18 January 2019

Nigeria: 2019 - a Big Year for Nigerian Football, but Distractions Must Be Avoided

It is clear that 2019 will be a huge year for football, especially in Nigeria. In June, both senior national sides - the men's and women's will compete in the Africa Cup of Nations and FIFA Women's World Cup respectively. There will also be continental and possibly global competitions for both the Under-17 and Under-20 teams.

This makes it even more troubling that, with all these on the horizon, there appears to be another round of distractions for the top brass of the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF). This time, it revolves around alleged financial impropriety over the course of Amaju Pinnick's tenure at the helm of the nation's football. This has precipitated a back and forth in the public space as to whether or not the Presidency, via the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), is seeking to indict him.

The man in question has, naturally, sought to show that his movements remain unchecked and unhindered and that his administration is above board in its dealings. It is difficult to ascertain these things, and care must be taken to avoid trying sensitive matters in the court of public opinion, but it is a worry nonetheless. Because it appears that any attack on the head is construed as an attack on the entire football house. Nigeria remains a place where working structures, capable of functioning independent of any one individual, are elusive. And so when Pinnick sneezes, Nigerian football catches a cold. Even the slightest challenge thrown at him shuts down the entire football apparatus, remember the Giwa situation?

With that being the reality on the ground, Pinnick would do great to come right out, make a definitive statement, draw a line under the allegations, and carry on. So far, he has instead focused on fighting via sundry planted media counterstrikes, but in doing so, he risks losing the battle and making himself look guilty, even if only for protesting his innocence too much.

With all that needs to be done and seen to this year, why give undue attention to an allegation that is yet unproven?

It would be a shame if Pinnick's entire eight-year tenure is defined more by his legal battles than proper achievement. As it stands, there is still no resolution or clarity regarding the nation's women's football, with the league in limbo. It is not quite as bad on the men's side, but the league only resumed this month after what was intended as a World Cup hiatus morphed into a seven-month off-season.

Nigeria's pride of place on the continent, in terms of the status of its footballers, is also a thing of the past. Save for the award for the Super Falcons as women's national team of the year, there was no recognition for Africa's most populous nation at the CAF Awards earlier this month. Even the Falcons' crown is now slipping, they struggled seriously to win the African Women's Cup of Nations (AWCON) in Ghana, and it is South African Thembi Kgatlana who is now - deservedly - regarded as the continent's premier footballer.

These are all concerns that the leadership of Nigerian football needs to be focused on addressing in 2019. Much, in terms of preparation, must be given to the national sides, in order that much might be expected. Thomas Dennerby, in particular, must now prove his mettle; he was brought in to take the Falcons up a level or two on the world stage, not to win the AWCON. Gernot Rohr must now begin to display the fruits of his rebuilding with the Super Eagles.

The youth teams must have their programs comprehensively gone over, in order to ensure that their mandate to develop the nation's football is fulfilled. These are responsibilities to be overseen with focus and a clear strategy.

Pinnick would do well to remember that posterity will be a dispassionate judge.

Also, a reprimand, as well as a charge, to the sports presses. It is in times like these that it behoves one to take a stand on the side of truth. While the world salutes journalists going above and beyond in investigative reporting, it would not do to simply be content being the mouthpiece of those at the helm of affairs, all for a pittance. This is the time to line up, not in whatever direction the wind is blowing, but on the side of truth and justice.

Nigeria

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