Nigerian football farce
by Calvin Emeka Onwuka
“The problem was that, as many of our players went to play in Europe they started to imbibe professional behaviours and attitudes to the game but we the administrators were not as professional – some say it applies even now.” That was said by Ogbuefi Tony Nnacheta, who was a board member of the Nigeria Football Association in the mid-1990s.
It is pertinent that I quote him because it is one of the most profound descriptions of Nigerian football then and, sadly, even now. Anyone in Africa who follows football is aware of the farce that has been going on in the football house. First a president was impeached, then returned and then a supposed election was held to produce another president. Fifa watched and threatened a ban and then that other ‘president’ has stepped down and new elections will take place soon.
In the midst of the jostle for leadership at the NFF, the Afcon qualifiers were to start, even if there was not a coach in place for the defending champions. Stephen Keshi’s contract apparently ran out after the Brazil 2014 World Cup and there seemed to be no willingness on the part of his employers to renew. Eventually the Sports Minister intervened and got Keshi to agree to coach the team for the two qualifiers – matches that brought a home defeat and a draw with Congo and South Africa respectively.
For as long as I can remember, Nigerian football has been largely run by men with very little interest in the development of the sport and the progress of the national teams in general. Possible exceptions were the times Nigeria had the likes of Late Tony Ikhazobor, late Patrick Okpomo and Yusuf Alli in charge. These men worked tirelessly and clearly with good intentions to make the national teams successful and a thriving national football league.
Football is awash with money. A forensic accountant friend of mine once said to me that wherever there is a lot of money available there is bound to be corruption/fraud if not properly managed and watched closely. Well, therein lies the biggest problem with football in the third world and with Nigerian football. The battle to take control of the NFF had absolutely nothing to do with the desire to serve the country but rather to be in control of this cash cow. There is no other way for me to coat it.
I was in Brazil when the bonus row erupted before the round of 16 match with France. The players were rightly unimpressed by the NFF board asking them to wait till Fifa paid the board. The players were aware that the federal government had released the entire funds for the prosecution of the tournament. They also knew that the NFF board had paid for the trip to Brazil for a whole assortment of people who were not involved in the playing side of the tournament. Therefore they were not in the mood to be told to wait and, in my view, rightly so.
That bonus row set in motion the chain of events that led to the impeachment process of Alhaji Maigari and the rest is history.
The last few months have been nothing short of farcical in Nigerian football and no one comes out looking good – not this board and not the cheap ones who wanted to railroad themselves into the board.
Then there is Stephen Keshi. There is no Nigerian football person in my life that has polarised views like the Afcon-winning coach and this dates back to when he was the skipper of the national side. I am going to lay it down as bluntly as I can possibly get legally and I will write this based on how closely I have worked with the Super Eagles of Nigeria in the last 18 months.
For the record, Stephen Keshi should have walked from the job after the match with France in Brasilia at the World Cup. His contract ran out and in exclusive interview he granted me he did say he was leaving. He should have. The heat he has been receiving all over the country and from Nigerians abroad since and especially after the home defeat to Congo are only deserved because he chose to come coach the side even though there was no NFF Board and he has been living abroad in the US.
There are no more arrogant and entitled fans anywhere in the world than the fans of the Super Eagles. These Nigerians reside in a bubble so far from reality they can’t understand that it requires proper planning, and a sustained programme to bring about continued success at any level of sports.
The NFF regularly owes the coaches of ALL the national teams salaries; winning the Afcon did not insulate Keshi from it as he was owed too. Take it a step further, Stephen Keshi was denied the use of his assistant Sylvanus Okpala in a spate of mindless cuts. He confirmed that his other assistant was paid from his pocket.
In spite of this, Nigerian football fans expect their coaches to deliver successes regularly. Since the Afcon, the Nigerian team has not played well, to be fair, and Keshi has to be held responsible for this. However, I concluded during the World Cup that he is a defensive coach by nature which might have something to do with being a former defender as a player. He could and should have taken a better squad to Brazil even if some of these players supposedly dropped did not pull up trees before then.
On to the players. Nigeria does not have the quality of players that Nigerians actually think they have. When compared with Ghana it is clear that Keshi might have been a miracle worker. How many Nigerian players play at top clubs in Europe? Nigeria’s highest profile player is John Mikel Obi but he is not a starter at Chelsea in the BPL. We have a host of players in the Turkish league, some not even starters yet.
Nigerian football is in shambles. Nigerian fans need to wake up to a deeper problem than laying into a coach who has actually possibly worked a miracle in spite of all the shambles around him. It will be interesting to see who gets the job and what he does with the team. The bar is at the same place Clemens Westerhof and Stephen Keshi put it, so success for a new coach must be to better those two. Nothing else will do. Good luck to him and the Nigerian football administrators. He will need it.
Please do write your comments here or follow me on Twitter @CalvinEmeka. Next week I shall return to the Premier League.