No one wins away games in the Nigerian Professional Football League (NPFL).
Well hardly ever. In the 2017 season, only 19 games were won by the away team, 5% of the season's games. Six out of twenty teams did not win a single away game all season. Plateau United, the champions, won only two away games but won seventeen of their nineteen home games.
This trend is not new; in the last 15 years, home teams have been nearly invincible.
Home advantage is an established concept in football. Raucous home support, an uncomfortable trip for the away team, and added motivation not to lose on your turf all make it more likely that the home team will win. In Nigeria, home advantage is accentuated by the commute. The commute is usually exhausting, especially because Nigeria does not have very good roads. All in all, stressed-out players will not perform as well as the home team.
While travel plays a role in ensuring home advantage, the rarity of away wins in Nigeria suggests the reason goes beyond long commutes. It turns out that club presidents and fans play a huge role in the phenomenon.
Crooked Club Presidents
Nigerian football clubs are run and funded by state governments, barring a few exceptions owned by private individuals. State governments appoint chairmen to run the clubs, and these are usually civil servants at state FA rank. Club chairmen, particularly those that run bigger clubs, are often under a lot of pressure to win games and finish near the top of the league. Because of this, they often employ a variety of methods to ensure they win –including bribing referees and inciting violence.
David Asuzu* has been playing in the Nigerian league for ten years and considers club chairmen to be parasites destroying the league. “I put a lot of the blame on the club chairmen, they don’t allow the referees to officiate properly,” he tells me. “There’s a backdoor where they offer the referees all sorts including huge sums of money to ensure that their team wins at home by all means” he continues.
According to him, club chairmen exploit home advantage to an extreme as they can more easily control what goes on within their territory.
These chairmen have access to state government resources, and often use this means to bribe referees to favour their teams. Franklin Obiagwu*, a Sports analyst and reporter, echoes David’s point, “the system is structured in a way that wrongdoing is prevalent, in many cases the referees are boxed into tight corners making them disrupt games to favour the home team” he says. Nigerian referees are paid very little, receiving salaries between ₦80,000 to ₦100,000.
“Unfortunately, there’s a lot of corruption in the system. A referee that earns a ₦100,000 and is offered a million naira to alter a game in favour of the home team will most likely take the bribe,” Mr Obiagwu explains. Why just the home team? Well, referees are often too afraid to even subtly favour teams away from home as they know that home fans are eager to hop on any perceived slight against their team.
In theory, referee compensation should not incite bribery and match-fixing. Referees – even those abroad – usually work part-time and may have other sources of income. This suggests either of two things; the first is that referees are being enticed by rewards that they can't get from their other jobs – insurance, accommodation, etc., or that Nigerian referees just don't have good jobs outside football.
Fan violence plays a huge role in the rarity of away wins. Over the years, referees have had to contend with violent and entitled fans who believe their team must always win.
For example, on 23rd April, after Plateau United scored a late equaliser against Heartland FC Owerri, Heartland fans descended on the match officials and accused them of favouring the away team. The violent attack on the officials, which was backed by Heartland management, left the referee hospitalised.
Fan aggression is not directed to referees alone. Many times, players are attacked during and after games. Mr Asuzu vividly remembers one occasion. “In 2013 against Wikki Tourists of Bauchi, my team scored a late goal. Immediately that goal came in, the fans jumped in the pitch and beat up the referee. We were dragged into that violence too, many of our players sustained injuries on that day,” he muses.
While many Nigerian football fans may scoff at the idea that fan violence is prevalent, the reality is that it is common enough to have created a culture of fear among referees and players. Ahmed Rufai, another sports analyst, suggests that while bribes are a carrot to entice referees, the threat of violence acts as a very hard stick. “Even when referees are determined not to be influenced by money offered, it is no guarantee that the mob will not come for them after the game,” he says.
League Management Company
Set up in 2012, the League Management Company (LMC), is the league regulator and has been working hard to address issues of violence and corruption. Their efforts have not gone unnoticed. “I have to be honest that there have been some changes in the last three seasons we have had. It was almost impossible before now to win away games, with the LMC things are slowly changing,” David Asuzu says. “Even Referees are more accountable because the LMC watches out for poor officiating.”
LMC has sanctioned officials who are caught favouring teams or accepting bribes. Teams are also punished for fan violence. In February, the LMC suspended Kwara and Katsina United for ten matches for fighting at a match venue. And ten referees were suspended in March for poor officiating.
But the road is a long and treacherous one. Franklin Obiagwu, who used to work for the LMC as a match delegate, says Club Chairmen make the job of the LMC difficult, “I have been offered bribes on different occasions by club chairmen. They wanted me to alter my reports about the match and referees to the LMC, ” he explains.
The reality is that the LMC can only deal with what they see, and it is often difficult to prove wrong-doing, especially when referees have been bribed. And even when violence erupts at games, club presidents pay match delegates to alter the reports sent to the LMC.
These issues have affected the popularity of our local league, and may also be impeding the development of Nigerian players. Players are less motivated when they know the outcome of the match has already been fixed. Overall, the quality of the league suffers. “A lot of these issues around the league contribute to the attachment of Nigerians to foreign leagues. Football fans want to see a fair league, one that is not unidirectional in terms of the result. They’d rather stay home than go watch a match that is unattractive and violence-prone,” Ahmed Rufai laments.
Some commentators have suggested increasing referee pay to reduce poor officiating. But better referee remuneration must be accompanied by appropriate training and sanctions for when they err. Mr Asuzu believes that if more referees are punished for bad officiating, it will keep others on their toes, “I know it is hard but if more referees get punished, it will make them stand up to Club chairmen and things will slowly start changing,” he says.
And of course, club presidents caught attempting to bribe officials should be banned from football for life and prosecuted, where possible. At the moment, they have too much power and their activities are barely checked by the governments who employ them. For us to achieve real change, these presidents need to allow healthy competition among teams and focus on improving training and infrastructure to get an edge over their rivals
Fans have a role to play as well. For one, they would need to get used to more frequent home losses. And borrowing from European football, both fans and clubs can be punished for violence at stadiums, whether through fines, forcing teams to play behind closed doors, or even suspension from a continental competition – a punishment imposed on English teams in the 80s following the Heysel stadium disaster.
Once again, many lovers of the league may scoff at the proposals and see them as efforts to regulate or internationalise the league. But until corruption and violence are eradicated, the domestic league will forever be a champion at home, but never away.
*Name changed to protect his identity