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Published On: Fri, Jul 5th, 2019

Sports as social elizir

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By Tayo Oke

The caricature persona of a typical footballer is that of an over-pampered, at times ignorant, but extremely rich spoilt brat, who gets paid stupendous amount of money for just being able to kick a ball around. For many, this is all too real; fast cars, penthouse apartments in swanky suburbs and lavish spending on items most consider ephemeral. For others, though, it is a mere fantasy; an inaccurate figment of someone’s imagination.
Whichever way one looks at it, footballers are not the least best paid people in the world. In fact, the reverse is quite the case. Many may not necessarily be as rich as the likes of David Bekham, Christiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, Neymar Jr., Alex Iwobi, Jay-Jay Okocha, etc, but they are generally comfortable. It is therefore hard to lend sympathy to a group of footballers “downing tools” or embarking on a strike action to enforce the payment of overdue “bonuses”. Such is the spectacle that trails Nigeria’s national representatives on the pitch all too often. The on-going Women Football World Cup tournament taking place in France saw our women knocked out of the round of 16 clash with Germany, losing 3-0. Soon after, the world was treated to a charade by members of the team taking a “strike action” by refusing to leave their base until the promised bonuses were paid by the Nigeria Football Federation.
Strike action by Nigerian footballers (Super Eagles, Falcons, etc) is a common occurrence and it has been with us for many years. It is also a phenomenon that cuts across countries in Africa. Given that such an incident is unheard of in advanced countries of the West, it is an action that brings scorn and outrage at the striking footballers for their lack of patriotism and shamelessness.
Why wash our proverbial dirty linen in public so much, one might bemoan. The West refers to us condescendingly as the “Third World” in our approach to life and overall development, why then do our footballers and their managers play straight into this collective diminution of our being all the time? It is, indeed, hard to look at this occurrence in any way that covers anyone in glory. There is, however, an economic rationale behind it. What we are witnessing from our striking footballers and their managers is a function of market forces. Footballers have been totally dehumanised in our environment. They have become mere assets that can and are often traded off like commodities in the market.
Nigerian footballers do not play for the nation because there is no steady, incontrovertible nation to play for. Nigeria remains an essentially contested concept. Nigerian footballers play for economic value, pure and simple. There is nothing inherently bad in this, though. If the bosses would fulfil their side of the bargain, then there is a lot to play for on the pitch. If the monetary incentive becomes untenable and unreliable, it has a knock-on effect on performance. It is no surprise, therefore, that the Nigerian Super Falcons succumbed to Germany without a struggle; their bonuses had not been forthcoming prior to the tournament.
On the other hand, from the management side, the footballers are only good in so far as they can be used to launder the image of the government in power. They withhold monetary rewards for the players as insurance for failure on the pitch. The footballers are of little use unless they record success after success. The players, meanwhile, would not record success after success unless they are sure of receiving the bonuses at the end of their endeavour. Because nobody really wants to lose out, everyone ends up losing all. Occasionally, one side takes a calculated gamble by soldiering on, hoping for, instead of expecting, a reward. It pays off, sometimes, but generally that is the exception rather than the rule.
In case you are wondering why the situation is not like that in Europe and America, do not. The market equilibrium has been achieved in their environment. The players over there are not necessarily more professional or for that matter, more patriotic than their African counterparts. Football in those countries is a complete business. Players over there are also bought and sold like commodities. The shirt they wear, the shoes, hat, ear rings, socks, etc, have been contracted out to somebody. All will have been done at the “Academy” level through careful negotiation by their agents. Boys and girls as young as five have agents whose job it is to look after their commercial interests throughout their playing career. They are properties of the various Academies. They are guided and guarded away from all vices, they pay them well and the assets acquire value over time. Playing for their clubs is the primary objective, while playing for the national team is simply the icing on the cake. Any appearance for the national side simply robs off well on them at the club level and it bumps up their value as assets. That is why questions of pay, bonuses and the like do not feature in the career of a European or American footballer.
On the contrary, the domestic clubs in Nigeria are nowhere as standardised as they should be. A lot of them lack basic infrastructure to function as proper clubs. There is no money and no resources to invest in talents. Their players are no more than apprentices in a mechanic’s workshop. The national team represents the only realistic chance of making money for many of our players. Many of them are known to have lived in penury and others died like paupers after their playing days. So, how can the spectacle of striking footballers be eliminated from world football?
The simple solution is for the Federation of International Football Association to take a deeper interest. It should be made a condition for participating in world football events that a country should have no outstanding payment issues with the players fielded for an international competition. Any football association owing its own players a backlog of wages should be barred from participating in international tournaments until such issues are cleared up to the satisfaction of all.
Tayo Oke is a Public Affairs Analyst.

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