When someone falls, they rise up dust themselves up and continue on their journey with an awareness not to repeat the mistake that led to their previous slip. After the uproar from the last 2018 World Cup qualifying game in Uyo between Nigeria and Cameroon, one hopes that lessons learned will ensure a much better encounter when Zambia come calling on Saturday, October 7.
Much of the complaint centred on the issues of militarisation of the stadium environment, using one gate for fans’ entry instead of many, jamming internet signals once the political leadership of the state arrived at the stadium, and the working conditions that media faced. Following that game in Uyo that was in stark contrast with my experience in Yaounde, I spoke to a few staff of the Nigeria Football Federation about improving a few things.
However, it emerged that several issues have been running that way for a long time and that the NFF has not been able to convince the security services at the state level to leave internet active during matches. This is very visible at every Nigeria game that I have covered in the last five years – once the governor arrives, it is goodbye internet.
It emerged from my conversations that an external force needs to act upon the relationship between the state and the NFF in order to ensure that media conditions are improved upon. The NFF is a prisoner to its host - whenever there’s need to play a national team game, the NFF shops for a host state to bankroll the encounter. This leaves the NFF unable to enforce international standards required by FIFA and CAF, the sport’s governing bodies.
It happened in Kaduna where the state government declared free entry in an Afcon qualifier against Egypt that saw 40,000+ fans pack a stadium meant for 16,000 as the country barely escaped a tragedy. The NFF ended up with a fine of $5000.
Another fine of $31,000 was slapped on the NFF by FIFA this week over pitch invasion by fans following the game against Cameroon in Uyo.
Pretty soon, the NFF would run out of funds to pay these fines and then start to do proper crowd management. It is a knock on the work of the security team led by ACP Gideon Akinsola who has worked with the NFF for several years. What I observed in Uyo was that once the game ended, security staff turned their backs on the crowds and assumed that their work was over. This emboldened unruly fans who jumped down from the stands and ran onto the pitch, some towards the players for selfies, others just to get a feel for the lush green pitch where history had just been made.
In September I addressed an email to the media offices of FIFA and CAF intimating them of the growing problems being faced by local and international media covering Nigeria matches. With joint evidence from another writer, China Acheru, who also covered the game, the governing bodies were forced to listen. CAF issued this response on behalf of FIFA: “The CAF Media Division has since December 2014 organized series of capacity building seminars for Media Officers of the Member Associations, and the objective amongst others include enhancing media operations during local and international games.
“After discussions with the Communications Department of the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF), CAF in conjunction with FIFA hope that a minimum standard for media operations will be available for the next match against Zambia at the Akwa Ibom Stadium in Uyo and future international matches in Nigeria.
“We expect that media personnel will have appreciable working conditions to carry out their duties sound and secure,” it concluded.
As the media continues to invest in Nigerian football, the minimum we require is a good working environment to deliver our work to readers and fans from across the country and all over the world. Our work is enabled by free access to the internet during these national team encounters. Our work is made easier when security officials do not use arms against media trying to get into press conferences.
The fans of the national team who also pay their way to see these games must be treated better. It makes no logic to open one gate when a stadium has several then use pepper spray on them when they rush to get in as the kickoff neared. We need to ensure that proper crowd management is put in place for the game against Zambia otherwise we will begin to chase away fans from national team games. Fans must also be educated to desist from invading the pitch after the final whistle, it is not allowed by the FIFA statutes.
Saturday’s encounter against the Chipolopolo offers the NFF another opportunity to show it has learnt lessons from the last game in Uyo. The Communications Department has already changed its approach by offering media options to attend either the press conference or mixed zone. Access to the internet will be a key yardstick of their progress.
We will all be watching to see positive improvements in every aspect of the encounter. With a World Cup ticket at stake, the NFF and the Akwa Ibom Government have a lot to prove.