The cheating menace of African refereeing
Despite signs of improvement, African football is suffering due to bad or corrupt refereeing and a system that has so far proved unable to secure proper education and remuneration of referees.
“I was frustrated out of refereeing in Nigeria because I could not cope with the dirt surrounding the profession. As a university lecturer, I enjoyed refereeing as a hobby until the suspension that eventually led to my quitting because I was not ready to compromise and favour the home team.”
Abubakar Lukman is one of the few football referees, who have been pushed out of the profession because of his inability to toe the line of corrupt practises like benefitting home teams in league matches or accepting poor refereeing as seen in some high profile matches - he prides himself as an honest referee.
Referees who do not conform to corrupt practises can be frustrated out of the game through various means.
There are reports of ‘referee-hounding’ by aggrieved home-fans who expect victory, as win-at-home-expectations are one of the banes of football matches across the continent.
There have even been cases of harassment and beating up of referees by aggrieved fans across Africa. In 2013, a fan attacked a referee with a vuvuzela during a premier league match because he sent off a midfielder.
Notably, team officials have been accused of bribing referees to favour them during competitive matches.
A case in point was on September 2, 2011 when a Nigerian referee, disallowed a goal during a premier league match between Sunshine Stars FC and Lobi Stars FC. Before the match, he was seen in the official car of the host state government prior to the match, with photo evidence taken by the away team.
The visiting team (Lobi stars) officials contested the act and accused the home team of match-fixing, stressing the rule that the away team should not have any contact with the referees before a match.
In a similar way, Egyptian sports analyst Maher Genena alleges that referees favour Al-Ahly Football Club in his home country to such an extent that whenever the club are playing league matches, the referee is like a twelfth player.
“In Egypt, referees help Al-Ahly play and win their matches, which make the fans very sad, due to inadequate training and pay (poor remuneration for the referees). Although referees in local matches are cheaper to bribe and not all of them are corrupt, money and referees help the big teams to win their matches,” he says.
A serious issue for African football
Apart from a lot of circumstantial evidence, there is no systematic research mapping and describing to what degree unqualified refereeing is a problem on the continent. But according to Kenyan football journalist Collins Okinyo, referee complacency or outright corruption is a significant problem in African football.
“It is a serious issue but nothing concrete has been established in the region or any culprit found guilty of the offence which can lead to automatic banning from all football activities,” Okinyo tells playthegame.org.
The majority of sub-Saharan African football matches are played without live coverage which encourages cheating especially in league games, creating a platform for referees to get away with controversial penalties, wrongly issued red and yellow cards, the disallowance of goals or other unfair actions.
However, referees get involved in cheating and other malpractices because of greed, occasional threats by officials to satisfy the win-at-home syndrome, poor remuneration and welfare package, lack of the necessary technical and work support, individual corruption and corruption by football officials.
The role of CAF
The Confederation of African Football (CAF) has a long history of sanctioning referees for poor and bizarre officiating. In 2015, Mauritian referee Seechurn Rajindrapasard who officiated the match between Tunisia and host Equatorial Guinea in the quarter-final of the 2015 Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) on January 31 was suspended for six months. He was also removed from the CAF A Elite Referees panel for his performance during the match which led to the Carthage Eagles being knocked out in shady circumstances.
The organisation has a referee committee tasked with two functions – educational and administrative.
CAF organises courses in Africa in which referees are taken through theoretical topics including amendments to the laws of the game, match analysis and physical tests.
The CAF management has also given out training modules concerning referees among the member associations.
“CAF executives always try to enforce things that can be easily implemented in all the member associations,” CAF’s spokesperson, Junior Binyam tells playthegame.org.
However, CAF has also been the target of criticism.
“Previously, speculation was that some of the referee committee chairmen were using referees to intimidate nations into taking certain political stances,” Francis Gaitho, a Kenyan football analyst, tells playthegame.org.
Gaitho believes that CAF is now making an effort to steer clear of the allegations made in the past by aggrieved teams that they turn a blind eye to poor refereeing.
“CAF looks like they are making a deliberate effort to distance themselves from allegations that they were complicit in influencing decisions from certain teams which didn't "toe the line" as regards to political stances in the Congress,” Francis Gaitho says.
Also, the President of the Tanzanian Football Association, Jamal Malinzi, claims that the general quality of refereeing has improved in Africa in recent years.
"As we go by, standards of refereeing in Africa are improving. AFCON and AWCON (Africa Cups for men and women), have witnessed some of the best refereeing in Africa. We need to improve though; the need for the engagements of educated referees should be prioritised.”
More must be done
In East African countries, referee corruption is gaining a lot of attention and condemnation from fans, which has pressed football associations across the region to put more attention on the problem, according to Collins Okinyo.
“I would like to congratulate the federations across East Africa for working hard to avoid any serious issues of referees colluding with team to gain favours,” he says.
And since the onset of the 2017 African Cup of Nations in Gabon, there have been no complaints about refereeing. This could be due to a combination of measures - bans/suspensions meted out to corrupt referees in the past and elite courses provided to the referees by the CAF, and taken shortly before the tournament.
Despite improvements, there is still much to do in CAS and on a national level, observers say.
According to Maher Genena, referees should go to Europe to learn from experienced European referee trainers with more and regular training courses for elite referees who can be mandated to transfer the knowledge to the low-graded referees.
Role of the FAs
CAF courses for elite referees, each federation under CAF should also be expected to take it upon themselves to organise courses in order to ensure the quality of the referees and introduce the right disciplinary measurements.
Additionally, the working conditions of the referees need to be improved, Collins Okinyo says.
“It is important to remunerate the officials well to avoid making them prey to bribery. Up to now, good things have happened but not 100 percent as some salaries or allowances are delayed and the payment does not reflect the work they do, so it is important that federations work on making things better,” he says.
"Our refs should keep on reading and keeping themselves up to date. We need to attract educated people into refereeing, doctors, teachers, and accountants should be recruited into refereeing,” Okinyo suggests.
Egyptian sports analyst Maher Genena points at some of the same needs.
“Selection should be based on pedigree with their remunerations given an upward review. Strict punishments and decisions must be made against the referees who cheat, serving as lessons to others,” he says.
The use of new technology
Tanzanian Jamal Malinzi belives “corruption should be fought at all costs”.
“And with the introduction of software for match manipulation, monitoring it will make it easier to find culprits," he thinks.
Generally, many referees use old technology in officiating matches and are yet to subscribe to the latest match analysis software, one of the many hindrances to bettering the tasks.
But so far, the newly proposed video refereeing by FIFA is yet to be embraced by African football.
“The assistant video refereeing option is not yet discussed (by CAF),” Junior Binyam says.
He thinks the video assistant referee should not be introduced to African football without combining it with other recent inventions.
“It would be premature to pursue video assistant refereeing in this current juncture, without combining it with other technical/ technological interventions meant to boost football.”
Abubakar Lukman quit before an improved refereeing system in Africa was discussed and maybe improving, however, he will not return to refereeing.
“I am back to doing what I do best which is lecturing, and currently in one of the universities in Northern Nigeria, no more refereeing for me,” Abubakar concludes.