say it is too early in the day to give the referees a pass mark but we have to encourage those who are doing their best to make a difference.
Without doubt, the professionalism exhibited so far by some of the referees is responsible for the history that has been made. Since the inception of professional football league in Nigeria in 1972, this is the first time that the opening week has produced four away wins and four away draws. It’s simply unprecedented.
It will be recalled that the official opening match of the current season ended in favour of Bendel Insurance who shocked Akwa United 2-0 at the ‘Nest of Champions’ in Uyo. By the time the remaining nine matches in both Group A and B were played, three more away victories were recorded. Niger Tornadoes shocked Wikki Tourists 2-0 in Bauchi, Enyimba edged Nasarawa United 2-1 in Jos while Rangers lost 0-1 at home to Abia Warriors. Infact, only two clubs, Rivers United and Remo Stars won their home matches.
Interestingly, Week Two matches too were not concluded without an away win as the only privately owned and true professional club in the NPFL, Remo Stars, travelled far north to beat Gombe United 1-0. As a matter of fact, it was the first home defeat for Gombe United in three years. That enviable record was shattered by the youngsters from Ikenne. The away win by Remo Stars was complimented by three away draws as Akwa United forced Enyimba to a 0-0 draw in Aba, Kwara United also earned a point in a 0-0 draw with their ‘landlords’ 3SC in Ibadan and Rivers United forced Sunshine Stars to a 1-1 draw in Akure.
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As said earlier, the away victories and draws we are talking about wouldn’t have been possible without the fair officiating by most of the referees that we have seen in action so far. It will be recalled that when he inaugurated the newly constituted Referees Appointment Committee, the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) president, Ibrahim Gusau, charged the football arbiters to be fair and firm in their decisions as he warned sternly that it will never be business as usual. By that statement, Gusau only confirmed the already known fact that most Nigerian referees indulge in dubious practices with the whistle.
However, the results recorded so far in the 2023 NPFL season are indications that the men who had become cogs in the wheel of progress are ready to repent. But truth be told, if not for the wise and selfless decision by the Hon. Gbenga Elegbeleye led Interim Management Committee (IMC) to take away the payment of referees indemnities from the clubs, Gusau’s vow to flush out the bad eggs among the ‘gentlemen of the whistle’ would have made no difference. For now, based on the arrangement with GTI Investment, one of the sponsors of the league, we are told referees’ entitlements are paid directly into their bank accounts even before they arrive at their match venues. This has given the referees the audacity to take courageous decisions.
As a matter of fact, it is still difficult to understand what the defunct League Management Company (LMC) was thinking when it handed over the payment of referees indemnities to the clubs. By that senseless decision, the league title literally became an article for the highest bidder. It became so easy for matches to be bought because referees were easily compromised. Those who paid the piper dictated the tune.
Therefore, for finding a way to stop clubs from having total control over referees, the IMC has solved almost half of the problems that have continued to make nonsense of past efforts to reposition the NPFL. Clubs are beginning to believe that away victories are possible. It is necessary to reiterate that once the win at home by all means syndrome is abolished, the standard of the league will naturally improve.
Indeed, it was so frustrating for most clubs that suffered broad daylight robberies in the hands of match officials who had collected ‘egunje’. At the same time, there was constant bloodbaths at match venues where referees collected bribes but failed to deliver to specifications.
Well, it is said to whom much is given, much is expected. Therefore, having been liberated from their oppressors, Nigerian football referees must prove to everyone that their poor outings in the past seasons were as a result of lack of motivation. They have started well this season but if they still return to the bad habits that have denied them recognition and match appointments by FIFA and CAF, everyone will conclude that they are incurably pathetic. At the same time, they must not manufacture away wins for clubs in order to be seen to be providing a level playing field.
Nevertheless, for the referees to continue to fair and just in the discharge of their duties, they must be provided with a conducive environment, which can’t be achieved without the cooperation of the clubs. League football is like a marathon race so along the way, desperation will set in for some clubs. Those who want to win the title will become desperate to scoop as many points as possible and those faced with relegation would show even more hunger for points to beat the drop. At that time, supporters of such clubs would have little or no regard for fairplay. All they would want would be nothing but victory by hook or crooked means. It is at that time that we would know the true colours of the clubs and the referees. For now, let the away victories continue to flow.