Football: Set the Super Eagles Free!

Published on 6th July 2010

Nigeria's president, Goodluck Jonathan, is rumored to be the most fortunate man in the country. A series of events saw him go from Vice President to President when late President Yar'adua died from health complications. However, in what must be an attempt to prove that he is just as intelligent as he is lucky, Jonathan decided to suspend the Nigerian football team from international play for two years. According to a spokesperson, the suspension is a direct result of the team’s disappointing performance during the 2010 FIFA World Cup, where it ended up at the bottom of its group.

Unfortunately, this suspension does little for Nigerian football, now and in the future. Additionally, it will do far less for Jonathan, because the move highlights a common and distressing quality about Nigerian leadership - a lack of vision and an inability or unwillingness to address the real challenges of the Nigerian condition.

Lack of vision

It is never wise to overreact to any situation as such indicates an inability to control one’s emotions. That is a flaw a president must especially be prevented from expressing as doing so not only hampers their image, but potentially weakens the very office they hold.

In this case, the brash decision by Jonathan to suspend Nigerian play was announced without additional details of how such an approach serves the national interest. International tournaments are used to not only spotlight local talent but give players an opportunity to play together as a team. In the case of Nigeria, it remains important to give younger players a platform on which to shine as that improves their chances of being picked up by a team which in turn can be useful for national play and even the nation's image if handled correctly. Furthermore, international play gives team members time to bond with each other and learn how to play together - a key element that was noticeably absent during World Cup play that will not be helped by a suspension.

More worrisome than this failure to see how suspension of team play weakens Nigerian  football is the inability to recognize that football is the one thing  that brings a nation of 150 million people together. Whenever the national team plays, it is normal to see people of different religions, socioeconomic classes and tribal groups joined in unison - hoping and  praying for the success of the national team. That reality, despite the failures of the team to win matches in recent years, is one any leader would be ill-advised to ignore.

There is also the added element of FIFA. Nigeria's football federation, the Nigerian Football Federation (NFF), is subject to FIFA's rules. One crucial rule is that politics and politicians stay out of football. Jonathan's suspension directly flouts this requirement and can be interpreted as feeding into an already dangerous stereotype about Nigerians - that they do not observe laws. Even more dangerous, is the failure to anticipate a reaction from the organization which has now challenged the president. FIFA demanded a full and complete reversal of the suspension by Monday, July 5th, 2010. Now, Jonathan, who, as President, needs to make sure he maintains a certain amount of control and respect, must react to the demands of a non-Nigerian organization. If he chooses to ignore FIFA's demand, he could subject all Nigerian football teams to anywhere between two or more additional years of non-play, effectively taking the country off the football map for years  to come. 

And, if Jonathan was to give in to FIFA, the implication would be that a President was brought to his knees by a sporting organization.  That would be damning for Jonathan, but more so for Nigeria, which suffered the unfortunate effects of leadership under a president that was seen by most to be weak. The perception led to that president’s  ineffectiveness  domestically and internationally.

Ignoring the real challenges

These possibilities only suggest a sin all politicians the world over are condemned for - focusing on fringe issues to distract from the real matters at hand.  Jonathan's suspension is a tried and true political tactic especially handy during a period of high tension and discontent.  Citizens, weary of the failure of their government to provide for basic needs are likely to focus that anger on politicians. If that were to happen, Jonathan's ruling party, the PDP, would suffer the most. With elections around the corner in 2011, Jonathan opted to turn Nigerian   football into the scapegoat. The NFF’s decision to bring in a new national coach so close to the world cup was a contributing factor to the team’s failures. Also, the well known fact that making it onto the team as either a player or support staff is determined not necessarily by skill but by the exchange of money serves to further weaken team performance. These and many other factors make a change in the very structure and culture of the NFF mandatory. But, that could have been accomplished without a full fledged suspension of play.

Beyond the questionable practices of the NFF, are cultural norms of the larger Nigerian fabric that came to hurt the country during the World Cup.  Nigeria has become a country that rewards selfish activities that put personal ego and vanity above national pride and interest. One need look no further than the sycophantic praise and worship of individuals whose wealth was gained illegally. Or, the parents who unquestioningly take money, homes and cars from their children knowing very well that these things came from criminal activity. There can be little surprise then that self interest is the norm and that many players were seen to be playing to advance themselves and not the glory of the country.  Addressing that reality and not issuing a two year suspension would have been the wise and visionary thing to do. Programs fostering civil education, national pride and unity and encouraging the best aspects of Nigerian culture would go a long way to counter many of the country’s problems which have, once again, been put out to dry. This approach, coupled with clear signs of success on other matters such as healthcare, education, infrastructure, would also help the national psyche which is far too accustomed to failure.

Unfortunately, Jonathan's suspension only suggests an unwillingness to soundly tackle concrete problems. This is discouraging given that he is in a position to do a lot of good for the nation and only has months before presidential elections. This unwillingness could be interpreted as him knowing that he can only do but so much during his tenure and opting thus, to not do enough. One can only hope that is not  the case, but given the  Jonathan administration's inflation of the Golden Jubilee budget by over  160% without including a single item that  will benefit Nigerians in the  long term such as a better hospital or  school, Jonathan is sadly appearing  to be the same as many other Nigerian leaders. That might be lucky for Goodluck, but it is woefully unlucky for Nigerians and Nigerian football.

By Solomon Sydelle,

Nigerian Curiosity

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