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Domestic league: Irate fans wreak more havoc at match venues

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The attack on a referee in Owerri during a recent NPFL game brings the issue of security at match venues to the fore once again, reports ’TANA AIYEJINA

Nigerian referee Yusuf Garba is perhaps still thanking his stars for being alive today. Last Monday, the Nigerian Professional Football League ref was almost killed by irate fans after Heartland were held 1-1 at the Dan Anyiam Stadium, Owerri, by champions Plateau United.

The ref sustained several wounds from the attack, including a cut on his head.

Garba’s offence? He had the audacity to allow an added time goal by the visitors, which tied the game 1-1. Abiodun Thompson had put the hosts ahead early on but Tosin Omoyele grabbed the equaliser in the last minute of added time for the visitors, to the consternation of the home fans, who pounced on Garba.

That has been the fate of refs in the hands of irate fans in the Nigerian league in recent times. In fact this season alone refs have been attacked on at least four occasions.

Players and club officials are not exempted too from the brutality at match venues. League top scorer, Junior Lokosa, collapsed while an official escaped with a minor injury after former champions Kano pillars held Katsina United 2-2 at the Mohammadu Dikko Stadium on the opening day of the season.

Katsina fans, who were allegedly irked by Sani Mohammed’s officiating, attacked the visiting team, throwing objects at them.

Pillars spokesman Idris Malikawa said, “Everything was going well until the final whistle when the fans started throwing objects at our players and officials. When it got out of hand, the policemen at the stadium had to use tear gas to control the crowd and in the process, Junior Lokosa and one of our medical officials got injured. Lokosa actually fainted and we had to revive him later.”

The following day, the negative trend continued at the Lafia City Stadium, where champions Plateau United confronted home side Nasarawa United.

Angry fans assaulted Nasarawa chairman, Isaac Danladi, and lady ref Mimisen Iyorhe was virtually stripped naked after the Lafia club lost 1-0 at home to champions Plateau in their opening tie of the NPFL season.

“It was not a pleasant day. Referees Abubakar Abdullahi, Tejiri Digbori, Iyorhe and Aminu Saliu were held hostage at the end of the first half, they were stoned and hit by irate fans,” sports journalist, Amar Ignis, said.

“The same scenario repeated itself at the end of the match and Iyorhe had her uniform almost torn to shreds. Chairman of Nasarawa was slapped, his ears seriously pulled in pains and his cap removed.”

In February, referee Damian Akure and his assistants Emmanuel Apine and Lewis Gwantana were attacked after full-time by Akure fans, who were unhappy after Sunshine Stars were held 0-0 by Pillars, the first time the Owena Waves failed to win a game at home this season.

Sunshine Stars media officer, Chris Okunnuwa, however debunked the allegation, saying that an object thrown from the stands by a fan hit the affected official in the face.

Scene of violence at an NPFL game

“Honestly the referees were not attacked or assaulted physically; there was no way that would have happened due to the heavy security presence on ground at the stadium,” he said.

The Akure club have been heavily fined and sanctioned by the LMC in recent times due to the unruly behaviour of their fans at the Akure Sports Complex.

They were banished to the Otunba Dipo Stadium, Ijebu Ode last season over crowd violence and only returned to Akure this season.

Fans violence is not restricted to the topflight alone. Recently, organisers of the Nationwide League One punished Mighty Jets Feeders over violence recorded in their 2-1 win over Aklosendi in their season opener.

Angry fans assaulted the ref  and his assistants at half time after Aklosendi scored a 40th minute goal.

The match officials fled to the dressing room and refused to resume officiating for the second half until they were convinced by the match commissioner to return to the pitch.

Jets Feeders were banished to Abuja for their next three home games and fined N100,000.

Shola Ogunnowo, the Chief Operating Officer of the NLO, condemned the fans’ act.

“It was very abnormal for some fans of Mighty Jets of Jos to beat the referee and his assistants at the end of the first half. It is wrong, it is anti-football and it negates what we set to achieve this season in the Nationwide League One and we have no option than to apply the necessary sanctions,” Ogunnowo said.

“We will not condone any act of violence at our league venues and neither are we going to fold our hands and watch our match officials being assaulted and beaten just because some teams are aiming for promotion at all cost when the league has just began,” he added.

Spokesman, League Management Company, Harry Iwuala, insisted that the police and not the league organisers are responsible for the provision of security at match venues.

“Heartland are supposed to provide a minimum of 50 policemen for the game as stipulated by the rules. It’s a global trend that security people shouldn’t carry arms at match venues but when there’s a serious problem, you can call for teargas or any other security object needed for such a task.

“But why won’t a DPO (Divisional Police Officer) deploy enough security personnel to a venue where you have about 3,000 people? It’s a security issue and the police should be asked the question,” Iwuala stated.

But the Public Relations Officer of the Imo State Police Command, Andrew Enwerem, said since police officers are not allowed to carry arms inside match venues, it would be difficult to halt the disturbing trend of crowd violence.

“What happened was not because of the police. We deployed adequate number of policemen for the match though I don’t know the exact number. Ordinarily, there’s nothing you can do in such a situation, especially when policemen are not armed inside the stadium. What we did was to make sure the situation didn’t get out of hand and the referees were rescued by the police security operatives,” Enwerem said in a telephone interview on Saturday.

The LMC meted out punishment to the Owerri club, deducting three points from them as punishment for their fans’ attack on Garba and will play their next three home matches behind closed doors.

As a result the Owerri club now have 15 points from 18 matches and are back to the bottom of the standings.

Atlanta ’96 Olympics gold medallist Mobi Oparaku, who is Heartland’s team manager, was suspended for 10 matches.

But close followers of the country’s football league feel the punishment to erring clubs has not been stiff enough, saying it gives fans the audacity to beat up opponents, players and officials at will.

Iwuala disagrees, saying the league body has followed the rules to the letter in punishing both erring clubs and fans.

“At a time, punishment for armed robbery was life imprisonment and even death sentence but it didn’t stop robbery; it’s the same situation in the league. Before, the LMC wasn’t deducting points from clubs who erred, but we started it this season. Some feel the clubs involved should be demoted but that’s not in our rules. ”

Even though football violence has not been completely ruled in other parts of the world, serious measures and sanctions are applied in Europe and other parts of the Western world to stem the tide.

For instance, PAOK president Ivan Savvidis was banned from football for three years for carrying a gun onto the pitch against AEK Athens earlier this month in Greece.

The Greek club were also fined and docked three points for the shocking incident.

The incident occurred after PAOK were denied an injury-time goal against the league-leaders.

After that, the chaos ensued, with Savvidis, who was accompanied by his bodyguards, storming the pitch with terrified AEK Athens players darting back to their changing room.

Also, a Turkish cup clash between Fenerbahce and Beskitas was abandoned amidst chaotic scenes which saw the visitors’ manager Senol Gunes rushed to hospital for stitches to a head wound.

There had already been several stoppages before the match officials took the decision to postpone the fixture in the 58th minute.

Early in the second half, Gunes was struck by an object, as sections of the Fenerbahçe crowd threw objects at the Beşiktaş bench including plastic bottles, coins and key chains, leaving him requiring five stitches in a head wound and a trip to hospital.

But Turkish officials moved swiftly and eight suspects were detained on April 23. The detentions, made as part of the investigation conducted by the Sports Crime Branch of the Istanbul Chief Prosecutor’s Office, brings the number of detainees to 31.

The suspect who reportedly injured Güneş is among the detainees.

On why the Nigerian police operatives have been unable to take drastic action like the incidence in Greece and Turkey, Enwerem added, “What happened at the Dan Anyiam Stadium in Owerri is not a crime, its sports hooliganism. It’s hooliganism of football fans, which has been happening in other places including the international community.

“After the match ended in a draw, fans were not happy with the officiating and they descended on the match official. Of course, they were immediately rescued and we have three suspects that we have arrested and we intend to charge them to court.”

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