Nigeria likes to think of itself as an African football powerhouse, having won the Africa Cup of Nations twice, as well as a smattering of other local and Afro-Asian cups. Understandably then, when the country’s national football team was unceremoniously dumped out of the World Cup in South Africa in the group stages, it didn’t go down well at all in Abuja. President Goodluck Jonathan announced that he was suspending the Nigerian national football team from participating in international competitions for two years.
The ban was in open defiance of Fifa’s non-governmental interference rule, and the world football body gave Nigeria’s president 48 hours to rescind his decision, under threat of suspending Nigeria’s football federation from Fifa membership. Barely hours before Fifa’s deadline passed, Jonathan announced on his Facebook page that he had reversed his ban on the team. “I read your comments and took them into account in the government’s decision to rescind the suspension of Nigeria from international football,” Jonathan’s Facebook statement read.
Fifa is not in the habit of tolerating any foolishness from its 208 member bodies, and there are many, many ways to cross the organisation. Despite assurances by Jonathan in July that Nigeria’s Football Federation would be left alone by the government, on Monday they have been summarily suspended by Fifa for undue meddling by the government in the affairs of the NFF.
A statement on Fifa’s website said that its emergency committee had decided to suspend the NFF due to government interference. The suspension was effective from the moment it was announced.
“During the period of suspension, the NFF will not be able to be represented in any regional, continental or international competitions, including at club level, and also not in friendly matches,” Fifa’s statement read. “In addition, neither the NFF nor any of its members or officials can benefit from any development programme, course, or training from Fifa or CAF while the federation remains suspended.”
The ban comes at an awkward time for Nigeria’s national team as they were due to travel to Guinea for an Africa Cup of Nations qualifier match, but will not be able to participate in the Confederation of African Football tournament, a Fifa affiliate.
Fifa imposed the ban following “the latest events linked to the NFF”, which included an attempt by the sports minister to start the new football season without any relegations from the previous season and an attempt by the Nigeria Sports Commission, an arm of the ministry of sports, to force NFF secretary general Musa Amadu’s resignation. Also, the National Association of Nigerian Footballers hauled the newly-elected NFF board to court, apparently for defying a court ruling that declared the August elections by the NFF null and void.
If you read Fifa’s statement carefully, it seems the events that prompted the banning were the latest in a string of offences, prompting the world football body to finally stamp its authority. According to news agency AFP, after the July incident and despite Jonathan’s assurances of non-interference, several football executives were sacked and a probe launched into how funds set aside for the World Cup were spent.
According to Chris Green, a former NFF board member, both Nigeria’s sports minister Isa Bio and the director general of the Nationals Sports Commission Patrick Ekeji carry responsibility for meddling in the NFF’s affairs. “They were adamant in arbitrarily installing certain persons to the board of the federation,” Green said. “In the process they violated article 13 of the Fifa statutes, as it has to do with external interference in the running of football by an affiliate member.”
Nigeria needs to move very quickly if they want to stay in the Africa Cup of Nations (and if they, ahem, want to continue receiving “benefit” from Fifa). CAF disqualified Togo from the 2010 Africa Cup of Nations for failing to pitch up to their first match – you’ll remember that several members of the team were injured when the team bus came under attack in Cabinda. We don’t imagine then that CAF will have much sympathy for Nigeria. Reports are that Bio convened a meeting with NFF and NSC officials on Monday, which was expected to continue into Tuesday. A press conference has been scheduled for Wednesday in Lagos, where Ekeji is supposed to speak to the media.
Some officials have said that maybe it’s a good thing that NFF has been banned. The former president of the Nigerian Football Referees Association, Sam Sam Jaja, said Fifa’s ban could be used as a sort of time-out, to give the NFF time to sort out its maladministration issues. “The level of maladministration was appalling and no one was saying anything, but that decision ensured that certain individuals who held our football by the jugular released their stranglehold,” he said. “So this latest decision, sad as it looks on the surface, may actually be a blessing in disguise because our football requires drastic restructuring.”
Nigeria struggles to understand why it should comply with Fifa’s statute that prevents government interference in sports matters, as demonstrated by President Jonathan’s attempts at intervention. His intervention may very well have been exactly what Nigerian football needed, given that the evidence suggests that the sports minister and his National Sports Commission counterparts administer the NFF as if it is their personal fiefdom. Unfortunately, Fifa wouldn’t stand for it. Rules are rules when it comes to Sepp Blatter and Jerome Valcker.
Will sense prevail in Nigerian sports administration, or will they give in to authoritarian tendencies and take their chances out in the cold? You can bet that every football player in the country is praying that the NFF is busy compiling a very apologetic letter to Fifa’s Zurich headquarters at this very moment. DM
Photo: Nigeria’s soccer team poses for a photo during their 2010 World Cup Group B soccer match against South Korea at Moses Mabhida stadium in Durban June 22, 2010. REUTERS/Paul Hanna
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