Lagos — The Super Falcons are the undisputed queens of African football, winning 11 of the 13 women's continental championships ever played. But they still have to beg the Nigerian federation for pay and respect.
Despite being Africa's most successful side by far, with more continental titles than their male counterparts, the Nigerian women's national football team have been denied the respect befitting their hegemonic dominance and treated as an afterthought.
This culture of disrespect is not new. It goes back close to two decades at least and has seen the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) deploy a number of deplorable tactics - from scapegoating to gaslighting and using the divide-and-conquer approach to devastating effect - to shirk their responsibilities and browbeat successive national teams into submission.
As Africa's sole representative at the first Fifa Women's World Cup in 1991, Nigeria made history and wrote a tale of triumph over the odds. Since then, they have been African champions in nine of the 11 continental championships ever contested. The first two editions of the precursor of the Africa Women's Cup of Nations (Awcon) were contested in a play-off format in 1991 and 1995 before it was transformed into a tournament format in 1998. The Super Eagles on the other hand have conquered the continent just three times in the men's tournament.
But despite their success, the Super Falcons still have to beg for the bare minimum from their federation. This poor treatment started with the pioneering class of 1991 that featured the likes of Rita Nwadike, Nkiru Okosieme and Chioma Ajunwa. (Ajunwa would win Nigeria's first Olympic gold medal five years down the line, in the long jump event.) It is poor treatment that has not stopped.
Preparations for competitive games are shoddy to non-existent. Players are not afforded regular friendly matches, with the result that in 2018, after a 16-month hiatus, France trounced the Super Falcons 8-0 in a friendly. Logistical arrangements are frequently haphazard. And there is continuous confrontation between team members and the NFF, especially around being owed wages and the poor treatment of the team.
'Is it a sin to serve this country?'
Nigeria appointed Godwin Izilien to lead an essentially new team to South Africa for the 2004 Awcon. With the more established players tied up in preparations for that summer's Olympic Games in Athens, Izilien was in effect nurturing the next generation of Super Falcons stars. The results were overwhelmingly positive. His young, hungry group stormed to victory in that year's Awcon, culminating in a 5-0 drubbing of Cameroon in the final.
Underneath all the euphoria, though, tensions were running high. At the end of the tournament, the team employed a tactic that has since been used time and again in the pursuit of justice: they refused to return home.
The reason for this was simple. Players and team staff were owed agreed match bonuses and allowances through the course of pre-tournament training and all the way to the final. Izilien had done his best to placate them and smooth things over until the conclusion of the tournament, but the players understood that they might not be paid at all if they did not take matters into their own hands.
"What the NFF is doing now, it is not a thing of yesterday," Izilien said. "It has been there from time immemorial. They don't pay allowances as at when due. And when you demand for it, you're an enemy."
The team was abandoned in South Africa for a week, waiting to be paid. The South African Football Association offered them accommodation, but they were without food and other supplies until, sick of the public embarrassment, the Nigerian consulate finally paid the players what they were owed.
The coaches were told they would receive their payment on arrival in Nigeria, but it was a commitment that would never be honoured. Instead, Izilien found himself cast as a scapegoat, accused of instigating the players to protest in South Africa. He played the role of intermediary, but got burned in the process.
"If you paid the girls who were saying they wouldn't go, why [owe] me, who was an arbiter?"
The NFF, according to the 78-year-old, owe him $28 750 in total match bonus arrears from 2004. He has spent the 17 years since then fighting for justice and pleading with the federation to pay him.
He met NFF president Amaju Pinnick at a government function in 2018, where in the presence of the Edo state governor he promised Izilien he'd be paid by June that year. "We're now in 2021," said an emotional Izilien as he fought back tears. "Is it a sin to serve this country? If it is, let it be. Let it be... "
Another win, another protest
The scenario was repeated in 2016. The Super Falcons staged a sit-in protest in Abuja after that year's Awcon victory in Cameroon, to demand the $23 650 per player in unpaid allowances and bonuses. Influential forward Asisat Oshoala was keen to point out, in an interview with the BBC, that it was "about the way the team has been handled over the years".
Like in 2004, the players had been told they would be paid before the tournament, and then at the end of the tournament, underlining a pattern of failed promises for which they understandably had little patience. On the 10th day, the payments were finally made, but only after they had taken their protest to the doors of the country's parliament.
As was the case with Izilien, the coach of the 2016 side, former long-serving national captain Florence Omagbemi, bore the brunt. Her contract was not renewed despite her success with the team. Crucially, she was also never paid. The message, driven home with brutal clarity, was that anyone who has the gumption to stand up to the NFF faces the music.
The latest person to be caught in the federation's crosshairs is Dijon striker Desire Oparanozie. The vocal France-based forward, who was appointed captain of the national team by erstwhile coach Thomas Dennerby, has decried in the past the NFF's handling of the women's national team and been an advocate for pay parity with the men's team.
So vehement were her criticisms that Pinnick made a public show of an apology and pledged a renewed dedication to the women's game. But soon enough, he and Oparanozie were trading words in the media, with the striker describing the NFF's efforts as "pathetic".
Unsurprisingly, following the 2019 World Cup, where Nigeria reached the round of 16, Oparanozie was stripped of the captaincy, and labelled "out of control" and "difficult". She would later explain on the Black Ballers podcast that she was victimised because of her stance concerning the ubiquitous problem of owed bonuses, this time going back three years.
Her insistence that those who were not present at that World Cup, but had been a part of the squad leading up to the tournament, also deserved to be paid did not sit well with the NFF.
"What they did was they paid only the people present," said Oparanozie. "I mean the people that had part of the money that were then in the team. Then, lots of the people that were owed but were not in the team then, they didn't pay.
"I told them it wasn't fair. Not all the people that had a share in that money were in this team. They should receive their monies first. That was one of the problems, and they obviously didn't like it. But knowing how they do things, if I hadn't done it that way, those people wouldn't have gotten their money.
"I did what I felt was right. Even if that's the only thing I did, I'm very happy."
Faulting the approach, not the problem
Oparanozie would pay the price after the tournament in France, for her stand and her candour. She was overlooked for the Olympic Games qualifiers in 2019 and again when the latest Super Falcons squad was announced in February. Despite her strong club form, her name was conspicuously absent from the list, leading many to speculate that she was being punished for speaking out.
While the NFF, through spokesperson Ademola Olajire, swiftly denied this, it does fit the football body's historical mode of operation. "She's still an important member of the team and nothing about being ostracised or punished by the federation is true," he said.
Amina Zangon Daura, who is at the helm of women's football at the NFF, agrees that the spectacle of public protests for financial entitlements is inherently distasteful. However, as far as the situation with Oparanozie and others before her is concerned, she said there are less confrontational routes in pursuit of justice and fairness.
"It is unfortunate because it shouldn't be so," she said. "Whatever is your entitlement should be given to you without you asking for it. We [the NFF] need to buckle up when it comes to finances.
"We need to stand up and be there for our girls, because without them we wouldn't be where we are. But we need to do it diplomatically and with respect. [Staging a protest] was a collective idea, but I think the way Oparanozie went about it was wrong. Maybe she should have sat down with the general secretary instead and come to an agreement. Whatever you want to achieve, you can't say you're just going to fight for it.
"But if you tell the players, 'Win this competition and you're going to get this,' and they win, then give it to them. Then you get more out of the girls."
Focusing on the response to injustice rather than the injustice itself suggests the situation Nigeria's women footballers find themselves in is unlikely to improve dramatically any time soon. It is this gaslighting that has allowed the disrespect to fester and metastasize.