The Confederation of African Football, CAF has told Enyimba that they cannot play with fans at their Stadium in Sunday’s Champions’ League 2nd leg game against Burkinabe side, Rahimo FC.
Of a few reasons given by CAF, one of them was a pitch invasion/ encroachment by fans after a game last season.
After the Federation Cup final on Sunday, July 29, 2019, in Kaduna between Kano Pillars and Niger Tornadoes where the same thing happened, it has become necessary to have this conversation once again about pitch invasion in Nigerian football and its control.
Or is it really possible to control pitch invasion? Obviously, Nigerian football has told us over and over again that we just have to live with it, but maybe it is really controllable.
What is this pitch invasion?
A pitch invasion during a sporting event or a football match is when a person or group of people run into the pitch while the game is on or just after it ends for purposes of celebration, nuisance, or to physically assault players and officials of the teams playing, or maybe the referees.
In recent times, we saw a pitch invasion in Lagos at the Agege Stadium during the season ended Super 6 play-offs for the League when fans of Kano Pillars armed with weapons took to the pitch in a bid to maim or maybe kill the referee.
In Kaduna, it was fans of Kano Pillars (Again?), but this time it was to celebrate, though it turned ugly because the police had no clue and turned aggressive.
Enyimba style of invasion
If you want to enjoy a good pitch invasion, it has to be the Enyimba style that is unique to just them in Nigeria.
I first saw this in 2004 when I was in Abuja to watch the CAF Champions’ League final. As soon as the final penalty went in and Enyimba had won, I thought I saw something I did not believe I had just seen, but I really saw it.
Five fans, certainly those of Enyimba jumped from the terraces into the pitch and started running around like headless chickens.
It would have been just a case of a few excited fans going to celebrate, if not that they were stark naked. There were full-grown men, running around the football pitch at the end of a continental cup final, stark naked. And of course with their danglers ringing bells all over the place. A game that was live on international television.
I had seen the Enyimba fans do that again in Lagos after they won an FA Cup final and again in Aba when they won a CAF Champion’s League knock out game against Al Hilal in 2008.
Enyimba fans are certainly first, just like their club is first in winning the CAF Champions’ League.
Why do we invade the pitch?
The Enyimba fans, only, can tell us why they ring their bells every time, or most times they win an important game, but for most people all over the world, they just want to celebrate with their team.
In 2008, Stoke City fans (In England o) invaded the pitch after they gained promotion from the Championship to the EPL. Manchester City fans did the same after they won the League in 2014. We see this every year when a club gains promotion, especially via the play-off finals in the Leagues in England.
The Nigerian fans are not different, as they want to celebrate with their teams and their passion for the game overwhelms their sense of reasoning and they stream onto the pitch. Just like we saw in Kaduna in the Federation Cup final and just like we see every time a League game ends. If we are sincere, we will agree that fans stream onto the pitch in Port Harcourt, Aba, Owerri, Jos, Akure etc every time a league game ends and when they do, it is for purposes of hugging the players, taking pictures on the pitch and in some cases to vent their anger on the referees. That Sunday in Kaduna just seemed different because it was a Cup final live on television.
Those that invade the pitch to intentionally cause harm to referees and players are a discussion for another day.
But what do we do about pitch invasion?
I just have to ask because it seems we do not have a solution to it, or we know of no way to control it in Nigeria.
I have thought about the Nigerian security forces and how they have ingeniously done their best to curb pitch invasion in games and I came up with a few Nigerian solutions.
Shoot the invaders? Maybe?
It is possible that we can end pitch invasion once and for all if we just use them for target practice and shoot to kill.
Shoot the invaders as they run in. By the time half a dozen drop dead, the others will be sorted. If this happens in three consecutive games, the message would be clear and pitch invasion will end once and for all in Nigeria. Funny enough, this is the way Nigerian security operatives reason. Everything for them is violence and show of force. Guns are not even allowed into football pitches so how are they always heavily armed in there. You do not shoot pitch invaders. That is all wrong, but we saw it in Maiduguri last season after the game between El-Kanemi and Go Round FC.
Gas them to death
This is already common practice. As soon as they invade the pitch, shoot canisters of tear gas at them. Do not bother that this action can result in stampede, or death, nope! Just gas them out like the police did in Kaduna in that Federation Cup final and they do anytime there is an incident at a public ground.
The police at the grounds can also mount on horses to chase the invaders while flogging them with horsewhips, use hunting dogs to charge at them or just plain manhandle them. Things we have seen time and time again at our grounds, so any of these would not be new.
Nope! That is no way to handle pitch invaders.
But can the Nigerian police grow?
The police in Nigeria like so many other forces in the country still live and operate like we are in the 1930s when might was right and when jungle justice was the order of the day.
In Nigeria, the police will shoot, gas, flog and plain manhandle you because that is the only way to stop protesters or in this case, pitch invaders.
But is there really a way out?
I really do not think pitch invasion can be stopped in Nigeria but I believe it can be better managed.
Extra stewards and police
In Uyo, the last time the Super Eagles played a World Cup Qualifier there, I saw the increased number of police personnel, most of them armed with guard dogs. As soon as it was ten minutes to the end of the game, they all took positions around the perimeter, facing the fans. The personnel were so many, there was less than a meter of space between them and they went all the way around.
Not a single fan jumped over to run into the pitch. Maybe, because of the number of policemen standing and facing them or because of the fact that there was one guard dog to two policemen. There was sanity after that game. what impressed me was their coordination and discipline on the day.
So we could increase the number of trained policemen and stewards at the grounds, and the keyword here is TRAINED.
Get properly trained policemen and stewards to oversee football games
Then while we are at this, we could we create a department in the police who will be trained for public appearances like sporting events, rallies and other such things.
What should the police do in the case of pitch encroachment? Shoot teargas? Shoot live bullets?
Like we saw in the case of Stoke City and Manchester City, there was little or nothing the police could do as soon as the mob got onto the pitch, apart from just gently try to ward them off and that is proper management. The key is stopping them from getting on to to the pitch, but when that fails, using force will also fail.
Most times in Nigerian football, venues for big games are not even known until very close to the dates. The Federation Cup final date was not even known one week to the game as it had been put off indefinitely, then fixed for midweek and then moved to Sunday. These do not help for proper planning.
The Nigeria Football Federation must be firm on the scheduling of events. It is not right to just pick a venue without prior notice that would aid in proper planning.
An event as big as the Federation Cup final must have a venue picked well in time so work can begin as regards setting up committees, sub-committees and working out logistics for a smooth running.
Impose punitive measures
When there is invasion during a game, or when there is an important game at a venue that has history, measures should be put in place to ensure certain incidents do not occur.
For example, the first three rows can be shut down at the stadium to give the police a clear line of sight and of course, keep the fans further away from trouble as possible.
A punitive measure like fining the host FA or the host club may not be out of place. And it must be a fine that will really hit them hard.
Fining erring clubs or host FAs could get them to be serious as regards crowd control. The FA is always responsible for the provision of security at the grounds, aren’t they?
Truth must be told that pitch invasions will happen, but management is much more important than outright stopping it because stopping it entirely will be a hard sell. Nigeria is a crowd management disaster when it comes to political rallies, entertainment and sports.
Nigeria, hopefully, will host the Women U20 World Cup in 2020 and the time to start planning is now. If we cannot manage the fans then we might be in trouble.
It will be nice to read your thoughts on this.