LAST weekend was one of the most exciting in the Nigeria Premier League (NPL) as the championship entered the 18th week. Results from several key venues suggest that some integrity is returning to the domestic league despite our well documented challenges. The Nigerian league is notorious for boardroom wrangling, sponsorship battles, embezzlement, match-fixing, bribery, hooliganism, poor standards, exploitation of players, insecurity, fans apathy, name it. Despite these hydra-headed problems, the league trudges on anyway and, once in a while, produces something to cheer. Like last weekend. Clearly the match of the week was Rangers versus Shooting Stars in Enugu which Rangers won 3-2. Before the game, the Flying Antelopes coached by the experienced Okey Emordi and who have led the league table for most of the season, were tipped by many to steamroll the Oluyole Warrriors who, by contrast, have had a torrid season and had just sacked their coach Festus Allen for poor results. Indeed, Rangers looked well and truly on the way to a comfortable win, leading 2-0 at half time. But in the second period, 3SC produced a spirited fight back and Rangers only held on for a 3-2 win at the end of a dramatic encounter. The action was the stuff that gets soccer fans trooping to the stadium and asking for more. I’m sure that fans at the Nnamdi Azikiwe Stadium where I was a regular caller and Rangers supporter during my national youth service year in Enugu (between 1987 and ’88), would have gone home well and truly entertained. Up Rangers! In Aba, resurgent Enyimba were stopped in their tracks when Akwa United surprisingly held them to a 1-1 draw. And in Calabar which is the temporary home base of Heartland, Sharks pulled off a shock by grabbing a 1-0 away win. These were the pick of the results last weekend. Hitherto, you couldn’t even contemplate some of those results in the Nigerian league because the match referees and their assistants have been compromised to guarantee victory for the home team. That problem has not been completely wiped out, but if we could record the kind of surprises (and excitement) we had last weekend, there’s hope that things can only get better. Sometimes, however, I think we do exaggerate the rarity of “away wins” in the Nigerian league. While it is true that an away win suggests (not confirms!) that the referee had not been compromised by the home team, it doesn’t discount the possibility that the ref had been bribed by the away team! Besides, it could be a case of the highest bidder simply carrying the day. But my own imagination may be running riot. The point that I want to stress is that away wins might not necessarily be a stamp of credibility on our league. “Home advantage” is a well-known factor in global sport where familiarity with the home ground and the encouragement of the home fans are supposed to give the home team an advantage. Even in the very popular European leagues such as the English Premier League and the Spanish League, big teams rarely lose on home soil. And we have several occasions when these teams are accused of being favoured by the referees, which suggests that suspected biased officiating is not a Nigerian problem, but a global one. Rivals of Manchester United, for instance, will be quite familiar with the reputation of a certain referee Howard Webb! On match fixing, the episode in Italy which cost Juventus their Serie A title a fan seasons ago, plus relegation to Serie B is still fresh in our memory. Even as we speak, another match-fixing inquiry is ongoing in Turkey where a Nigerian player, Emmanuel Emenike, is allegedly implicated and big heads in Turkish football are expected to roll. FIFA, meanwhile, are also fighting to break an international match-fixing ring reportedly domiciled in Asia but with tentacles all around the world. And when you talk of football hooligans, some of the most notorious are not necessarily Kano Pillars or Warri Wolves fans, but most probably some knife-wielding Italians and hate-filled racist Russians. Football ills are indeed global. The challenges facing the Nigerian league will not disappear overnight. In fact, some of these challenges will always exist for as long as the league is played. But they can be curbed drastically by the severity with which the NPL and the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) punish identified offenders. Sanctions for offences should always be applied in full as stated in the rules and regulations. There should be no double standard and no sacred cows. A case in point is the recent discovery that some secretariat staff had been diverting NPL funds into their private pockets even while the body was struggling to pay indemnities to league referees. Just like their counterparts in the Pension Fund who have been stealing billions of naira from old Nigerian retirees who are left to suffer or die in verification queues, the NPL thieves are callous ‘civil servants’ without any conscience whatsoever. Their case should be pursued to a logical conclusion in a very transparent manner and all those found culpable should be dismissed and jailed. There must be no half measures, no cover-ups and no plea bargaining. The only way to curb or stop the endemic corruption in the Nigerian public service is by bringing the full weight of the law on those that are caught stealing public funds. I hope NPL chairman Victor Rumson Baribote is reading this. But can he walk the talk? Baribote must clean up the corruption in the league because, believe it or not, the Nigerian league has been attracting more followership, thanks to the matches being shown on satellite pay-station, DSTV. The other day, I stumbled on a radio programme dedicated entirely to the Nigerian league and I was amazed by the passion and familiarity demonstrated by the telephone callers to the programme. The moment the hosts opened the phone lines, calls started streaming in endlessly as soccer fans bantered and celebrated their supportership of Kwara United, Sunshine Stars and Enyimba amongst others. One caller even said he was a “Dolphin for Life” the way you hear people say “Chelsea for Life.” Who says the domestic league is not growing in followership. If you’re not already on the train, better find a club to follow in addition to your Man U, Arsenal or Barcelona. Give it a shot at naijasuperfans.com where you can register with both a European club and a Nigerian club. For me, I am hoping that Shooting Stars can maintain the fighting spirit that they showed against Rangers in Enugu last weekend because they will need it to survive the relegation that is threatening them again just a few years after they regained their place in the top flight. As an old school Yorubaman from Oyo State, I have Sooting in my DNA just like any old school Igbo man cherishes Rangers and an old school Hausaman is nostalgic about Raccah Rovers (now Kano Pillars). I have also supported Rangers (Enugu), Stationery Stores (Lagos), New Nigerian Bank (Benin), Iwuanyanwu Nationale (Owerri), and Enyimba (Aba) at different times in my Nigerian football odyssey as I flirted around in search of good football. But whenever Shooting Stars lose a game like they’ve done too often this season, my heart still skips a beat which proves my enduring love for the club. And if you add the fact that I’m also a long-suffering Liverpool fan, you must feel sorry for me. Ah, this Sooting will not kill me! Mama Falconets? A FEW weeks ago, the coaches of the Kenyan and Zambian Under-17 women’s teams accused Nigeria of parading big Mamas against them in World Cup qualifiers. Obviously, they couldn’t provide evidence, so we simply shoved them aside and qualified for the next round. Last weekend, it was the Zimbabweans that came to town to play our Under-20 women’s team in Abeokuta. Nigeria won the first leg World Cup qualifier 3-0, but it was the same story as the opposing coach marveled at the “maturity” of the Nigerian girls. He was surprised that some Nigerians girls that he played against several years ago have resurfaced in the current team still under-aged, whereas he came with a completely new set of young girls. Simply put, he suspects Nigeria of fraud! Now, when will Nigerian football coaches, aided by the NFF, stop embarrassing us? There’s a popular saying that he who alleges must show proof, but we will only be playing the ostrich if we insisted on that in these serial allegations. I don’t think the Zimbabwean coach needs to prove anything. If we have any shame at all, it is for us to investigate the allegation and make public the finding. But I do know that some Nigerian journalists quite familiar with the women’s game have equally raised eye-brows about the ages of our girls. Who will put a stop to this long-running charade? Ikhana and the Falcons AT LEAST, new Super Falcons coach Kadiri Ikhana doesn’t have to answer any questions concerning the ages of his girls. There’s no age limit in the senior team. Ikhana’s recent appointment has been received with mixed feelings by women’s football purists who wonder about the propriety of re-appointing a male coach for the women’s team. Personally, I have no problem with Ikhana’s choice because I think he’s a good coach with a record to show. Also, I believe he is a responsible man and he will prove that by running a camp free of any scandal. Not so, Monsiuer Kadiri? On a final note… I HAVE received congratulatory messages on my appointment into a special committee set up last week by the Nigeria Football Federation. Whatever happens, courtesy demands that I thank all those who sent such messages. Thank you, all. Re: The Writer’s Dilemma HELLO, Mumeen (not Mumini). I love your write-ups because they educate me a lot. During my NYSC in Sokoto State, I used to travel a long distance to Sokoto town to get Complete Sports so I could read your article. Please don’t be discouraged by the NFF or the state of our football. Keep writing, surely, thing can’t remain like this for ever. – Dayo from Iba, Lagos. lON THE technical director’s job, I’m convinced that Clemens Westerhof is the best man because he understands the phychology of Nigerian players. Sunday Oliseh comes next in my consideration. – Felix from Lagos. OLISEH is not a Pep Guardiola. He is too young for the technical director’s job. Meanwhile, Clemens Westerhof is not welcome back because he walked out on Nigeria after USA ‘94 World Cup. Tom Saintfiet is most suitable for the job. He is a Belgian and he knows about Nigerian players since the days of Stephen Keshi at Anderlecht in Belgium. – JD, Korede, Offa, Kwara State. DEAR Mumini. Nigeria’s sports politics is my area of interest. More reports on that, please. – Fatai from Agege, Lagos. MY CANDID opinion is that you should focus more on foreign football leagues. Barca and Liverpool must rule! – Anonymous. DEAR ALAO, the accusation by the Kenya Under-17 girls coach (that Nigeria used over-aged players) should be thoroughly investigated by all concerned. NFF will not say anything in this regard because the Flamingoes qualification is an opportunity to cover up their misadventures of last year. If discovered that there are women masqurading as girls, they should be discarded outright so that real Under-17 girls can be exposed and be useful in the senior team in future. Also, we want to know if their qualification is worth celebrating as fans don’t want to celebrate cheats. Fans don’t want grandmas to deny real young talent Under-17 girls of their rights. – Morufu Adegbenga Adenola, Ibonwon, Epe, Lagos.