By Anthony Akaeze
What does one make of the latest Super Falcons sit-in protest in France? To my mind, simple: The more things change, the more they remain the same! It’s a statement I have repeatedly heard many unimpressed with APC, Nigeria’s ruling party, proclaim again and again to buttress the unprecedentedly high level of hardship generally being experienced by Nigerians under the leadership of a party that promised the electorate so much dividend after taking control of the federal government from the PDP following the 2015 election. But the words apply now, to the Nigeria Football Federation, NFF, headed by Amaju Pinnick under whose leadership, Nigeria’s national women’s football team, Super Falcons, have twice staged protests outside the country in the last three years. Like the APC, Pinnick, upon assumption of office in September 2014 and even thereafter, at different fora, promised soccer lovers so much change: a change from the old shambolic ways marked with unfulfilled financial obligations to players, coaches and administrators, financial reliance on government, corruption and crisis that some people associate with the NFF since its days as NFA ( Nigeria Football Association).
On a visit to the corporate office of Globacom, a telecom company and sponsor of Nigerian football teams, in October 2014, Pinnick was reported by The Nation newspaper of assuring Nigerians that “the era of mediocrity in football administration was over and that the people will see a change in the performance of Nigerian teams” when the NFF’s “blueprint is finally set in motion.”
But how much of the change has been seen or fulfilled since then is a matter of opinion and depends on the person analysing. My take is that, under Pinnick, for each positive step forward, there’s one backward. That’s a generous way of scoring his administration so far, judging by the Super Falcons latest performance and protest in France where it participated in the FIFA Women’s World Cup.
The team crashed out at the round of 16, after losing 3-0 to Germany, thus disappointing again, its numerous admirers who have long wished for it to achieve great results at the global stage, something it had not been associated with for long. Prior to this moment, the Super Falcons best performance in the world cup was recorded in the United States of America in 1999 where it was eliminated by Brazil at the quarter final stage.
Every FIFA competition since then, had raised hopes among Nigerians of a better outing by the team, Africa’s greatest side, but that never came to be until the France edition where the team, last week, managed to scrape through the group stage as one of four best losers, to qualify for the round of 16. It is something many Nigerians, and not the least NFF members were happy about as seen in a press release by NFF but it is doubtful if the NFF topshots are still smiling now following the sit-in protest by the Nigerian ambassadors. This is because the protest, which was reported in foreign and local media and ended up eliciting NFF’s reaction, is a slap on the face of the soccer organising body, a repudiation of what it professes. According to some news reports, the Super Falcons players had, after their elimination by Germany, refused to depart their hotel until their outstanding match bonuses and daily allowances were paid. The monies, according to media reports, included match bonuses for games played “two years ago” and “three years ago,” long before the competition in France. The protest brought to mind, the 2016 incident involving the same team, shortly after its return to Nigeria from Cameroun where it participated and won the Africa Women Cup of Nations, and a much earlier one in 2004, in South Africa, which the team also won.
Unlike in France, the Super Falcons triumphed in Cameroun. But like in France, they refused to vacate their hotel rooms after returning to Nigeria, until their entitlements were paid. In Abuja, Nigeria’s seat of power, where the players were lodged, they went beyond the hotel premises to register their anger, marching through major streets with placards and meeting with ordinary Nigerians and government officials. The plan worked. The Muhammadu Buhari administration ordered that the girls entitlements be paid and this was soon carried out by the finance ministry which duly made money available for that purpose. The NFF, at the time had pleaded paucity of fund as reason the team’s allowances were not paid as it claimed it had not received allocations it was expecting from the Buhari administration.
With the backlog of allowances having been cleared by the finance ministry, one would think that would be the last of such ugly incident, particularly in an era of change which both the APC and NFF often profess. It didn’t happen that way as the girls protest in France show.
What’s the reason for the protest this time? Nothing, says the NFF. The girls, the organisation claims, are not telling the truth. In a press release issued over the incident through its media department, the NFF “flatly denied owing players and officials of the senior women national team, Super Falcons any money.”
Shehu Dikko, NFF 2nd Vice President, was quoted as saying: “We have paid the players and officials the entitlements due them for the tournament and other outstanding bonuses and allowances were settled before the team arrived at the World Cup finals.”
The NFF statement further informs that “The NFF duly ensured it addressed all the issues raised by the team captain Desire Oparanozie via an email prior to the team resuming in camp in Austria and used its best efforts, to settle all the players’ claims and bonuses so as to provide an enabling platform for the players to perform without any distractions in France for the World Cup.”
The payment of the outstanding bonuses, the NFF explained, is in spite of the fact that, like three years ago, the Buhari administration was yet to release to it, funds for the prosecution of the Women’s World Cup. “The monies for the Super Falcons’ preparation and participation at the FIFA Women’s World Cup finals in France (and indeed the Super Eagles’ preparation and participation in the AFCON 2019 in Egypt) were recently approved by His Excellency, President Muhammadu Buhari (GCFR). But the release of the funds is still being (processed) by the Federal Ministry of Finance and will be concluded soonest,” the NFF said, adding that it had “made huge sacrifices including borrowing to ensure” it met its obligation to the Falcons.
Two days after the press release was issued, however, the NFF issued another statement, thanking the Buhari administration for releasing the money for the ongoing Africa Cup of Nations, AFCON in Egypt, which the Super Falcons male counterparts, Super Eagles, are currently participating in. The NFF confirmed receiving the money and forwarding same to the beneficiaries. The report noted that “NFF’s Acting President, Barrister Seyi Akinwunmi (in the absence of President Amaju Pinnick who is fully involved with organization as President of AFCON) said that the Federation received part of the money on Tuesday morning and had immediately launched the process to convert the sum to American Dollars to pay the players their only outstanding entitlement – the win bonus for the match against Burundi in Alexandria on Saturday evening – and for subsequent matches.”
It adds: “We want to specially thank His Excellency, President Muhammadu Buhari for his keen interest in resolving this matter quickly, which has enabled us to receive part of the money in record time…on Monday, 24th June, the NFF had transferred to the players and their officials their camp allowances up to the last day of the group phase matches at the AFCON 2019, as well as the appearance fee for the friendly against Zimbabwe in Asaba on 8th June.”
Such change in position, within just a few days, raises posers, and reveals issues hitherto unknown to some people like me: unpaid allowances of Super Eagles players as well.
In essence, it took the Super Falcons struggle to reveal that, and to that extent, would it be right to just dismiss the women’s own claims as nonsense and believe the NFF?
Questions to ponder are: Why should it take the protest of female footballers to get the Nigerian authorities do what was expected of them? How is it that the story of the Super Falcons (from anonymous sources within the team) is different from the NFF’s? Doesn’t the different tales say something about leadership or the lack of it? Doesn’t it indicate a lack of confidence, a breakdown in trust between two otherwise close family members?
At what stage did the falcon choose to no longer hear or listen to the falconer?
Who, between NFF officials and Super Falcons players should we believe in this matter?