Sports

Domestic footballers and the Nigerian roads of deaths

Nigerian roads are among the worst in Africa with thousands of people dying every year due to the deplorable conditions of the facilities, dangerous driving, and badly maintained vehicles. The situation has now been worsened with the spate of insecurity in the country. AJIBADE OLUSESAN writes that domestic league players who face agonizing experiences of traveling several kilometres to honour matches often become victims of attacks from bandits, armed robbers, and kidnappers with many of them losing their lives to accidents due to the bad state of the roads.

Usually, Stanley Eguma is tough; having coached and survived in the city of Port Harcourt, Rivers State where crime is prevalent for about two decades; he isn’t someone who allows anyone to take him down. However, June 16, 2021, was different; fear controlled him like nothing else, it kept him quiet and hopeless.

He had traveled all the way from Gombe where his Rivers United suffered a 2-0 defeat against Adamawa United in a Nigeria Professional Football League match. With the thought of reuniting with his family filling his heart, the journey to his Port Harcourt base was smooth until they got to somewhere around Enugu state when the story changed. He had no premonition of impending danger.

All of a sudden, he heard a screeching sound of a vehicle from behind. It was zooming fast behind the Black Hilux van he was traveling in with two of his assistants, it was a white Hilux bus. Before he could avoid it, it suddenly doublecrossed their vehicle with the assailants pushing the two aides of the coach out of the bus and made away with the vehicle, abducting the victim in the process.

This was the beginning of Eguma’s sojourn to the kidnappers’ den. He spent four agonising days with his abductors before he was released after a ransom was paid. Eguma’s experience brought to the fore the hazard Nigerian club sides face embarking on long journeys to honour their league matches.

There have been gory tales of how they were attacked by kidnappers and bandits. Many of these teams have suffered accidents that claimed lives due largely to the deplorable conditions of Nigerian roads. Over the years, many of the clubs suffered these experiences but the worrying trend seems to have scaled up to a different level in 2021.

There have been about seven cases of road mishaps involving Nigerian teams between February and June this year alone and this ugly development has heightened the calls for the handlers of the league to do more to protect the players and their officials. On February 16, the bus conveying team members of Wikki Tourists Football Club of Bauchi caught fire along the Jos-Bauchi highway. Members of the team were on their way to Uyo for a Week 10 league match against Dakkada FC of Uyo.

There was no life lost in the inferno but players and club officials lost valuables which included bags and phones. According to Patrick Paschal, Bauchi FA chairman, “one of the back tyres came off in motion and the rim and silencer ignited the fire on the road due to the contact”. It was a different story on February 20 when the bus transporting players of Adamawa United Football Club was attacked by bandits along the Benin-Lagos Highway. The players were robbed while traveling to Lagos to honour a weekend game against MFM FC. The bus driver known as Alhaji Kabiru was abducted by the bandits.

A ransom of N50m was demanded by the gunmen for the driver’s release. The state government however said it paid N1 million to secure the release of the driver. Exactly one week after, FC Robo, a Nigeria’s Women Football League (NWFL) side, was attacked by gunmen along Ijebu-Ode road in Ogun state. They were heading to Agbor, Delta State, from Lagos for their week seven match against Delta Queens.

The players and officials of the Lagos-based club had their valuables taken away by the gunmen and were left stranded till the next morning after their driver went missing. On March 12, Akwa United bus crashed in Enugu after a head-on collision with a truck en route Kaduna to honour their week fifteen match against Jigawa Golden stars.

The Uyo-based club said a player and two officials sustained injuries in a Tweet to announce the incident. “We have been involved in an accident along Ezionye Express road in Enugu on our way to Kaduna for our NPFL Match-day 15 game against Jigawa Golden Stars. Players and officials have sustained injuries. One player and two officials have been taken to the hospital,” Akwa United said. Five days after Akwa United incident, players and officials of Ekiti United football club were involved in an auto accident while returning from their evening training session. According to an official statement on the club’s Twitter handle, some players sustained varying degrees of injury.

“Ekiti Utd team bus was on Tuesday(March 16) involved in a lone accident while the team was returning to Ado from Ikere after training. There were varying degrees of injury but no life was lost. Slippery road caused by rain could have caused it,” the club said. A bus conveying the youth team of NPFL side, Enyimba FC of Aba, was involved in a road accident on March 18. The team was on its way back to Aba from a tournament in Imo state. The club announced the accident on their Twitter handle, saying the incident occurred on their way home after a tournament in Imo state.

In the 1960s, 70s, 80s and even the early part of the 90s clubs were less worried about traveling around the country for their matches largely because of the relatively good road network and fewer security challenges in the country. The economy was also a bit better with big clubs including Abiola Babes, Leventis United, Julius Berger, Inwanyanwu Nationale traveling by air to play their matches. However, things seemingly turned bad around the mid-90s, around the time when 14 people, including 11 policewomen footballers died in a ghastly motor accident in Ijebu-Ode, near Lagos, along the Benin-Sagamu expressway after a downpour. That was in 1996. Cases of road mishaps have been a common phenomenon since then.

The football fraternity in the country was thrown into mourning in December 2008 when nine female footballers and two coaches were burnt to death in a motor accident in Mangu, Plateau State. A year after, in January 2009, 17 players of Adamawa United lost their lives after their bus was involved in a crash in Jos on their way to a league match in Abuja. A month later, precisely on February 20, 2009, a bus conveying players and officials of Zamfara United was also involved in a fatal accident that claimed the lives of a player, Abdullahi Sabiu, and the team’s curator, Ado Umar. Another report came in February 2014, Sunshine Stars also suffered an accident that left their team bus in tatters and players psychologically harassed.

Then, five Kano Pillars players were injured in a robbery attack that happened while the team was on their way to a game in June 2015. Giwa FC were also attacked by gunmen in Enugu on their way to honour a game against Abia Warriors in Umuahia in 2015. In January 2016, Enyimba were ambushed by heavily armed robbers on their way to Kaduna for the Super 4 tournament. In October 2018, Kwara United’s team bus was involved in a crash during an away trip to their 2018/2019 NPFL seasonopening game. Football is a huge business; apart from the fact that players in developed countries of Europe, Asia, South and North America and a substantial part of Africa enjoying big money earnings, they need not worry about their safety traveling to and from match venues across those lands. “We traveled for most of our matches by air,” Al Ahly of Egypt striker Juniour Ajayi said.

“They are quite organised here; apart from the fact that the clubs here in Egypt pay more than most of our clubs in Nigeria, they don’t joke with safety. Even when we need to travel by road, you don’t have to worry because roads across the country are in very good.”

It is a sharp contrast with experiences players go through in Nigeria as they travel thousands of kilometres to attend matches only to hit the road again in few days. The distance between Lagos and Maiduguri is 1,541.9 km which will take about 24 hours to cover; that is if the road is good but whenever Elkanemi Warriors are coming to face MFM FC in Lagos they spend close to two days on the road. Subjecting players to such agonising trips, given the poor state of Nigerian roads, not only exposes them to the prevalent insecurity in the country, but also to physical, mental and psychological torture which have negative impacts on their performances.

Former Enyimba and Enugu Rangers defender Chibuzor Okonkwo submitted that despite incredible talent, local-based players are not well supported and he was not surprised Caoch Gernot Rohr hasn’t found them worthy enough to play for the Super Eagles. “There is no way somebody would have been on the road for 24 hours and still play to the best of his ability during a game because he is tired psychologically, mentally and physically before the game,” he said. “The welfare of players is not yet there in the local leagues, a case study of Akwa United where they had an accident on their way and Adamawa United were robbed on their way to a game.

“In this era, we are still traveling by road, it’s not okay. It does not take much for the clubs to book a flight for their players and officials. “This is one of the things that are besetting our league, in many African countries it is not like that, things are better done. “In Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia even Libya, if the distance to the match venue is more than three hours they fly by air that is how it ought to be. “In Nigeria, players will travel from Akwa Ibom State to Lagos by road when they get there they will not be able to give their best because of tiredness from the long-distance journey. “Fear usually grips these players whenever they want to travel for a match,” former Wikki Tourists of Bauchi said.

” They suffer a lot of psychological damage when they travel by road for league games, especially when the journey is long. As a coach in the domestic league, each time I travel with my team, I feel pity for myself and the players. You should understand that the way things are in the country is worse now than before’; bad roads, reckless drivers, and the high level of insecurity in the country.” Club owner Tunde Egbeyalo said the government must work hard to close the infrastructural deficit in the country, saying that will solve part of the problem.

He said even if teams can’t afford the airfare to ferry their players and coaches to match venues if there is an effective railway system that would reduce the pressure on players He admonished state governments to improve infrastructure, particularly, the bad roads which have been the cause of many bad accidents and deaths.

“The road accidents happening to Nigerian clubs lately, is indeed, a cause for worry. The state governments that fund these clubs should look into it as soon as possible.” “We as stakeholders need to do more regarding the welfare and safety of players. And if the state governments need help, they can always reach out to some experts, football investors or private companies,” Egbayelo said. Nigerian league legend and players’ advisor, Victor Ezeji, believes clubs must step up efforts to provide security for their teams when they are traveling for official assignment believing that could reduce the risk of insecurity they may face on their way.

He said it would not have been easy for Eguma’s abductors to carry out the dastardly act if they were accompanied by security details. He urged the League Management Company to compel clubs to provide security for everyone connected with the teams.

“The clubs have to protect their players it is not an LMC thing but LMC too they are the ones making the rules, they can also include it in their rule book to say you must travel with security personnel since they are the ones saying you must provide security on the field of play,” he said. Ex-international and former Inwanyanwu Nationale Etim Esin believes part of the problems would have been solved had the Nigerian league well packaged. He said clubs cannot take their teams out to match venues by air because of the paucity of funds.

He said the Nigerian league is not attractive to investors that will bring in funds that can lift the clubs from their over-dependence on state governments to financial freedom. “In most of the countries that are serious about football, they allow the private sector to drive the development of the game there. In England, if anything happens to the Premier League, their economy can collapse because if is one of the drivers of the economy there. Our league is not attractive for direct investment because those running it are not sincere. We must ask this question, how will a club owing players a backlog of salary pay for air flight tickets for more than 30 people at a go? We have to look at how we can make those who have what it takes to run the game to come in here,” he said. Ex-international and the Technical Adviser of Shooting Stars of Ibadan, Ademola Adesina believes that clubs can become more innovative by partnering with airlines to prove visibility for them during matches. “The clubs can sign up with airlines for sponsorship or deals that will allow their teams to travel by air,” he offered.

“Through the clubs, these airlines will be able to promote their brands. I also believe that the League Management Company (LMC) should be tough on clubs in their guidelines, making it mandatory for teams to be airlifted to distant venues.”

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