The idea that Nigeria’s fragmented tribes unite behind the nation’s sports teams has become a cliché. Yet while sports may strengthen our hope in the future of Nigerian nationalism, there is another form of equality that we would have hoped to avoid: delayed salaries. Alas, the Nigerian government has been equally averse to paying the country’s sports stars as her civil servants.
The Trust Deficit
In 2019, Nigerian football teams participated in five FIFA-recognised tournaments, including the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) where the Super Eagles placed third.
That podium finish only tells part of the story. During the AFCON, the Nigerian team sat out a training session because they had not yet received their promised bonuses. A similar farce occurred during the Rio Olympic Games in 2016 when the Nigerian team that went on to secure bronze did not have the funds to even travel - they had to rely on a South Korean benefactor to fund bonuses and prize money.
Likewise, the Super Falcons—the most successful female football team in Africa—missed their flight to France for the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup after a sit-in/strike at their hotel. The strike was employed to ensure they received their promised bonuses.
In summary, Nigerian football in 2019 was a tale of on-the-pitch achievement and off-the-pitch absurdity.
Is Funding an Issue?
Why is funding often an issue with Nigerian national teams? Available data point towards poor planning and mismanagement.
It is important to note that FIFA provides funds (for basic salaries, transport, etc.) to assist national teams that participate at all FIFA-recognised tournaments. Thankfully, because of this safety net, it is unusual to see Nigerian football teams fail to find transportation to FIFA tournaments, like was the case with the Rio Olympics.
However, the Nigerian Football Federation (NFF) usually announces bonuses to incentivise our birds, and sometimes, they promise packages they do not have the funds to provide. For example, it was reported that the NFF was still searching for bonus money a week before the AFCON, and of course, the Super Falcons were sceptical enough to go on a strike for their bonuses.
But if FIFA handles the basics like accommodation and transport, and the NFF only needs to provide funds for bonuses, why does it struggle?
One obvious answer is amateurish planning. How else do you explain the claim by the Minister of Youth and Sports that “international competitions were not captured in the 2019 Budget” in a year the NFF knew that Nigerian football teams would be participating in five competitions? Further support for this argument is the public disagreement between the NFF and Sports Ministry during the year over who was at fault for the embarrassments of 2019.
Figuring out why Nigeria struggles with funding—and who to blame—is hindered by the opaque way the sports bodies handle international competitions. In preparation for the 2018 FIFA Men’s World Cup, the sports ministry launched a campaign to raise "additional funds" for the country's participation at the tournament. The target was to raise about ₦3 billion (about half of the 2018 budget for sport in Nigeria) to "effectively participate" at the World Cup. As FIFA caters for the basic participation of teams, it is unclear what was meant by effective participation, especially as Nigeria did not progress past the first round.
Given the way the issue recurs, it is tempting to suggest that corruption has seeped in. There is some credence to this theory. Although the Federal Government dropped its corruption allegations against the NFF President in November 2019, both the Independent Corrupt Practices Commission (ICPC) and the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) have pending investigations.
Looking for Credit elsewhere
Whether the issue is poor planning or corruption, private money could insulate our birds from this charade.
It is easy to forget that the Nigerian kit sold out in minutes during the last FIFA Men's World Cup (and earned cult status). There is a lot of potential for the NFF to rethink how it uses corporate partnerships and wean our team off reliance on the benevolence of the likes of Otedola and Dangote. Moreover, corporates and high-net-worth individuals have often bailed out the government in the event of a strike, so why wait until it is an emergency?
Corporate funding is a staple of international sports. The Brazilian football team (CBF) recently signed a four-year deal with Fiat to fund the CBF for the tournaments during that time period. The deal brought the number of CBF sponsors to eleven. Admittedly, the Samba Stars of Brazil are arguably the most marketable international football brand in the world, but Nigeria’s football teams hold a comparable appeal within the continent. The Super Eagles alone has corporate partnerships with firms like Nigerian Breweries, Zenith Bank, and Peak Milk, so it is unclear why corporate partnerships would not suffice.
Worryingly though, corporate sponsorships may fall victim to the same mismanagement as public funds. Nigeria qualified for the AFCON in November 2018, months before the 2019 budget was approved and half a year before the tournament kicked off. Furthermore, bonuses due to the players for each match had been agreed in advance. Despite all this, the funds were never made available. Were they not a priority? Were they stolen? Or are we pinning on corruption what is better explained by incompetence?
Regardless of the reason, the NFF has another year to right its wrongs. The Nigerian football team will not be at the 2020 Olympics, but are favorites to qualify for the 2021 AFCON and 2022 FIFA Men’s World Cup. The time to plan is now. If not done already, a proper audit should be taken to estimate the economic costs of the last AFCON, Olympics, and World Cup. But a more thorough plan would answer some of the following: (a) do we need to pay a foreign coach at a premium? (b) do we need to host friendlies outside Nigeria? (c) do we have to promise bonuses that we cannot afford?
When it comes to raising funds, renegotiating corporate deals and seeking alternative sources of income should be a priority. The reality is that the budgetary woes of the sports ministry are symptomatic of much bigger gaps in public funding. Nigerian football is fortunate to have an alternative unavailable to the country’s civil servants. There is no use tapping a dry well, lest our birds are left remonstrating on international media channels once again.
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