Goodluck Jonathan stopped the presses around the world last week when he slapped a two-year ban on Nigeria’s participation in international football contests. It didn’t matter where one stood on the merits of the case, no one could deny that Mr. Jonathan’s decision had gusto.
Having admitted that much, let me state, for the record, that I consider the moratorium wrong-headed. Here’s why. Despite the disappointing outcome in all the matches played by Nigeria at the World Cup tournament in South Africa, the Nigerian players are more deserving of praise than censure. I don’t see how Mr. Jonathan, or any other Nigerian politician, or even any other Nigerian professional has earned the right to chastise the men who represented us in South Africa.
Believe me, it was heartbreaking to watch the Nigerian team fall short in game after game. Like many other Nigerians, I fumed in outrage and uttered an unkind thought or two. Yes, our players lost to a Greek team they should have beaten handily. Yes, they should have found a way – the heart, if not the skills – to dominate South Korea. But, after the flush of consternation had waned, after I had had time to talk to a friend, Okwy Okeke (as informed a football aficionado as can be found anywhere), I was compelled to recognize that Nigeria owes a debt of gratitude to the men who wore our national colors.
To begin with, their losses, truth be told, were in the nature of football. Sometimes the odds-on favorites lose to an inferior team. The Netherlands knocked off Brazil. France, a legitimate football super power, was eviscerated. A strong, disciplined German team not only sent England and Argentina home – they trounced those two opponents.
Nigeria has a poor history of rewarding its athletes and footballers – or even its best intellectual and cultural assets. Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, arguably the most widely known African musician, was beaten and processed in and out of jail numerous times by mediocre rulers who loathed his lacerating lyrics and had no appreciation of his tremendous cultural capital. How about Chinua Achebe? When he spurned former President Olusegun Obasanjo’s tainted national “honor,” Mr. Obasanjo authorized Femi Fani-Kayode, a decrepit mouthpiece, to insult Africa’s best-known writer. The same Fani-Kayode would declare that Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka, a man whose literary and moral credentials command global reverence, did not believe in God (the god being Obasanjo!) and so did not have speaking rights in Nigeria.
Here’s my point: Nigeria (through Mr. Jonathan) has hardly earned the right to rebuke players who are so good they rank among the world’s best. Countries like Brazil and Argentina take their football seriously, and the state pours in resources and pursues other policies directed at the germination and nurturing of players. By contrast, Nigeria’s football administrators often have their sights set on the main chance – for themselves. Look at the line-up of players that Nigeria sent to South Africa. Can we point to a single one of those players and say, with confidence, that Nigeria’s sports administrators or sports policies fertilized his emergence or growth as a player? I doubt it. My point: each and every one of those players earned a jersey by dint of hard work and gritty determination.
Also to be remembered is that Nigeria has a wretched reputation for abandoning its football players and sports representatives who either sustain career-ending injuries or witness an unexpected decline in their fortunes. What has the Nigerian Football Federation done for Daniel Amokachi lately? What did the federation do for the family of Aloysius Atuegbu when he passed away in 2008?
After attending Atuegbu’s funeral, Segun Odegbami, one of Nigeria’s former soccer greats, wrote a painful reflection on his and other players’ physical devastation. He described his “permanent contending scars – weak, painful knees in both legs, arthritis in both knees and right shoulder, occasional palpitation in my heart that now requires constant checks with a heart specialist, failing eyesight due to age and the result of years of cushioning and heading balls kicked with brutal force, a rather high level of cholesterol and so on.” He is a walking library of medical travails; he sees “a heart specialist, an orthopedic surgeon, an eye specialist and a general medical practitioner.” He wrote, “I manage to cover all the bills myself and I can’t exaggerate how difficult that has been.” Then there’s this heartrending testimony: “Every retired player has his own list of medical scars, stories of the daily pain they have to endure and the escalating medical expenses!”
Until he lifts a hand to honor and help Odegbami and other men who risked their health to bring us sports glory, Nigeria’s Sports Minister, Ibrahim Bio, should not rush to castigate the players who suited up and represented us down in South Africa.
Last week, Mr. Bio waxed indignant about the players: “I cannot imagine an international player missing a goal that was almost two to three meters to a goal post and he was laughing or smiling. There was no sign of regret.” The minister continued: “That is the level of patriotism that gets Nigerian government concerned. They should show some sense of remorse and regret so that the people will not say that it was an intended action.”
It’s amazing that a minister would misread a player’s expression of abject self-disappointment as a sign of levity. First of all, the best players in the world have missed scoring opportunities that mere mortals like to think they would have netted. In those instances, it’s not unusual for the player to be so stunned that, in the moment, all he manages is a pained grin.
Now, here’s why I found Mr. Jonathan’s precipitate reaction rather intriguing. If players good enough to qualify to play in the World Cup can be banned for two years on account of their less than stellar showing, what, then, shall we do with other sectors of Nigeria marked by bottom-scraping failure or irredeemable mediocrity?
I’d begin to applaud Mr. Jonathan if he decided to banish his own party for serving Nigerians an unrelenting menu of – among others – stolen mandates, gluttonous godfathers, inflated contracts, money laundering, squandered (power and road) budgets, third term blues, the protection of (Halliburton, Siemens, etc) bribe takers, and political violence. How about banning corrupt judges who write two different judgments for sale to the highest bidder? And why not announce that the National Assembly, whose members gulp millions of dollars but cannot find time to pass more than a handful of bills, is hereby erased? Even the press – why not announce a five-year ban on all newspapers, magazines, radio and TV stations for their failure to investigate and expose acts of corruption?
Finally, why not ban the office of Nigeria’s president for a minimum of ten years – because no occupant of that office has been able to figure out how to provide regular and uninterrupted power in the country, or health care, or an educational system good enough that public officials would allow their own children to go through it, or a credible corruption-fighting policy, or security of lives and property?
Why make a scapegoat of football players when the root and source of Nigeria’s failure lie elsewhere?