African champions Nigeria will be eyeing a maiden spot in the World Cup quarter-finals on Monday.
Unfortunately, the Super Eagles’ build-up to the crunch game has been overshadowed by a pay dispute. On Thursday, the players boycotted training, demanding part payment of their agreed appearance fee for the tournament. This was because they feared they will not be paid their $30,000 per player bonus for reaching the second round, a situation that was witnessed after last year’s Confederations Cup.
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But the possible threat of Nigeria’s players striking was averted on Friday when President Goodluck Jonathan stepped in and spoke to coach Stephen Keshi and captain Joseph Yobo. He assured the squad their dues will be settled following which the players travelled and started training.
Not for the first time
Nigeria has a history of bonus disputes between players and officials.
Pay rows have often surrounded Nigerian teams, with coaches not paid regularly, while players have resisted any attempts to review their win bonus during important qualifiers or at major tournaments.
Last year, Nigeria arrived days late for the Confederations Cup in Brazil because of a row over player payments that resulted in the squad refusing to leave a hotel and travel for the World Cup warm-up tournament.
We wasted too much energy on the eve of our game haggling over bonus, something like that should not be the focus at a big tournament like the World Cup.
The country’s Sports Ministry intervened and made extra money available, allowing the squad to travel to Brazil – two days late and only about 36 hours before their opener against Tahiti.
Nigeria’s campaign at the 1998 World Cup was thrown into turmoil by a row over bonuses as well. Then, Nigeria topped their group after opening the competition with a shock 3-2 win over Spain. But in the days preceding their second round game against Denmark, disputes over bonuses stoked the fire of discontent in the Nigeria camp.
Not surprisingly, Africa’s remaining flag-bearers slumped to a 4-1 defeat, a scenario former Nigeria international Sunday Oliseh described as unnecessary and avoidable distraction
“We wasted too much energy on the eve of our game haggling over bonus, something like that should not be the focus at a big tournament like the World Cup,” Oliseh said. “We lost that game off the pitch and not on the pitch.”
Reason behind the revolts
The players have often been criticised for holding the nation to ransom at crucial times, being unpatriotic and selfish by putting money before the country. But former Nigeria international Jonathan Akpoborie said that lack of trust between both parties brews the discontent.
“These players don’t trust the officials when they make promises because there are strong evidence to back that assumption,” Akpoborie told Al Jazeera. “Several players have waited for decades to be rewarded or receive promised bonuses but it never materialised. You also need to look at how players are revered while playing and the terrible treatment they face after football. These players know the history, they understand the way of the football officials and how money budgeted never get to the principle actors – the players.
“You’d expect a level of trust to be paid what is promised but in African football that is not the case.”
Akpoborie was part of Nigeria’s Golden Eaglets that won the maiden Fifa under-17 World Cup 29 years ago in China.
Each player was promised a house, stock in the central bank and a scholarship among other incentives for bringing glory to the continent in 1985.
However, the Nigerian government never fulfilled their pledges. Kingsley Aikhionbore waited in vain until he died.
Nigeria players and officials are still waiting for houses they were promised for winning the 1994 African Cup of Nations. Top-scorer at that tournament Rashidi Yekini waited for his reward in the country’s capital until he died in May 2012.
Another WC, another row
But the latest problem in Brazil is not peculiar to the African champions.
Fellow African teams Cameroon and Ghana have had their World Cup campaigns badly distracted by pay disputes. These latest episodes underline the state of the African game and the level of distrust that exists between the players and the administrators of the game on the continent.
Late last year Nigeria adopted a code of conduct which is designed to make player bonus rows a things of the past. The 18-page document devised by the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF), spells out the obligations of the NFF, coaches and players called up to the national team.
It also sets forth expected standards of decorum for all players and makes it clear that violations could result in disciplinary action, fines, suspensions or even expulsions. There have been several attempts to introduce a code but they have often been met by a stiff resistance from players in the past.
Thing of the past?
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Ironically, the code of conduct was distributed to the players late last year but was never signed or returned to the officials. It appears the problem will never disappear and continue to plague African teams at major tournaments but Nigeria captain Joseph Yobo has made efforts to diffuse this latest drama. He insists the money problems will not distract the players from their ultimate target when they face France on Monday.
“When you get on the pitch, you can’t think about anything apart from football,” Yobo said. “This money issue was there before the first match, it was there before we played Bosnia and it was there before we played Argentina and it did not distract us.”
The players insist they are ready to put this latest bonus row behind them. However, it is unlikely to be the last episode of players’ revolt over unpaid bonuses. You need a crash course in history to see why.
It’s a female thing too
In 2004, Nigeria’s women team won its fourth consecutive African title in Johannesburg, but that success was marred by the Super Falcons refusal to return home, insisting that a $6,000 per player bonus be settled as promised by the Nigeria FA. After a five-day sit-in protest at their hotel in South Africa, the debt was finally settled, allowing the players and officials to return home.