The 2023/2024 Nigeria Premier Football League (NPFL) season is just eight weeks old but there are deafening complaints over poor officiating. This is not coming as a surprise because the beautiful game of football is constantly threatened by bad officiating. No week passes in the major leagues across the world without disagreements over referees’ decisions.
For instance, Arsenal and their teeming fans around the world are still angry with the referee who officiated their recent match at Newcastle United where they controversially lost 1-0 to surrender their unbeaten run.
At the end of the match, their coach, Mikel Arteta was furious about the standard of Premier League officiating and vehemently questioned why the winning goal from Anthony Gordon was allowed to stand after a video review.
The coach expressed his disappointment and said he felt “ashamed” and “embarrassed”, and that the decisions reached were a “disgrace”. Arteta had the full backing of his club as the following day, Arsenal issued a statement urging English football’s refereeing body to “address the standard of officiating” in the league.
And not long ago, a long serving referee in the English Premier League (EPFL), Anthony Taylor, was demoted to the second tier of the English Football League after he was at the centre of a refereeing storm. He had given a penalty to Newcastle in their 2-2 draw against Wolves at Molineux. The Premier League’s Independent Key Match Incidents Panel believed the penalty awarded was an incorrect decision, so he was instantly penalised. In fact, Taylor was the third referee to be demoted to the Championship this season.
Therefore, the issue of poor officiating is not peculiar to Nigerian referees but in our case, it has become a recurring decimal and a serious clog in the wheel of progress. Unfortunately, bad officiating in the NPFL seems to be growing worse every day and football fans who demand changes are made to appear like people attempting to fetch water using a basket. Most of our referees are not deserving of their badges. They are like well-trained snipers who go to match venues to kill the joy of the fans.
Only recently, the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) was left with no option than to suspend at least 14 referees in the ongoing NPFL season over poor officiating. The NFF’s Referees Development Committee/Unit had written to the NPFL’s Chief Operating Officer, Davidson Owumi ordering for the suspension of Bawa Buhari, Chukwuka Jahlove, Akinwale Tomiwa, Saeed Abdulaziz, Jimmy Aimugbonrie, Brown Ebenezer and Atuwho Morrison, Imamu Maliki, Sunday Azi and the four match officials involved in a Matchday 6 fixture between Sunshine Stars and Abia Warriors.
The referees committee also demanded video footage of the games in which these NPFL match officials performed poorly and deserved to be temporarily suspended from the NPFL. Consequently, the NPFL is to provide full video of the matches the affected referees officiated including the three fixtures involving Niger Tornadoes and two games of Sporting Lagos.
Not forgotten are the video clips of the Matchday 5 encounter between Gombe United and Plateau United as well as the week 7 fixture between Bendel Insurance and Remo Stars In Benin where a potential goal of the season scored by a Remo Stars player was controversially disallowed.
The NFF has said it requested for the video clips for its committee to carry out a proper evaluation of decisions and performances of the officials who have been stepped down from the league. While the NFF deserves commendation for acting swiftly in order to curtail the increasing wave of bad officiating in the NPFL, those charged with the responsibility shouldn’t shy away from applying the appropriate sanctions.
If after a careful study of the video clips, those referees who deserve to be banned out rightly from officiating in the league are allowed to return and continue with his nefarious activities, then their suspension and subsequent investigations would amount to nothing more than beautiful nonsense. Once referees are made to understand that they won’t get away with their criminal actions, many of them would be forced to cut down on their excesses.
However, this is not a call for the victimisation of referees because they are also human and are bound to make mistakes. Unfortunately, most of them hide under this fact to commit atrocious acts. Some of their so-called human errors are intentional and unpardonable. For instance, when I watched the video clip of the match between Bendel Insurance and Remo Stars, I was shocked by the decision of the referee to disallow Remo Stars’ breath-taking equaliser.
Although many reasons were given immediately to justify what many have referred to as the ‘broad daylight robbery’ in Benin City, the NFF has listed the officials in that match among the suspended referees. Therefore, those who had called for the head of the referee have been vindicated. It means there was wrong-doing in that match. I doubt if the referee and his assistant would have cancelled the same goal if it were scored by the home team.
Furthermore, I implore the NFF to take its war against poor officiating beyond sanctioning the referees alone. Their principal accomplices are the club managers. Most of the referees’ evil actions are instigated by these desperate club managers who want to win by hook or by crook means. Some clubs now have referees that are usually assigned to officiate their matches. They achieve this by working with those saddled with the task of appointing referees for matches.
Therefore, I urge the NFF to remember to investigate managers of the clubs whose matches were officiated by the referees who are presently suspended over poor officiating. There is an Igbo adage that when a bird is dancing in the middle of the road it has the gods beating the drums for it in the forests. Most of these referees don’t just get up to misbehave, they are gingered and emboldened by some unscrupulous elements among the club managers. The NFF must fish out and punish these corrupt club officials along with the ‘egunje’ referees. If the football federation wants to cleanse the rot in the system, there should be no sacred cows.
For now, we are still waiting for the day a Nigerian referee will rise above poor officiating which is usually triggered by bribery and corruption, to officiate at the biggest stage in world football. No Nigerian has officiated at the Olympics or the FIFA World Cup.