Now there is a trend in the Nigerian League where teams with unruly fans are punished with playing games behind closed doors.
In these games, only the players, coaches of the two teams, journalists, referees and other essential staff of the clubs playing are permitted in the stadium.
However, it has not really worked in Nigeria because different kinds of people find their way into the stadium under one guise or another.
I myself have experienced games, at least four of them in my lifetime where spectators were not supposed to go in and what I saw in those grounds showed a lot of things from the ingenuity of Nigerians to beat the law or plain stubbornness on the part of club officials but I tell my story here.
In 2005 a league game in Port Harcourt between Dolphins and Bendel Insurance had some fracas at half time.
Subsequently Dolphins were told by the League body that they would play their next couple of games behind closed doors.
One of such games was one against NPA, a club based in Lagos.
I was part of that game and I have told that story at least a million times between then and now.
Match Commissioner for that game was a strict no nonsense woman who wanted to follow the rules to the letter.
She insisted the game would not start until everyone not supposed to be in the stadium had been ushered out and she took her time sending people out of the stadium.
However, a crowd of street urchins, the ones we call “Area Boys” in Nigeria had made their way to the media tribune and were comfortably seated.
Now for those who do not know, it is these area boys that cause trouble at the stadium- probably the reason for the closed door ban anyway.
The match commissioner sensing there were too many “journalists” in the media tribune called the attention of the Team Manager of Dolphins then, Diepreye Fiberesima and wanted every single person there to identify himself.
At that same time, sensing that there would be trouble, I heard a husky voice address me from behind.
I was sitting in the media tribune with a few colleagues of mine and at least 20 of these area boys who had found their way in.
That voice went “Oga China, all of us na journalist today o. If this woman pursue us, you don die for our hand o.”
That simply meant, “Mr. China, we are all journalists today. You will be in trouble if you let the match commissioner send us out of the stadium.”
That alone told me there would be trouble. I had to identify these hoodlums as journalists any way I could.
I saw the Match Commissioner walk towards the media tribune, the Team Manager in tow.
Knowing my life was in danger, I quickly stepped up as she asked randomly for ID cards.
“Hey madam,” I said, my voice probably shaky. “These are all journalists here.”
But she would have none of it. She insisted on each person there providing an ID card and I continued to insist that as media officer of the club, I had identified them all and they deserved to be there.
While I argued with the match commissioner on why she should not cross check with the vagabonds at the media tribune I could feel them getting ready to attack me physically if I didn’t make a good case for them.
The Team Manager, sensing my predicament promptly told the Match Commissioner that the club trusts my judgment and had no reason to second guess me so they left.
It was a close shave for me but at least 20 people who shouldn’t have, watched that game between Dolphins and NPA.
Kaduna United V Dolphins
In 2010, I was in Kaduna for a game between Kaduna United and Dolphins.
Before then, there had been some fan violence and the home side was slammed with a closed door ban, but what did they do to get the most violent of their fans into the ground?
Chairman of the club, Sabo Babayaro quickly set up a task force for special security at the stadium.
Guess what? This special security squad was made up of the same trouble makers at the stadium in Kaduna.
Needless to say I was molested and almost beaten up by the special security force at the stadium before the Match Commissioner saved me.
The special unit created by the club chairman accounted for at least 50 illegal entrants into the stadium that day for a game that was played behind closed doors.
Sharks V Akwa United
Just recently Sharks were slammed with a 4 match ban on fans watching their matches.
But reports indicate, especially from blogger Nduka Orjinmo that there were as many people in Sharks matches as on normal days and he wondered how those games could be said to have been played under closed doors.
ABS V Dolphins
Now the game between ABS and Dolphins last month will be remembered for lots of things.
Certainly not the fact that the League champions lost 2-0 to lowly ABS three days after beating Sony Ela Nguema 3-0 in the Champions League; certainly not the fact that Dolphins travelled 16 hours by road to play on Wednesday, three days after a Champions League encounter, but will be remembered because ABS also had fans banned from watching at the Stadium because of violence a few days back in a game between Kwara United and Shooting Stars.
Now the Match Commissioner of that game seemed a nice gentleman and before the game told us stories of how he dislikes violence in football.
He told us how he had commissioned a game a few years back between Lobi Stars and Heartland and the referee was “killed” right in front of him.
He told us that the chairman of the home side, who was then an NFF board member ordered irate fans to kill the referee while he stood watching, not being able to do anything.
According to him the club chairman looked at him and said, “You can write whatever you want in your report, nothing will happen.”
He said when they left the referee for dead, he took him in his car to a hospital and they were turned down by four hospitals who thought the referee was already dead.
But they finally got to a place that accepted them and it took almost one hour to get the referee out of his state of lifelessness.
After writing his report, just like the club chairman said, they were not banned, sanctioned or even given a warning letter.
The Match Commissioner told us how he would never condone such anymore in his life.
Alas, while the game got into the second half a group of about 15 evil looking men made their way into the stadium.
A journalist next to me whispered that they were the people responsible for the violence at the stadium in the game between Kwara United and Sunshine Stars.
On sighting them, the Match Commissioner ordered a policeman on duty to send them out of the stadium and that is where the drama started.
The police man went to them and spoke in Yoruba, Joo, se o le ba mi ku’ro ni stadium yii ki ogbeni alabojuto ere boolu yi le fi mi si’le! meaning, “Please I beg you, can you help me by just leaving the stadium so this Match Commissioner will not disturb me anymore.
It bothered me that the police on duty had to beg these boys to leave rather than walk them out.
One of them who seemed like their leader replied in harsh tone, Ogbeni yen le ku it o ba wuu awa ko ni ku’ro ni ibi bayii. Kinni o le se ni’pa re?! meaning “That man can go to hell. We will not leave this stadium. What can he do about it?
The enraged Match Commissioner ordered more police men to get those fellas out of the stadium but all they did was beg and the hoodlums refused, one of them even threatening to go pitch side and slap the Commissioner for daring to send them out.
It took the Team Manager of Bukola Babes to plead with the hoodlums to leave, one of them saying, Ti ko ba se ti ogbeni yii ni, emi ki ba ti ku’ro ni ibe yen. Eeyan daa-daa ni, oun kii se eeyan buruku bi ogbeni alabojuto ere boolu yen “If not for this man I wouldn’t have left. He is a good person not like that stupid match commissioner.
Seeing that situation in Ilorin was not funny; I was not even angry. I felt sorry for the powerless police at the stadium, the Match Commissioner who wanted to enforce the law and the Team Manager of ABS, my own friend Alloy Chukwuemeka who like the police had to resort to begging the hoodlums.
You know why? My mind played back to 2005 when I faced similar situation. I lied and accredited hoodlums as journalists in a match played behind closed doors and I did it to save my life.
So the question is- Who enforces discipline at our League grounds? Who?
Is there really a need for the NPL to say clubs should play behind closed doors when it can’t be enforced?
A lot is wrong with our league and this is just one of them.