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Nigeria: FIFA ban – a retrogression

The FIFA Emergency Committee decided on Monday October 4 to suspend the NFF with immediate effect on account of government interference. In a statement issued, the world football governing body said during the period of suspension, the NFF will not be represented in any regional, continental or international competition, including at club level and friendly matches. 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. FIFA said the suspension will be in place until the court actions have ceased and the duly elected  Executive Committee is able to work without any interference.

In truth the ban had been a long time coming. With the bomb incident in Abuja, we have rapidly received two unwanted 50th birthday presents to go with other negative issues already being dealt with.

FIFA also summarised their reasons for justifying government intervention by citing the National Sports Commission (NSC) and Sports Ministers’ taking over the Nigeria Premier League (NPL), and subsequent decisions not to relegate any teams from last season and announce the start of the 2010/11 season without the NPL’s involvement; forcing the NFF Secretary-General Musa Ahmadu to step down on the basis of contempt charges filed against him (and several others) in court.

Since the charges have been dropped, Musa Ahmadu is expected to return to office.

This is not the first time we have been banned by FIFA and only last July, we came very close to a ban when Goodluck Jonathan announced the withdrawal of Nigerian teams from international competition, to enable us sanitise our domestic football organisation. He had to withdraw that statement with some egg in the face after FIFA threatened to ban us.

This ban will be reversed…as usual! I have listened to a couple of the reputable radio sports shows since the announcement, to gauge the public’s reaction and it has surprised me to realise that a majority (above 90%) of those who called in or sent their comments via sms supported the ban, in the hope that it would lead to change football administration in Nigeria.

It made me ponder whether their hopes, our hopes, could be met through this ban in the expectation that it could be one step backwards and many more steps in the right direction in retrospect years down the line. This is where I have my doubts. We have been through this cycle before, but didn’t get the change we desired so why do Nigerians expect something different this time? It is a known fact that no one can keep doing the same thing and expect change. So what makes this different?

Without a doubt in my mind, before Nigeria’s African Nations Cup qualifier against Guinea is cancelled, we will satisfy FIFA’s requirements and the ban reversed to enable us return into the international fold and play the match. Already, the political wheels are turning. The NFF absolved the Minister and NSC of interference in the decision to start the league with the abridged format through a press release by its Media Officer, Robinson Okosun.

The release insisted that at a meeting of stakeholders of the NPL, the NPL Board, Premier League club owners, NPL management and leadership of the NSC, the decision was unanimously agreed. What was the role of NSC ? Okosun explained on behalf of the NPL that “the prevailing situation prompted the NFF to seek the assistance and intervention of the NSC.”

Another question is “what prevailing situation?” He also attempted to shed more light by explaining that these decisions were taken “because there is no NFF Board in place for now”.

In my opinion the statement reeked of political double-talk and an attempt to mask the truth. However, that statement in one fell swoop exonerated both the NSC and Minister of interference leaving only the court case against the NFF outstanding. To strengthen Nigeria’s hand, FIFA cannot hold government responsible if an individual or group decides to take the NFF to court as National Association of Nigeria Footballers (NANF) have done. Therefore, it leaves no plausible reason for FIFA’s ban and could force FIFA to rapidly re-examine and reverse the decision.

But what if we still remain banned and miss the coming Africa Nations Cup qualifier with Guinea; the Falcons miss the African

Women’s Championship, Sharks are booted out of the WAFU Cup and we cannot play in next year’s CAF tournaments? The question would then be whether we would sincerely use the ban period to sanitise our football. That I doubt.

I did state in an earlier piece that Government needs to be ‘wise’ in making changes to benefit Nigeria football without encroaching FIFA territory and also be prudent enough to make a substantiated case against those opposing the growth of football in Nigeria; especially as government still funds a large chunk of NFF operations. Will Anything Change?

On the one hand, FIFA is correct to demand that government do not interfere with football but on the other, that is hypocritical and nigh impossible (for now) in Nigeria because of the under-development of Nigeria’s Sports industry. Which is why I advocated FIFA’s dealing different with Nigeria and other African nations with similar funding backgrounds by applying a formula different from that of developed countries in my previous article “Who’s got the Power?” Nothing will change in Nigeria Sports so far government is involved financially and the industry is used as a political tool for appeasing individuals and gaining cheap popularity. So long as sports are not run like businesses, we cannot see a turnaround.

In football, state government fund teams without any demand for accountability so we constantly witness team administrators enriching themselves without paying players salaries or either using teams as weapons against opposing political enemies or as facades to demonstrate fake love of the people by riding on emotions.

If FIFA’s ban is overturned, it would mean the acceptance of the new NFF Board. Therefore I would advocate allowing them to work in the great hope they would be committed to doing the right things. However, we are warned that power corrupts (or reveals?). To be wary of the many financial temptations that come with power, lower our expectations of the new Board and well, pray because they will be legally covered by FIFA and existing approved governing statutes.

It really is up to them to prove themselves and earn the respect and trust of Nigerians. If they are determined to do so, it would be refreshing for the Board to give Nigerians a detailed blueprint of what they plan to achieve within their time in office and the strategies to execute those plans. Better still; their goals should include correcting the constitutional wrongdoings of past Boards instead of riding on them e.g the tenure of state Federation, their eligibility to vote and diluting the powers of the NFF President.