The Nigerian senior female national football team, otherwise known as the Super Falcons of Nigeria have refused to leave a hotel in Abuja, the Federal Capital Territory many days after they were supposed to have checked out of the hotel, because according to some of the players who spoke to journalists on strict conditions of anonymity, they do not trust the Nigerian Football Federation officials and the Nigerian Sports Ministry to pay them their allowances and bonuses, should they leave the Agura Hotel without getting their complete payment. For those who might want to argue that the girls should for the sake of patriotism sheathe their swords, I think there are no swords drawn and there cannot be a better way to show patriotism than to adorn the Green White Green jersey and play out your heart for your country, even though you have not being paid. These girls may have listened to the football officials, if they had spoken to them like they are human beings who deserve to be understood.
Some utterances credited to the top sports administrators in the country do not help matters, as the girls are made to look like common beggars, even though they are only asking for their legitimate entitlements. The most embarrassing of these utterances is the one credited to the beret wearing Minister of Sports, Solomon Dalung who said that the government did not have any plans to pay these girls their winning allowances, because they did not expect them to win the tournament. This is as disgraceful as it is indicting. What the sports minister says in effect is that himself and other officials who are paid with tax payers money only sent these girls to Cameroun without giving them the necessary motivation to win the tournament. To Dalung and his lieutenants in the sports ministry, it does not matter if these girls went to Cameroun to embarrass Nigeria. Dalung’s statement is another way of saying that the image and pride of our nation do not matter to him and those charged with the duty of administering our football. And I wonder what an individual with such careless mindset is doing in a public office in the same nation.
The neglect of these athletes who have brought home, Nigeria’s first senior soccer gold medal since the advent of this administration is not just the neglect of the less than forty Nigerian athletes involved in this patriotism but the neglect of nationalism. The Nigerian Football Federation and its major sponsor, the ministry of sports are setting a very wrong and dangerous precedence. Not that this is the first time it is happening, this has actually become too recurring that the authorities should be really worried that our country is getting publicity for the wrong reasons.
For instance, nothing can be more indicting to the integrity of a country’s leadership and more damaging to the image of a country, especially in the area of encouraging its citizens to be patriotic than this report in the British Broadcasting Cooperation’s News website:
It is not the first time the Super Falcons and the NFF have clashed over unpaid bonuses and allowances.
Twelve years ago, the team remained in their hotel in South Africa for three days after the Nigeria FA failed to pay their bonuses for winning the 2004 African Women’s Championship.
Pay rows have often surrounded Nigerian teams, with coaches not paid regularly, while players have boycotted training during important qualifiers or at major tournaments over unpaid bonus.
The poor financial position of the NFF has already forced the country to cut their backroom staff and slashed the salaries and allowances of the various national team coaches, EXCLUDING NEW SUPER EAGLES MANAGER, GERHOT ROHR.” (Emphasis mine).
Note that all the backroom staff whose salaries and allowances have been slashed as captured in this report are all Nigerians, and Gerhot Rohr and his assistants who earn higher than all other members of the Super Eagles technical crew are expatriates. Our football administrators are becoming notorious for not according indigenous coaches and backroom staff as much respect as they accord foreigners. Stephen Keshi, one of the best coaches to have come out of Africa and the only one still holding the record of being the first person to win the African Nations Cup first as a player and then, as a coach, was treated with so much disrespect and eventually frustrated out of his job, without the NFF paying him his dues. It is reported that till he died, he was still being owed some months’ arrears of salaries. Reports in some quarters also suggest that the late Coach Amodu Shuaibu also suffered the same ignominious treatment from the NFF and the Sports ministry. I am sure that if there is anything like reincarnation and Stephen Keshi finds his way back to Nigeria, he will not agree to don the green jersey either as a player or a coach. Apart from the Super Falcons players, their coach Omagbemi is also being owed several months’ salaries. Her allowances seem to have become a forgotten issue as her employers are no longer talking about that.
What of Sampson Siasia? A top coach in his own rights and another man who started off as a player and like Keshi achieved a lot in the Nigerian jersey before taking up the job as a gaffer, Siasia’s parting with the Nigerian Football Federation was as acrimonious as that of former Captain and Lille of France safe gloves, Vincent Enyama. While Enyama complained of not being shown any concern when he lost his beloved Mum, Siasia was in faraway Brazil where he led the National soccer Olympic team to participate in the Olympics, when his wife was waylaid by officials of the NFF supposedly in cahoots with the Minister of Sports, Solomon Dalung and his official car taken away. This is while the Bayelsa born tactician was sweating it out not just on the business of ensuring that his wards play good football but also sorting out logistics for the team, after the NFF and Ministry of Sports officials have failed to provide the necessary financial and logistical assistance to the team. The coach of the Super Falcons who was also a former Super Falcons player is being owed several months in arrears of salaries and allowances, yet she went ahead to lead this team to victory in the competition. Nothing else could have inspired this, if not the love for Nigeria.
While some people may argue that this situation is to be blamed on the sports ministry and the NFF alone, we must not fail to understand that our athletes do not adorn jerseys bearing the name of the individual occupying office as Sports Minister at a particular time or the NFF officials at other time. They wear the Nigerian jersey and whatever honour they win is for Nigeria and not for the Sports ministry. The international media and other observers who are taking note of the happenings do not bother about the individuals occupying certain sporting or footballing positions at a particular point in time. It is Nigeria and its image that is on the crucible, hence, the head of the Nigerian State cannot afford to look away from this situation.
These players are not asking for too much. What they are demanding is what they are entitled to; match bonues, trainming allowances and winning bonuses. These are payments that should be made to them without any controversy allowed to come up. To be part of this team, these girls must have trained and dedicated their time and energy to the team for not less than two months at a stretch. They risked their chances at their different club sides (Super Eagles Captain John Mikel Obi, lost his place in the Chelsea squad playing for Nigeria), risked career threatening injuries, risked even their own lives in order to defend Nigeria’s pride and honour in faraway Cameroun. These players have family members and dependents who look up to them for assistance and after participating in such a prestigious tournament and returning with the ultimate crown as champions of the competition, their relatives, friends and dependents would not be expecting them to return with empty hands.
Footballers and indeed all athletes that adorn the national colour deserve to be encouraged and appreciated because they are like soldiers who go out there to defend, maybe, not really the territorial integrity of the country, but certainly its pride and image. Participation in sporting events by countries is not merely for its fun, but comes with lots of economic benefits, too.
We do not all need to carry guns to get into battle with another nation before we are regarded as nationalists, neither do we need to begin another phase of independence battle for us to qualify as nationalists. Nationalism is really anything a citizen does which projects the image of the country in good light. Nationalism is also anything done by a citizen or a group of citizen that brings joy and satisfaction to a greater number of the country’s population. On their way to winning this championship, the Super Falcons eclipsed the other eight nations who participated in the tournament and became champions over the entire African continent.
The reluctance to appreciate those who represent us at these events contravenes the campaign being embarked by government at various levels which targets to encourage patriotism among Nigerians. The treatment meted out to these patriots will dampen the spirit of other citizens who may be planning to show patriotism to the country through some ways. The Billions of Naira which the Federal government has budgeted and is presently expending on the “CHANGE BEGINS WITH ME” campaign would have been better deployed in paying the entitlements of these athletes, as the action will certainly speak louder than the various radio and television jingles. These girls have through their sacrifices, dedication and discipline shown that change could begin with them. They trusted the sports officials by playing in the tournament, even while they were still owed outstanding Seven Thousand Dollars in allowances. They have shown adequate patriotism and nationalism and the reluctance of the Nigerian government to appreciate them, discourages further patriotism from not just them but millions other Nigerians who are taking notes on this embarrassing drama.
Amaju Pinnick and Solomon Dalung should understand that this is not really about the Super Falcons, this is about the future of sports in Nigeria , as other athletes are not ignoring how their comrades are being treated. The presidency should also not take this lightly as these girls may be few in number but their fans are in the millions and it will definitely have a serious political impact in the near future. I expect the presidency to learn a lesson or two not just from the past administrations who at times went beyond extending golden handshakes to our victorious athletes, but also tried not to allow the controversy over the payment of their allowances and bonuses to get to this level, but also from the same action by the governor of Imo State, and chairman of the Progressive Governors’ Forum when he feted Imo born Paralympic athletes who did the nation proud in the last Paralympics.