Winners meddle

Nigeria look odds on to qualify for the 1998 World Cup in spite, rather than because, of their organisation off the pitch, as Osasu Obayiuwana explains

Perhaps like nowhere else in the football world the recent history of the game in Nigeria is one of odd but intriguing contrasts, a showcase for both excellence and mediocrity. “A foreign manager with no backbone and an aversion for conflict cannot work as coach of the national team in Nigeria,” says Clemence Westerhof, the Dutchman whose five year reign came to an end after the 1994 World Cup Finals.

“While we were playing our final qualifying game for USA ‘94 in Algiers, Chief Akinyele (then Chairman of Nigeria’s National Sports commission – NSC) came into our dressing room at half-time on the pretext of giving the boys a pep talk. He had the effrontery to say that my players were playing like pregnant women, even when we had a 1-0 lead,” Westerhof recalls.

Westerhof’s disgust with the meddlesome, ever present bigwig prompted him to slam the dressing room shut behind Akinyele as he walked out of the dressing room (a serious mark of disrespect in African terms), subsequently dampening the celebrations of Nigeria’s first ever World Cup qualification as the NSC boss bluntly refused to join the post match party on the return flight to Lagos.

Westerhof’s replacement, Jo Bonfrere, who had worked as his de facto assistant for five years, did not fare any better, being forced to play the Nigerian Olympic squad in pre-tournament friendlies for the pleasure of the Sports Minister who wanted to assess the squad and ‘suggest’ team changes. And the interference didn’t stop there. “Even when we were winning match after match at the Olympics, some officials were still telling me which players I should select,” says Bonfrere. “When I refused, they reduced my match winning bonus, which meant my getting much less than what the players were receiving”.

Bonfrere did a runner to Holland after Atlanta, and it took the personal intervention of Sani Abacha, the head of Nigeria’s military government, to convince him to return to the country and collect his $15,000 bonus, his salary arrears and a national medal of honour, the Order of the Niger. His troubled one-year reign as Nigerian coach at an end, Bonfrere moved on to Qatar and a national coaching contract worth $25,000 dollars per month, more than three times what he received in Nigeria.

“Everybody in Nigeria knows why I left,” says Bonfrere. “Many people were attempting to interfere with my job and I was not prepared to tolerate that. There is no one who would not agree that my stay there was successful. Winning the Olympic gold medal is not exactly a small achievement. But I am finished with Nigeria now and that’s that,” he insists.

His departure mirrors the utter state of chaos that Nigerian football officialdom has been in post USA ‘94. After the FA had publicly said that Amodu Shuaibu, one of the most successful coaches on the domestic scene, would be given full charge of the team after Westerhof’s departure, officials surreptitiously hired Brazil’s 1970 World Cup-winning captain Carlos Alberto Torres.

But the Brazilian’s disgust with the abysmal organisation of football in Nigeria prompted him to abandon ship, which forced the FA into an embarrassing volte face to employ Bonfrere, whom they claimed had failed to meet the 50% “pass mark” when he was initially interviewed for the job. Since Bonfrere’s departure, the game of musical chairs has gone full circle, as Amodu has come back to the managerial chair while the FA look for another foreign handler.

But more important than the coaching brouhaha, the most damaging blow to Nigerian football in the last two years was the highly unpopular decision of General Sani Abacha to bar the team from defending its African Nations Cup title in South Africa last January due to a personal conflict between himself and President Mandela (presented as concern over “grave security risks” to the lives of the players should they go to South Africa).

“We were all numb with shock when the decision was made known to us at the team hotel in Lagos,” recalls Celestine Babayaro, left back with Anderlecht. “Thinking that we could change the head of state’s mind, we all went up to Aso Rock (the seat of government) to plead with him, but his mind was made up”. To appease the disgruntled players, Abacha gave them a $20,000 per man bonus, which some suggested was to buy their tacit support for the pullout.

“It is unfortunate that people said that we were silenced with the money given to us,” says Celestine’s elder brother Emmanuel, a keeper with the team. “We were caught in the middle of a conflict over which we had no control. Left to us we would have gone to South Africa under any conditions. Watching other nations at the tournament when we should have been there was very painful”.

Local football has not fared any better. The Nigerian professional league, which commenced in May 1990 after two and a half decades of “shamateurism” (in which supposedly amateur players actually earned their living from the game) is enmeshed in a myriad of problems: poor playing facilities, controversial officiating and an uncoordinated approach to the marketing of the league, now sponsored by Pepsi, has reduced it to little more than a glorified version of the old amateur setup. But the biggest problem for the league has been its inability to keep the best players within the country.

Dreaming of fame and fortune, many players sneak out of the country for trials in Europe while the Nigerian season is still on – without the knowledge of their clubs who have been forced to report them to FIFA to ensure that no overseas side takes them on without paying the mandatory $50,000 transfer fee.

“When you compare the megabucks they could earn at Ajax with what they get playing for Jasper United or Iwuanyanwu Nationale, there is no way that talented players are going to stay in the country,” says Godwin Dudu-Orumen, one of Nigeria’s leading football experts, adding, “If a players stays in the local leagues for more than a couple of seasons, many would assume that he is not a good player simply because he’s unable to get a contract in Europe”.

More often than not it is in the boardroom, rather than on the field of play, that the winners of the league are decided. At the end of the 1995-96 season, Jasper United of Onitsha, one of the second generation clubs in the first division, was thought to have won the championship, beating Sharks of Port Harcourt on goal difference. But weeks after the final league games had been played, the FA had to consider a protest from the third placed team, Udoji United, which had claimed that Concord FC, their opponents in the final match of the season, had used five ineligible players, which entitled them to victory by default. The NFA upheld this protest which enabled Udoji to win the league with a point to spare. “It was painful that we lost the league to boardroom politics, but that’s Nigerian football for you,” says Jasper’s spokesman, Jude Ogbonnaya.

Despite the innumerable problems engulfing football in Africa’s largest nation, Nigeria is still the continent’s brightest hope for the 1998 World Cup. Augustine ‘Jay Jay’ Okocha, the national side’s playmaker, currently with Fenerbahce, says that the “fire brigade” approach is simply an integral part of Nigerian football: “There is hardly a time when we prepare for any major international competition without problems. Although those of us playing for top European clubs know that the administration of football in Nigeria needs to be improved, we also know that kata a kata (confusion) is part and parcel of our system, so we just get used to it”.

With Nigeria’s superlative showing at the Atlanta Olympics, beating impressive Brazil and Argentinian sides in the process, Walter Winterbottom’s old prediction – that an African side could win the World Cup by the turn of the century – now looks a real possibility. But so is the potential for a re-enactment of Cameroon’s shameful debacle in the USA. That is the irony of Nigerian football.

From WSC 120 February 1997. What was happening this month