Two of the biggest matches in African football was played over four days this month in Uyo and Yaounde. Both matches left many of us who were present with two very different experiences. One was great, the other, very shabby.
I left Lagos for Uyo on Thursday, August 31, to witness one of the biggest rivalries in world football, an African classic between the Super Eagles and the Indomitable Lions. The last time they played in a competitive game was at the 2004 Africa Cup of Nations in Tunisia. So the 2018 World Cup ticket at stake made this encounter a must see between the reigning African champions and the 2013 champions.
Uyo, a city situated deep in Nigeria’s southern rain forests, is surrounded by meandering rivers that you see as you approach touchdown at the Margaret Ekpo International Airport. The Dana Air flight that morning faced turbulence as the rains poured. I had to scramble for a change of ticket around midnight after Arik Air announced a late postponement which they are yet to refund. Our flight landed just as the chartered Cam Air plane that brought the Lions an hour before, took off. The scene was set for an eventful two days.
The Majestic Godswill Akpabio Stadium is a beauty to behold. The 30,000-seater arena is one of the most modern sporting facilities on the continent. Modelled after the Allianz Arena in Munich where Bayern play, this stadium is amazing at night with its exterior lighting modelling flags of the competing countries. However, it has a huge deficit for its lack of seat numbers as well as the absence of a dedicated media tribune. VIP ticket holders and journalists jostled for seats on match day.
Despite having 30 emergency exits, just a gate was opened to fans on match day, September 1. It meant that spectators had to queue for more than two kilometres in a single file to reach the entrance where they were sometimes whipped into line by koboko (horsewhip)-wielding policemen. Some were even tear-gassed as the agitation grew towards kick-off time. It is a shame that fans that paid good money and wanted to spend their time to support the national team were made to suffer this ignoble treatment. Little wonder Nigerian football is finding it difficult to grow attendance.
Many major sports events these days grant WIFI access to fans in order for them to share their experiences on social media. But in Uyo, like many other games attended by the Nigerian political class, WIFI is not provided and broadband signals are jammed by the security apparatchik. This not only denied fans the opportunity of accessing social media, journalists and photographers who needed to share content online were blacked out. Many journalists were also rough-handled by men of the Department of State Security and denied access to the post-match press conference. This continues to happen despite regular uproar from journalists and it is time for FIFA and CAF to step in to help make our jobs easier.
Contrast this with the experience at the 40,000-seater Ahmadou Ahidjo Stadium in Yaounde where media and fans were treated with respect. All the entry points into the stadium were open to fans as security men and women carefully checked tickets and let people in without a fuss, more than four hours before game time. Outside was a carnival atmosphere as a beverage sponsor put up a stand with live music, and shops opposite made brisk business.
The media area was well marked with access to TV monitors for television and radio commentators with another zone for print media. Stewards came around to share WIFI password. One or two Cameroonian journalists gave up their seats for their guests.
For post-match, journalists got an option of either press conference or mixed zone tickets. Photographers were issued with bibs and many of the Nigerians who entered pitch side without were directed to pick up their allocated bibs at the media coordinator’s office. There was a pre-match briefing on where to stand. They worked like it was a World Cup game. It was such a different experience from the one offered by the under-staffed and poorly organised game a few days before.
Despite the Cameroon Football Federation (Fecafoot) being without a substantive board, they were a lot more organised than us. At the end of the day, I shook the hands of one helpful steward, thanking him for the hospitality. It was such an eye-opener. Even though my trip by road to Yaounde was long and rough (I slept at the border post in Ekok due to a curfew), the experience at the game more than made up for the troubles.
In conversations with the head of security of the NFF and other members of staff, they claim to have seen how matches should be organised to give fans and media the best of experiences during football matches. One only hopes that the next game against Zambia in Uyo would come with a lot of improvements, otherwise, many fans would be lost to poor crowd handling and high-handedness of security men. Many may begin to question why they have to pay money to get harassed and at that point, even journalists would prefer to watch games on TV where they can tweet, rather than get stuck in a firewalled stadium.