The main rationale for Lagos as hosts of the 2018/2019 Nigeria Professional Football League (NPFL) Championship Playoffs was to forestall any appearance of bias in favour of any of the six participating teams, the idea being that a neutral venue confers the same advantage on all teams.
That perhaps explains the lax security arrangements put in place at the Agege Township Stadium by the League Management Company (LMC). Although how a body that purports to oversee the league could fail to anticipate the potential for crowd trouble knowing full well the nature of fans their league attracts smacks of rank incompetence.
There are minimum policing standards for football matches and the reality is that they were not even close to being met at the Agege Stadium especially considering the pedigree of clubs competing in this tournament.
League football in Nigeria attracts, for the most part, a particular profile of fan: rowdy, unruly, entitled, completely unbound by common rules of decency, criminally-minded and of course, quick to foment unrest and instigate violence at the slightest opportunity when confronted with real or perceived injustices especially around refereeing decisions.
Lagos is no different, and the disgraceful scenes at the end of the 1-1 draw between Kano Pillars and Rangers Int’l is further evidence that fan violence in the NPFL is pervasive and will find an avenue to rear its ugly head regardless of where a match is staged. It has also shown up the folly and danger of the LMC’s sheer incompetence and if it wasn’t clear before, it has become manifestly clear that the LMC is completely clueless and woefully incapable of sanitizing league football in Nigeria.
To make matters worse, the senseless violence at full time was unleashed in the full glare of TV cameras and beamed live into millions of homes across Nigeria and perhaps Africa. It was the first time matches at the playoffs would be televised and what an unedifying spectacle it served up. The NPFL which has been on life support has just been plunged into further murky depths. Who would want to come to a league venue after what they witnessed?
The ones who were at the stadium could have been killed and indeed many sustained injuries from the dangerous missiles indiscriminately hurled by uncouth thugs. And even though a bulk of the blame lies with the LMC, Pillars surely cannot get off lightly for their part in this disgrace nor should Rabiu Ali, their 37-year old captain who behaved no better than a common hooligan.
It seems probable that the thugs who were at the stadium to cheer on Kano Pillars would still have invaded the pitch at full-time regardless of Ali’s borderline assault of centre referee Adebimpe Quadri. They were already incensed by his decisions which they perceived as biased against them and had made their outrage abundantly clear by hurling objects into the pitch and at the assistant referee while the game was still on. But the behavior of Ali, a multi-year veteran of the league, surely emboldened them and sharpened their appetite for havoc.
The behavior of a number of Pillars’ backroom staff too was as disgusting as those of the hordes of thugs who sought to maim and kill simply because their team didn’t get a victory. Although to be fair to head coach Ibrahim Musa, he did try – in vain – to control certain members of his staff who looked to join the attack on the referees.
Perhaps this whole shameful spectacle was to be expected, it was after all, the first time both teams would be clashing since that epic Aiteo Cup final in October of last year where Pillars squandered a three-goal lead with thirteen minutes left in the second half to lose on penalties to Rangers. And guess who was the referee for that game? Adebimpe Quadri of course, how’s that for intrigue?
It was a dirty game right from the off and a goalless first half was notable only for stoppages and the number of fouls committed – 28 in all with Pillars shading the foul count 16-12.
Musa had said in the lead up to the game, that victory should be enough to see his side clinch the league title while Rangers needed a win of their own to keep their own hopes alive.
But it was Pillars who assumed control of the driving seat through Rabiu Ali’s beautifully taken free kick from the edge of the Rangers box after left-back Ugwu Uwadiegwu fouled Ebuka David Odenigbo in the 58th minute.
Rangers were then reduced to ten men – no surprise really, considering the feisty nature of the game – when right-back Tope Olusesi was sent off for a second yellow for a late challenge on Pillars’ striker Nyima Nwagua. It was the second straight game that the Flying Antelopes would be losing a player to a red card.
Pillars should have increased their tally in the 76th minute but Nwagua elected to shoot early when he could have carried on into the box. Tempers started boiling when Pillars were denied what seemed a clear penalty when two different players were brought down in the box in the same sequence of play. There might even have been a hint of a handball but Quadri waved away their protests, only signaling for a corner kick.
Rangers were then awarded a penalty in the 87th minute when substitute Ifeanyi Egwim was brought down in the box. This was the tipping point for many of Pillars’ fans and players and in their eyes, evidence of Quadri’s bias as he had denied them what they believed to be a stonewall penalty. It was a curious position to hold for a team who themselves were beneficiaries of a dubious penalty against FC Ifeanyiubah on Match Day 3. But hypocrisy knows no shame.
Rangers’ captain Godwin Aguda held his nerve to score and as an aside, Rangers should perhaps seriously contemplate starting each match a man and a goal down because it appears, they only start playing in those conditions, just like they did against Akwa United scoring three times after going a man and a goal down.
Pillars had failed to take advantage of their superior numbers and once again, had given up a lead against Rangers when they really should have won. They attacked one more time in added time – five minutes as indicated by the assistant referee – and won a free kick on the edge of the Rangers box.
By then though, missiles were already being hurled onto the pitch leading to several minutes of delay. There was a stay of disturbance after some Pillars players including goalkeeper Suraj Ayeleso and Nyima Nwagua appealed to the fans for calm. The free kick was taken and missed with Quadri immediately blowing for full time.
Rabiu Ali immediately accosted the centre referee Adebimpe Quadri, perhaps affronted that the referee didn’t take the delay into consideration and allowed more time and that was the moment all hell broke loose.
Pandemonium ensued as a large and menacing horde of Pillars’ sympathizers rushed down the stands and over the metal barriers to invade the stadium, brandishing wood from the hoardings that they’d destroyed. The wood was hurled indiscriminately in the direction of the officials who were being spirited away and when they couldn’t get their hands on the officials, they turned their ire on other spectators with the media gallery also not spared. Certain members of the Pillars backroom staff also shamelessly joined in attacking match officials.
It was a terrifying situation and when it was finally over it cast a pall over the rest of the proceedings with many fans exiting for dear life. As a consequence, the 0-0 draw between Lobi Stars and Akwa United was delayed for over forty minutes.
In the last game of the day, Enyimba eased to an easy 3-1 victory over FC Ifeanyiubah with Reuben Bala grabbing a brace. Local fans also caught a glimpse of former MFM player Chukwuka Onuwa who made his first appearance in the playoffs from the bench in the second half.
Enyimba’s victory moves them to the top of the log with nine points, one more than Kano Pillars in second place. Akwa United have six points in third, fourth-placed Rangers have five points while Lobi Stars occupy fifth place and have four points. FC Ifeanyiubah are pointless having lost all four games at the playoffs.
Monday’s round of matches might have been the first to be televised and returned the lowest number of goals and featured the first goalless draw at the playoffs, but it will forever be remembered for the shameful scenes that have once again cast a putrid cloud over domestic football in Nigeria.
The final round of matches come up on Wednesday, June 12 2019.
2018/2019 NPFL SUPER SIX MATCH DAY 4 RESULTS
KANO PILLARS 1-1 RANGERS
(Rabiu Ali 58’ – Godwin Aguda 90’)
AKWA UNITED 0-0 LOBI STARS
ENYIMBA 3-1 FC IFEANYIUBAH
2018/2019 NPFL CHAMPIONSHIP PLAYOFF STANDINGS AT MD4