In the immediate aftermath of a disappointing World Cup campaign, it might seem like an appealing idea. Get the team out of all competitive football and force them to rebuild for a couple of years. The edict issued forth by the Nigerian president, Goodluck Jonathan, to dissolve the national football team for two years and to dissolve the Nigerian Football Association, the NFF, beats a highly populist drum and has been greeted with a degree of support from Nigerian football supporters, but he could, in taking such drastic measures, find himself on a collision course with FIFA.
It was a massively disappointing World Cup for Nigeria. The notion of this World Cup somehow being a “home” tournament for teams from Africa was a little simplistic. After all, Lagos is 2,800 miles from Johannesberg (only 300 miles less than the distance between Lagos and London). However, expectations in Nigeria were high that this team could get through to the latter stages of the tournament, but things didn’t quite work out like that. Defeats against Argentina and Greece in their opening two matches gave them only a slight chance of getting through the group stages, and a 2-2 draw against South Korea in their final match sealed their elimination from the tournament.
Goodluck Jonathan hasn’t been the president of Nigeria for very long. He only took power on the sixth of May this year, following the untimely death of former president Umaru Yar’Adua. The NFF had already publicly apologised for their team’s performance, but this clearly wasn’t enough to appease the president, whose special advisor Ima Niboro issued a statement that seemed to chime with the feelings of many of his people:
President Goodluck Jonathan has directed that Nigeria withdraws from international competition for two years to enable the country to put its house in order. This directive became necessary following Nigeria’s poor performance in the ongoing World Cup.
He then went on to announce that the government would also be looking into “financial misappropriation” within the NFF, and this may be particularly for some within the organisation when we consider that Glenn Hoddle walked away from a job offer after the surprising sacking of Shaibu Amodu, who had coached the team (which failed to qualify for the last tournament in 2006) to the finals and to third place in the African Cup of Nations. Hoddle claimed that he was informed that, while his contract to coach the team would be worth $1m, it would be publicly announced as being worth $1.5m, with the difference being paid as a bung as recompense for him getting the job in the first place. An investigation by the Presidential Task Force found no wrongdoing, but smell of corruption has continued to hang heavy in the air.
Lars Lagerback eventually took the job, and his time in charge has not greatly distinguished. He is currently described as being in the process of “considering his future”, but the question that must now be asked is that of whether he will have a job to return to. While most of the headlines have focussed upon the footballing aspect of matters (and whether his radical proposal would work or be an unmitigated disaster for the national team from a solely sporting perspective is certainly open to question), though, it could well turn out to be an investigation into the goings-on at the NFF that could really change the fortunes of football in Africa’s most populous country in the long-term.
The cloud upon the horizon for President Jonathan is the probability of FIFA intervention. The game’s governing body doesn’t much like political intervention in footballing affairs, and the likelihood of a blanket ban for Nigeria in the case of such action being taken by the government would be high. This would mean no Nigerian teams in the CAF Champions League and Nigerian referees being banned from refereeing outside the country – and no guarantee of Nigeria being allowed back in to FIFA when the two years is up. In the event of such a situation coming to pass, the lobbying would be likely to be intense. Would he have the courage of his convictions and attempt to face FIFA down?
Certainly, we don’t have to look very far for further reasons to be critical of the NFF. With their first two matches being played at altitude, it seemed odd that the NFF changed their base camp to one at sea level at the very last minute, and it cost them a $125,000 fine from FIFA into the bargain. In addition to this, it was widely rumoured during the build up to the tournament that Lagerback was coming under very heavy pressure to select certain players at the expense of others. Whether there was any truth in this is, again, unknown, but the accumulation of stories about what may or may not be going on within the NFF doesn’t seem to fill many people either in or outside with a great deal of confidence in its competence.
The country’s lower parliament seems to disagree, and it has passed a motion urging President Jonathan to rescind the ban and allow a parliamentary committee to investigate the matters behind the team’s failure at this summer’s World Cup. It seems, however, to be a lack of confidence in their country’s football federation that is fuelling those in Nigeria that are supporting Jonathan’s nascent crusade, and herein lies the contradiction of FIFA’s stance over political involvement in football. For every crackpot dictator that intends to sack the entire football association and replace it with his committee made up of his pets and change his national football team’s kit so that it has a picture of his face on it, there may be another that may be concerned at the public money that is being poured into an organisation that may be corrupt and wishes to do something about it. President Jonathan’s response to his team’s failure in the World Cup may be regarded as an over-reaction, but FIFA are plenty capable of over-reacting to it themselves.