1985 was a bad year for English football, both locally and internationally.
It was the year 56 fans tragically perished at the Valley Parade Stadium, the home ground of Bradford City, when ignored safety warnings led to a fire incident in the middle of a game, trapping hundreds of spectators. Likewise, in Europe, a cup game between Liverpool and Juventus birthed the Heysel stadium disaster, which involved fans of Liverpool breaching security and chasing hundreds of Juventus fans into a collapsing wall. The incident, now regarded as the ‘darkest hour in the history of the UEFA competitions’ led to 39 deaths and over 600 injured persons. It was an all-time low for English football, and UEFA issued an indefinite ban – which lasted for 6 years – on all English sides.
Conversely, in that same year, a Nigeria Premier League (NPL) side, Hawks of Makurdi (now called Lobi Stars) was purchased by Benue Breweries Limited, instituting a change of name and highlighting sponsorship interests in a hugely popular sport which drew thousands to the stadium. Another NPL club, Leventis United, owned by the private company it was named after, reached the final of the African Cup Winners’ Cup, but failed to repeat the feat of Enugu Rangers in 1977 by losing. Nonetheless, the positive prospect – for both clubs and the league – was clear.
Yet, if you were to plot a growth curve in English football and that of Nigeria from 1985, it is obvious both countries took different paths.
- English football, through hard reforms and relentless commitment to excellence, designed what is now the most glamorous League competition in the world, contributing £3.3 billion in tax to the UK in a single calendar year and supporting nearly 100,000 jobs, according to a study by Ernst & Young;
- Nigerian football wallows in mediocrity and neglect, with clubs – just like the sub-national governments in Nigeria – struggling to pay wages.
The power of the press
There are numerous factors responsible for this growth divergence, many of which have been discussed at length. However, an overlooked factor with significant consequence is: press coverage.
The Bradford stadium tragedy, to cite an instance, inspired an article in the British Sunday Times which described football as “a slum sport played in slum stadiums, increasingly watched by slum people.” Such was the level of criticism, particularly for those responsible for the administration of the sport. Fearing such opprobrium and knowing there is little room for growth or acceptance with consistent bad coverage, the English FA introduced changes both to how the game is played and the playing conditions, triggering the level of development and spectacle witnessed today.
In Nigeria, on the other hand, sport administrators devised another way to avoid criticism and get away with alarming incompetence: collusion with journalists.
Football reporters in the country have actively sustained a culture of abandoning their primary duty of reporting facts around the game, holding actors to account and displaying unwavering loyalty to the truth. They have chosen instead to partner with administrators and cloaking their bias, often driven by financial reward and ‘elevation’ into juicy boards, in the toga of ‘promoting the league’. The hallmark of success for a typical reporter isn’t measured by how much stories filed or facts uncovered, but the quick transition from being an independent journalist into a propaganda arm of an influential figure. This gives rise to a situation where positive coverage is achieved, not through hard work or innovation, but by influencing the gatekeepers.
The immediate consequence is the lack of incentive to actually do anything, other than deepen opacity and lack of accountability. This is why we have a league where the primary actors – football players – live and work in pitiable conditions, but administrators strut around in opulence.
The collusion isn’t limited to football, but visible across sectors of the Nigerian society, particularly politics. Members of the public, increasingly aware of this, have since reclaimed their trust in the media, and developed an unhealthy mindset of regarding only news reports fitting their bias; a condition fueling the rise of fake news.
Well-meaning people, in their appraisal of Nigerian football, often cite structural changes to be made. But this is hinged on the wrong assumption that what the football administrators lack is access to clever ideas. In reality, however, there is just no will or compelling reason to do what is right. Therefore, in fixing Nigerian football, and the society at large, we need to return ethics to journalistic practice and ensure public servants actually answer to the public.