In France and Nigeria, politicians have stepped out of line by acting as though their national teams’ World Cup disasters are major affairs of state that should divert them from other, truly vital issues of life. They are not. And pretending otherwise just smacks of political opportunism.
If soccer players need to apologize to anyone for on- and off-field performances, then it is to their longtime supporters — to the ordinary men, women and kids who root for them, not to politicians whose sudden interest in the misfortune of a national squad is suspiciously timed.
Yes, Nigeria had a poor World Cup. It hasn’t won a World Cup match since 1998 and again went without a victory this time.
But no, that doesn’t mean Nigerian players should now be made to sit in disgrace in a corner, banned from taking part in any international soccer for the next two years — which is what the West African nation’s president, Goodluck Jonathan, has decreed.
“The nation has been punished enough. Enough,” said Rotimi Amaechi, head of a presidential task force on the nation’s World Cup team. “People have had heart attacks, people have had all sorts of issues because of Nigerian football. We now want to reorganize and get back to what it used to be when it was the pride of the nation.”
Sounds serious. Way too serious, in fact. Losing is as much a part of sports as winning. Nigeria’s government should perhaps be explaining that simple fact to disappointed fans not whipping up emotions by taking an extreme view of defeat. The hundreds of death threats that were e-mailed to midfielder Sani Kaita after he collected a red card in Nigeria’s 2-1 loss to Greece showed how ugly things can get when soccer passions spill over.
Media reports out of Nigeria say the government will also be investigating allegations of soccer corruption there — there’s nothing wrong with that if the probe has no hidden political motives. And the government won’t be faulted if it catches soccer bosses with their hands in the till and misspending money that should have gone toward the sport.
But the best way to get the national team, dubbed the Super Eagles, to play better can hardly be by stopping it from playing at all. Two years out of international soccer, if it really comes to that, would mean Nigerian players missing the next African Cup of Nations and perhaps even the 2012 Olympic Games. That hardly seems likely to position them nicely for the next World Cup in Brazil in 2014, if they even qualify.
Whether the Nigerian president really does have the power to clip the wings of the Super Eagles, who are not meant to take their orders from government, remains to be seen. But the end result may be the same if soccer’s international governing body, FIFA, determines that Jonathan is sticking his nose into matters that shouldn’t concern him. FIFA takes a very dim, if at times also selective, view of political meddling in soccer and could respond by suspending Nigeria. That would mean no international soccer for all Nigerian teams, including clubs.
France’s government is also making a political mountain of the national team’s World Cup fiasco. France’s players made fools of themselves by rebelling against their coach Raymond Domenech and the French Football Federation at the World Cup, even refusing to practice one day. And French lawmakers have subsequently looked foolish, too, by acting as if this really is a major issue for France.
They grilled Domenech and outgoing federation president Jean-Pierre Escalettes on Wednesday. But they let the pair off the hook by holding the hearing behind closed doors. That was unfair to fans, because instead of speaking to lawmakers, to whom they owe no explanation, Domenech and Escalettes should have spoken to and apologized directly to the French public — which they still have not fully done.
None of this is to say that soccer players and officials shouldn’t be held accountable — to fans — when they play or act poorly. And politicians of course should have a say when matters in sports go beyond the field of play. That could be the case with doping, for example, which is both a sports and a public health issue.
But let’s not turn World Cup players into political footballs just because they disappoint.