Football:Stop the killing and let us enjoy the beautiful game.

Posted: June 22, 2012 in General

A dark shadow of hooliganism is hanging over Nigeria’s local football clubs but efforts to combat the scourge are gaining pace. Fidelis Mbah and Pamela Whitby report.
Back in 1994 after saving two penalty kicks which secured victory in a football game against a local side in Nigeria’s northern Kano State, Imama Amapukabo was expecting to celebrate. Instead the talented young goalkeeper from Port Harcourt, in Rivers State who played for Nigeria’s national junior side, found himself in the midst of an attack by a murderous mob, incensed that their home team had lost.
It is a day Amapukabo who now coaches Port Harcourt’s Sharks football team will never forget. He nearly lost his own life while watching his team-mates being beaten until they fainted. “I’ve never seen mob action like it,” he says.
Sadly, Amapukabo is not alone. This was not the first time football-related violence had erupted in Nigeria and it would not be the last. In fact, hardly a week goes by without reports of club supporters being harassed, beaten up and even killed. Today football, which many once regarded as a unifying force in Nigeria, is plauged by what appears to be a win-at-all-cost attitude, especially when playing at home. Sadly, the problem is even causing people to turn away from the sport.
As Amapukabo experienced, quite often incidents happen when the outcome of the game is not favourable to some fans. In 2008, a Nigerian Premier League match between Akwa United, from Uyo city in South-east Nigeria, and former African champions Enyimba of Aba city in the south, was abandoned. Fans had invaded the pitch at the Uyo township stadium in protest at a decision made by the referee. Some fans were even killed in the process.
In March last year, there was a similar situation. Supporters of Niger Tornadoes Football Club, a local team from Minna in north-central Nigeria, assaulted a referee, Gabriel Adigwe, and his assistants because they refused to bend the rules and aid victory of the home team. They were left with serious injuries, and probably permanent psychological trauma, by fans who wanted their team to win the match at all costs.
On the very same day, sports journalists covering a match in Port Harcourt in the Niger Delta region had their video cameras, tapes and other working tools seized by individuals believed to be supporters of the home team, Sharks Football Club.
But even club officials are not spared the wrath of football fanatics. Some have been assaulted several times, often leaving them injured. “it is quite unfortunate that club coaches who are just doing their jobs are victims of violence during football games,” says Stanley Eguma, the assistant coach of Nigeria’s under-23 team.
Nor are violent acts limited to supporters of local sides; fans of foreign clubs can also be dangerous fanatics. Many clashes, for example, have been reported at viewing centres and sport bars where international matches are screened live. Some say this is fuelled by alcohol consumption, which incites violence.
One of such incident was when a bus driver in the southern Rivers State – a fan of Manchester United – intentionally drove into a gathering of joyous Barcelona supporters. This was shortly after Barcelona pipped Manchester United to win the Uefa Champions League trophy in 2009. His action led to the death of six people and injury of several others.
Violence at football games is certainly not new. Since the sport, which has roots in England, began back in 225 BC pitches have been used to settle scores, personal differences and even land disputes. Over the centuries there have been several calls to regulate and control so-called ‘football hooliganism’ in England. As a result the modern international game, though still not immune to violent eruptions, is now far better controlled.
The Nigerian game, it seems, still needs to mature. One major problem is the prevalence of bribery and bias on and off the field. Referees often receive kickbacks and some even feel obliged to award penalties because they fear for their own lives.
Certainly, not everybody in Nigeria is happy about bribery and corruption in the game, which has been condemned by various groups across the country. A non-governmental organisation, 1 Game, is one these and is being promoted by some sports journalists, footballers, administrators and fans.
Through various advocacy programmes it has continued to spread the word across the country. A video campaign with the message ‘Speak and Save a Life’ is been aired on select media stations and a ‘From the Roots’ campaign appears to be gaining ground.
The group uses football legends and entertainment icons to inform people through the media about the dangers of football fanaticism. School children are also being educated about the negative effects and the need to promote peace in the game.
By July this year, 150,000 people had signed up to support 1 Game including Jamaica’s Raggae musician Shaggy, and coach of the Nigeria’s senior national team Samson Siasia. On the social networking site, Facebook, the group has already garnered 17,000 supporters.
But more needs to be done. “As much as we appreciate the support, I don’t think we are anywhere close to achieving our full objective. It will cost us so much money, time and energy to get there but we are determined to get results,” says 1 Game founder Philip Obaji.
Aside from education, there should be better regulation from football bodies to eliminate match-fixing. Football stadia should be better policed and some argue that alcohol sales at viewing centres should be banned, or at very least properly regulated.
For journalists like China Acheru, who has witnessed violence while covering football games, it is essential that the anti-violence message gets to everyone . “I have seen and have been a victim of violence in Nigerian stadia and I have also seen violence in our viewing centres,” he says. “We must stop the killings, the violence and the fanaticism and start to enjoy football without violence.”
After all, football is for many a beautiful spectacle that unites friends and foes, bring strangers together, provides an outlet for energetic youngsters and is weekend entertainment for many. Violence should not come into it.
Culled from BBC Focus on Africa Magazine, October – December 2011

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