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Sports News of Friday, 2 April 2021

Source: The Nation

Why I was nicknamed Show Boy as a referee - Festus Okubule

The history of refereeing in Nigerian football dates back to the first time the ball was kicked in the land. However, it took several decades after the national teams had come into reckoning on the international scene for Nigerian referees to make their impact on the continent and in FIFA-organized events.

Bu  10 years after the national team had famously battled Pele’s Brazil to a 3-3 draw at the Olympics and five years after it won the All Africa Games gold, Festus Bolaji Okubule made history as he officiated at the World Military Schools’ Competition in Kuwait in 1978.

It was also the year after Christ the King College, Onitsha won the World Secondary Schools Football Championship.

“I love football when I was young but I only featured in street competitions in Lagos and Ibadan,” Okubule recalled with glee at his Lagos home. “But during one of my holidays with my uncle in Kano, I went to watch a match involving Kano  Pillars but the match was delayed because they were waiting for the centre referee who was expected to fly in from Lagos.

“Unfortunately, the referee did not show up for the match and it was that experience that made me fall in love with refereeing. “

Though he initially took refereeing as a hobby, the desire to also make a name for himself elicited Okubule’s love for the whistle.

He offered: “I joined the referee for some purposes and among them was to project the image of this great country and my family which I have succeeded in doing.

“Wherever I go and I see the Nigerian flag, I feel so proud; and I won’t start the match if I don’t see the Nigerian flag.

“I always request that every referee handling matches must have their national flag handed to them by the host because they are the ambassadors of their countries.”

With a burning desire to succeed as a referee, Okubule learnt the rudiments of refereeing alongside understanding the laws of the game, which he said aided his quick rise as a referee.

“After I embraced refereeing, I devoted my time to it and made sure I learnt what I needed to know, especially when it comes to the laws of the game,” he explained. “A good referee must be well-grounded in the laws of the sport and just few years after I started, I became an international referee in 1973; and the following year which was 1974, I got my badge as a FIFA referee.

“Then I started handling several top local matches and later when my name got to CAF,  I handled several FIFA World Cup qualifiers as a CAF referee.

“At a time, I became the number three referee in Africa. I must also admit that being a CAF referee does not mean I don’t make mistakes on the field but it was not deliberate,” he added.

Besides refereeing, Okubule also worked at Guinness Nigeria where he retired as an administrative officer.

The former NFF board member recalled how his life was touched by the kindness of his employers: “I got a job with Guinness as an administrative officer and the company gave me all the support to succeed because they saw me as their ambassador and image maker.

“Even while I was officiating matches across the country and Africa, Guinness never denied me my entitlement.

“ I was paid as at when due and anything I wanted was given to me. I had an official car as an employee of Guinness.

“There was a time I had a tumour on my head, the Guinness Nigeria got in touch with Guinness international and I was flown abroad for the treatment and everything I needed was provided for me by the company.

“I got the best treatment as  I was admitted into one of the best hospitals; this happened 34 years ago and I cannot forget the support I got from the management of Guinness when I retired as an administrative officer.”

Meanwhile, it was in 1983 that  Okubule became the first Nigerian referee at a FIFA tournament when he was picked for the FIFA Youth Championship (now FIFA U-20 World Cup) in Mexico.

Incidentally, that was also the first FIFA tournament attended by a Nigerian national team, when the Flying Eagles qualified after beating Guinea over two legs and  he was the centre referee in the Group B match between Poland and the United States in Pueblo as well as the game between Brazil and Holland at the Jalisco Stadium, Guadalajara.

At the tournament, two other African referees – Bernard Grah of Cote D’Ivoire and Mohammed Larache of Morocco – were sent home after the Group games while Okubule was among the 12 retained to proceed with the remaining matches.

“When I started out, I did not know I could get anywhere,” he confessed. “It was like a child’s play but with God on my side, I got to an enviable position in refereeing; I would say that refereeing was not a profession but a serious hobby for me.

“A lot of people appreciate me wherever I go because of my firmness and courage as well as the love of the game.

“ The legacy I  left behind as a referee  is  that of courage; a referee must be courageous and have knowledge of the laws of the game.”

Although he rose fast to the top of football officiating, Okubule confessed he also encountered some ugly incidents along the way.

He remarked: “I had some ugly experiences while officiating and one of them was during an international match involving the Congo Brazzaville national team in 1977. During the match, I gave a player a red card and he collected the card, tore it and threw it at me. However, CAF suspended the player for life.

“Another major incident was in Lagos at the former UAC Stadium now Teslim Balogun Stadium in a match involving Stationery Stores and Rangers International.

“There  was also a game with  Kano Pillars where I awarded a penalty against Pillars and one of the players was sent off but he walked up to me and called me stupid and  refused to leave the pitch until he was forced out.”

ADVERTISEMENTAnother experience Okubule would not forget in a hurry was in Gabon where the local fans were furious against their national team.

“There was also a  day I refereed a match involving Gabonese national team but after the match, the crowd ran into the field of play and I was so scared thinking they were coming to attack me not knowing that they came to attack their home team. They beat the home team seriously. I was so scared that day.”

Yet Okubule noted that one of his secrets of success as a referee was being on a regular routine of prayers before and after every match even as he explained the rationale behind being called Show Boy.

His words: “What I do before going for a match is that I would ask the referee team to pray before and after the match.”

“As a referee, I was very neat and that is one of the reasons I was called Show Boy.

“ I attended every match with two sets of shirts. I used a certain shirt for the first half while I changed to the second in the second half.

“Most times, I used to ask the referee team whether they came with two set of shirts. I was always neatly dressed and that is where I got the nickname Show Boy; it was because of my neatness during matches.”

Okubule is miffed that some referees today are not conversant with the rules of football, which affects their decisions on the field of play, adding the present crop of administrators appears not to be passionate about the development of football.

“In our days, we used to take football seriously but nowadays people go there to make money for themselves. Nobody is concerned about what happens to football,” he lamented. “We are not doing enough at the grassroots level and those in charge of sports must give attention to this area if we want our football to flourish.

“We have to catch our athletes young but most times we depend on those who did not go through the stages. It is very important for an athlete to go through the stages before getting to the top.

“Parents should allow their children to go into sports from as early as five years of age as that is another way of keeping them fit and build courage in them.

“That does not stop them from being successful in their academics; while they go to school, they should do sports also,” he added.

Described by former Green Eagles captain, Segun Odegbami as one of the best referees to have emerged from Nigeria,  Okubule retired from being a match commissioner in 2016.

At 79, the retired CAF and FIFA Instructor still engages in physical exercise within his residence in Lagos.

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