Ex-Footballer, Austin Elumelu at some point delved into football Administration and subsequently became Coordinator for Under-17 and 23 National teams. He later served as Vice chairman of FCT Football Association. In this interview, he spoke of interest in Nigerian football and various issues. IKENNA OKONKWO AND PAUL OKAH captured them.
Staying a distance from Nigeria football
I have been around but directly involved in football activities for a while now. I have taken the opportunity to be very close to my family and watch my kids go to tertiary institutions and graduate. And also having enough time for my private business and looking after myself because as you age, you need a lot of maintenance.
Assessing Nigerian football in recent times
Disbanding my club has nothing to do with finance but the attitude of Nigerian referees. Some referees had the audacity to come to me for inducement in order for my team to win matches. What I was doing back them was not for monetary gains.
I gave all my players free transfer so that they could keep whatever money they make themselves. I saw it as a way of giving back to society, knowing fully well that past and successive governments really failed in sports development, both in physical structure and human capacity development. I was highly discouraged by the attitude of those who were then organizing the leagues. Be that as it may, I see a new improvement in the various strata of leagues, in the sense that people go on away matches and obtain maximum points. It is a welcome development because it was hitherto unobtainable in our football system, so I give kudos to the organizers of the league, Shehu Dikko and his team.
My experience as football administrator
I will say that football administration is not a do-or-die affair. I was the coordinator of the Under 17 team that won the World Cup in Korea. I was the coordinator of the Under 23 team that played against Argentina in the finals of the Olympics. I was in the Technical Committee when we won the Nations Cup and the Under 20 World Cup. So you will not say that I didn’t contribute my quota. I was also in the Electoral Committee that produced Alhaji Aminu Maigari. There was a lot of crisis and people in the Ministry did not want us to hold the election. But in the interest of the game, we went ahead to hold the election and they brought all manners of law suits against us, took us to court in Lagos and also charged us for contempt of court.
The aim was to send us to jail so that we won’t hold any public office. We had to engage our attorneys and paid our bails because what we were doing was in the interest of football. If we didn’t do that then, FIFA would have banned us and all those competitions we won wouldn’t have been possible. Even the players would have been affected because of age. You know that football is a game of age. Some of them were at their peak and would have lost out because nobody would have known them. We were very passionate about the game so against all odds we gave our best shots to it.
After our time, sports generally nosedived because the developmental programs, which hitherto was the mainstay of the success of Nigerian football, was eroded. School cups, principal cups and many other competitions at the local government level were no longer in existence. Many players who were invited to the national team did not know so much of the basics of football.
The headache of coaching or managing Nigerian Footballers
When players are invited to the national team, they don’t come to learn about the basics. What you just do is to sharpen your skills, technicalities etc. Then, the coach will begin to plan for the game. But when coaches now have players who do not know the basics of the game, they begin to teach the basics of the game, leaving tactics and technicalities of the game and it becomes difficult for the coaches to impart on those prayers. But during our time, we played street football with passion. But nowadays, before somebody goes beyond his local government, his attitude will change, mode of dressing, sagging and strange hairstyles. There is no longer discipline among our players. Everybody wants to go and play abroad without playing here in Nigeria. But it is not as if there are no good players in the local leagues. I suggested during Maigari’s time that we must appoint Regional Coordinators for the National team.
If Nigeria is divided into six geographical zones and we have six coordinators, these six coordinators must be under the full employment of the Nigerian Football Federation. They are semi coaches. Coordinators/Scouts.
The job of the coordinators, as technical people, is to go through their regions to look for players that are only fit for the national team within a region. And when you get them, the federation will then organise matches for them within the region, with the view of selecting players for the national team. Then when you have them, depending on the number, then we will be satisfied that we are getting at least 80percent from the best in a region.
There will now be a time when all of them will come together and play among themselves like a league. Those six coordinators will be there and you will bring the coaches of the various national teams and members of the technical committee. You can even select some people randomly from amongst Nigerians. Those people you know that are interested in football. Then you tell them to make your teams, select players and then collate them and see who and who has been selected. People with majority inclusion will now be taken to form a Team B, C and D. However, the Federation will always say that there is no money. If there’s no money, then some of these programs will not be carried out. So funding is a problem.
I don’t want to criticize the Federation because it is he who wears the shoes that knows where it pinches him. I have been there. There are times you go for sponsorship and a company would want to sponsor a program that has the FIFA President,the CAF President and Secretary General in attendance. Because the mileage that the sponsors will get will be high than giving the federation money to go and pay Super Falcons. So to the ordinary mind, you will wonder why the President of the sports federation would go into sponsoring such a program than looking for money to pay Super Falcons.
It is not his money. He goes out for sponsorship and the sponsors would want to invest in something else. The invitation and presence of the FIFA and CAF Presidents speaks a lot of volume. In the time past, how many of the NFF members were part of the FIFA or CAF committees? Very few people. But today, we have witnessed a lot of them in various committees both in CAF and FIFA . It is a big mileage for our nation football because when certain decisions are being taken, those members will be considered. If FIFA wants to ban Nigeria,the members will have first hand information. So whatever lacuna we have, we will go and fill so that we don’t incur the wrath of FIFA.
So it is not everything thing that ordinary people will understand about football administration. But it behoves on the NFF President through its publicity Secretary or image maker to make sure that they explain certain things to the public so that they don’t have erroneous impressions. But like I said, funding is the problem. Sometimes the Federation will take a budget to the National Assembly and it will be reduced to little or nothing. Sometimes it will be cut down from 4 billion to 1billion and you know that most of these competitions or activities depend on the exchange rate and little will be left after converting the money.
Battle for the soul of Nigeria teams
Except if we scrap out other teams and retain and fund only the Super Eagles and Under 23 but it would mean the younger and under-aged players going into crime which translates to killing of potentials because football offers them with what to do. So it needs balancing. If you go through the National Policy which was created under the National Sports Commission ,it mandates government at all levels to use five percent of its resources towards building infrastructure and human capacity in sports, both at the Local, State and Federal levels. But I don’t think these things are being implemented. If we do not invest in human capacity development, we will not get it right.
How many coaches have been sent overseas by the federation for further training?
You will find out that even some of our coaches do not build up their own capacities. I was privileged to meet with Austin Eguavoen and late Shuabi Amodu and I was impressed by their level of intelligence.
Ahead NFF elections
I lot of People have approached me and I told them my family first. I want to seize this opportunity to say I appreciate the leadership of the federation. One earns all manner of names because you are trying to exercise leadership. You when you are in position of leadership, People come to you to give you all manner of advice. For me, I won’t contest for any NFF leadership postion. I’m yet to declare my support for anyone.
If you come to ask for support, I will look at your pedigree. I will rather state here that our local league has done very well. I will give kudos to Dikko and his team. The standard of the league has gone high again. I’m someone who watches local leagues very much. In the past, there have been issues of referee. They have had issues of funds when they took over but it seems they are stabilizing.
The fall and fall Nigeria age-grade teams
The gospel is that in the past Nigeria qualified for all age-grade competitions. But now, the reverse has been the case. It’s unfortunate. Well, we have qualified for the World Cup, I know some People will prefer we qualify for the World Cup than qualifying for all Under-17, 20 and not be in Russia. You relate what is happening now with what has been happening in all parts of the country’s economy.