Emmanuel Eze dreamed of becoming a professional footballer in Nigeria. To achieve this, he set to work, training hard and hoping to have his break. He wanted to make it at home but home threw many disappointments his way. Facing a troubled football system with multiple corruption allegations, Eze took his talents to Turkey.
“Before my journey to Istanbul, I played for a local club in Nigeria,” he told Off The Game. “Despite putting in a lot of effort and hard work, I did not receive any recognition from the coach, the team, or anyone else. I was made to understand that to rise to the top level, I would have to pay bribes. This situation became extremely frustrating for me, and eventually, I reached a point where I could no longer tolerate it. So, I made the decision to leave”
As he sought to be part of the Golden Eaglets team at the 2015 U-17 World Cup in Chile, he met a shocker. According to him, he found that young footballers without a godfather or who are not willing to pay a bribe, will be overlooked.
“They left the ones [players] with good potential aside because they have nobody to help them. All these things have made a lot of Nigerian youth lose interest in football. It was very discouraging for me. I told my friend that I can’t be in my country and face humiliation, I’ll leave and go find my career outside the country,” said Eze.
Eze is only one of many who have seen first-hand the corruption within Nigerian football. Popular Nigerian singer Charles Chibuezechukwu, popularly known as Crayon, has disclosed that corruption thwarted his dreams of becoming a professional footballer. In 2015, he participated in a screening at the National Stadium, in Lagos, but, according to him, was unfairly overlooked in favor of someone from a privileged background. “Football in Nigeria is quite dicey. There is a lot of corruption. I don’t want to mention names because it might hurt some people. They are big names; top officials,” the Mavin signee said.
A Game Built On a Faulty Foundation
Over the years, the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF), Nigeria’s football governing body, has faced accusations of corruption and a lack of transparency. In 2018, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) charged three NFF officials for misusing both $9.5 million and ₦1.3 million which had been designated for the development of football in the country. The anti-corruption agency revealed that the misappropriated funds were part of the grants Nigeria had received from the Federation of International Football Association (FIFA),football’s international governing body.
A year before that, FIFA suspended its annual $1.5 million development grant to Nigeria due to suspicions of corruption over how the NFF had used previous funds
In 2019, Amaju Pinnick, the former president of the NFF, along with four other high-ranking officials, were accused of embezzling millions of dollars from FIFA, money meant for appearance fees for Nigeria’s participation in the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
Although the Special Presidential Investigation Panel eventually dropped its corruption case against the NFF, the EFCC continued to investigate the federation. Additionally, the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission seized properties of high-ranking NFF officials as part of another investigation.
In 2018, Salisu Yusuf, the then-Super Eagles head coach, was captured on camera accepting cash presents from journalist pos as a football agent. In the footage released by the BBC, Yusuf accepted $1000 from the faux agent who asked him to select two players for the Super Eagles squad ahead of the African Nations Championship (CHAN) that kicked off on January 13 that year.
Experts contend that corruption is causing the decline of Nigerian football. It is a sentiment shared by Taribo West, who played for the Super Eagles from 1994 to 2005. “Nigerian football is sinking, it’s almost dead. There’s almost no place where you can talk out against those managing football because they have paid everybody” said the ex-Super Eagles defender in 2020.
Corruption in Nigerian football seems to be symptomatic of a larger trend of corruption in the country. Nigeria has been cited as one of the world’s most corrupt countries in the world,iplacing 150 in a 2022 Corruption Perception Index published by Transparency International, an international non-governmental organization based in Germany.
Speaking with Off The Game, Onyewuchi Nwachukwu,the Deputy Editor, Sporting Life, noted that corruption has also affected the national team’s sporting performance. “As far as football is concerned in Nigeria, I believe we could have had a greater impact than what we have achieved. We have encountered issues of corruption here and there. Additionally, numerous players have complained about being asked to pay bribes in order to be selected for the national team. This greatly affects the overall results because if you don’t invite the right players and base selections on favoritism and nepotism, the end result is substandard players in the national team. Passionate and qualified players are deprived from represent the national team. These are issues the sports ministry should take note of if we want to move forward,” he said.
A Dying Football League
Even though FIFA frown upon government interference in footballing activities, many Nigerian clubs are state-owned. However, managers of both state-owned and privately-run clubs are usually under pressure to ensure that their teams win. This often drives them to Machiavellian means.
In the Nigerian football league which comprises the Nigeria Premier League and the Nigeria National League, a time was when it was extremely difficult for a home team to lose as referees were usually bribed to secure victory by every means. Such bribes could scarcely be refused by referees whose monthly salaries were as low as N65,000, which is more than double the national minimum wage.
Also, when home teams suffer a loss, there have been instances of riot and attacks on the players.
Salihu Ibrahim Mohammed, a football expert,in an interview with Off The Game noted that it was high time the government backed out from having full control of clubs to allow for efficiency. “The biggest clubs in the world are sponsored by private entities. Look at England, where the Premier League operates independently of the government. All the government should do is create an enabling environment for it to thrive. However, when you look at Africa, we often rely on the government for funds. If we continue to depend on the government, what happens when a government that doesn’t support football is in power? Private sector participation is of utmost importance,” he emphasised.
Mohammed also said that for the Nigerian league to meet global standards the government has to provide crucial infrastructure such as good roads, security and world-standardstadiums.
“The support from the government is insufficient, I must admit,”said Nwachukwu. When we go abroad and witness the level of investment that other countries put into sports, our own support pales in comparison. For example, during the Commonwealth Games in Australia, which I had the opportunity to cover, I witnessed the Indian team receiving substantial investment from their government. They had a top-notch coach and highly motivated players.’’
Nwachukwu also explained that the Nigerian league is yet to receive immense support because no one wants to invest in what is not working. “You need to package a good product. The sponsors want accountability. They want transparency. They don’t want to invest money and discover that the money has been siphoned by public officials,” he said.
Even in terms of organization the Nigerian league scores low. The Nigeria Premier Football League (NPFL) have had to postpone the 2023/24 season thrice this year, a decades-long problem of disorganization. Player remuneration is poor and is often delayed.
A Bleak Future
Earlier this year, FIFA’s secretary-general, Fatma Samoura, took steps to ensure that the Nigerian female players, Super Falcons, would receive their prize money directly for the 2023 World Cup, without any third-party involvement. This decision was made in response to protests from the players and coach, who were demanding unpaid allowances.
In 2019, the Super Falcons had to leave their accommodations in France because they were not receiving their bonuses from NFF.
The NFF did not respond to interview requests made by Off The Game. .
As for whether there is any optimism about the future of Nigerian football, Johnson Akinola, a young, Kaduna-basedfootballer, holds a different opinion. He believes that the systemic irregularities within the system have thwarted his chances of pursuing his dreams.
Akinlola said that he had always dreamed of becoming a professional footballer but with the corruption killing the system, he is preparing to return to university.
“I remember in 2021 when I attempted to join a particular club in Lagos. When I got there, the coach happened to like me. He let me know that my salary would be N450k. But he asked me to sign, agreeing on paper to receive N450K while N200k from my salary would go to him afterwards. Another member of staff in the club informed me that I would still need to ‘settle’ the management. It now seemed as though I would be playing for free. I didn’t accept the offer because I would have to do it every month,” Akinola told Off The Game.
According to him, a similar fate befell his friend, who, in 2014, was shortlisted to play at the World Cup, in Brazil, but was struck off the list after failing to fulfill a precondition of paying N2,000,000. For Akinola, the current situation is a killer of dreams.
“The system has killed so many talents and is making young people lose interest in the game “