After series of spiraling events, postponements, dilly-dallying, and a host of other stumbling blocks, I finally went to a Nigerian Professional Football League game (NPFL).
Prior to the formation of the League Management Committee (LMC) and reestablishment of the league, the league experienced an unprecedented level of decline. Although football is the country’s national sport, the domestic competitions suffered neglect and obscurity from the people, mostly as a result of the unsavory scenes that gritted match days. The situation grew even worse around the early 2000s when cable TVs became a commonplace, heralding a total development of Nigerians’ affinity for the European League, and most notably the English Premier League.
In the past, I have been to a national game, but the Shooting Stars vs. Plateau United is the first Nigerian League match I had ever seen – though I have watched numerous matches on TV. It was Sunday afternoon, and there wasn’t much to do, so, I thought of hanging out. It then came to me in an epiphany that there’d be an NPFL game. “No going back, the jinx of not seeing a game would be broken today,” I thought to myself.
By the time I arrived the stadium, it was about 20mins past kickoff. I saw people thronging hurriedly towards the ticket office and some others into the arena. Instantly, I was caught in the exciting frenzy, and I rushed along as if a step slower would make me miss the entire match.
At the ticket office, I saw people making frantic efforts to get tickets. There were young, as well as old people, male and female alike. I saw haggard-looking folks and something that describes poor – if not wretched, buying tickets to see the game. I was taken aback. More often, I have interacted with friends who are lovers of football but haven’t seen any sense watching a Nigerian League game on TV, talk less of going to the stadium to see a game. “Nigerian what?”, “It is a waste of time and money” they’d protest, with sullen and dismissive countenances. But there I was, with folks who epitomize the suffering Nigerians, yet for the craving and love of the game, can still manage to buy tickets for a league match. I was overwhelmed.
In the arena, the covered area ticket I got couldn’t get me a seat. Like many others, I had to find a place to stand at the terrace behind the seats. Well, it looked like there wasn’t a system to check if seats were still available for a particular stand before selling more, and apparently, the number of tickets printed for the match day exceeded the number of seats available. Nevertheless, I shrugged it off. I should enjoy this ‘historic’ moment, I said to myself.
No sooner have I entered that I noticed a trend. Both sides were apprehensive of each other, trying to get the away from their goal as quick as possible. At the brink of half-time whistle, the visiting team scored a goal from a throw, courtesy of the casual defending by the home side. From that moment, things took a dramatic plunge. Plateau United, the visiting team, started exhibiting antics.
By the turn of the match and few minutes of the second half, Shooting Stars had started to pile the pressure on the away side, looking for a way to turn things around. The antics and time-wasting tactics of Plateau United became recurrent, with their players suddenly dropping on the field, seeking medical attention, and bringing the play to a halt. It became rampant, with the Centre Referee failing to curb the excesses of the away side, and the fans having to endure a halt-play-halt game.
Things reached it peaked when a defender of Plateau United suddenly went down after Shooting Stars had spurned a chance. The medical staff of Shooting Stars, rushed in to attend to him, just as they’ve been doing throughout the match. They tried to lift the player out of the pitch with their stretcher, but the defender wouldn’t have any of it, deliberately refuting their attempts. The situation led to a scuffle between the visiting players and the home team medical staff. Eventually, the player was taken out of the pitch but was dropped outside in a cavalier manner, causing some of the Plateau United players to accost the medical staff leading to a push and shove confrontation. A few moments later, the General Manager of the home side then rushed to the touchline, angrily calling the attention of the referee, and saying something which was inaudible from the stands.
After a while, the skirmish started to die down, until the Coach of Plateau lunged towards the 3SC General Manager in what looked like fisticuffs were about to ensue. He was, however, held back by some members of his staff. This drew the ire of the Shooting Stars fans, with some throwing plastic objects towards the team members and staff of Plateau United. The pelting then fomented trouble among the home fans themselves, as some angrily challenged others that threw the objects towards the pitch, an action that seemingly meant to halt an action that could lead to a ban for the home side. Eventually, normalcy returned and the game was revived. Shooting Stars continued to pile the pressure, and they got their equalizer from the spot when a player who wanted to strike a rebound from an earlier shot was hacked down by an opposing defender. Tied at 1-1, the away side held on, employing their time-wasting antic, albeit mildly, as against their earlier actions. Finally, the Centre Referee blew the whistle, signaling an end to the game, but there was a sour taste in the mouth of the home team fans, while the away side shook themselves for a job ‘well done.’
As a football lover, I felt disappointed with the events of the day. A league that wants to grow, and willing to change the awful narratives around its reputation, and increase its fan base would do everything to avoid any dent, and ensure that such situations are dealt with to curb its reoccurrence. However, it wasn’t all negatives. I saw a passion in the fans, albeit laced with anger. I saw the capacity to check themselves even in the face of anger and incitement. I saw the prospect of fans being the ones to end the hooliganism in football. I see the possibility of the Nigerian League attaining greatness.