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Time to end Eagles' bonus row – Punch

By The Citizen
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THE decision of the Minister of Sports, Bolaji Abdullahi, to intervene in the bonus crisis currently plaguing the national football team, the Super Eagles, is a bold step that should be applauded. It is indeed timely because of the need to resolve the crisis before the next rounds of 2014 World Cup qualification matches. But the true test of the minister's initiative will depend, largely, on its success in bringing order and financial transparency to bear on the chaotic football administration in the country.

Apparently miffed by the recent international embarrassment brought upon the nation by the Eagles in faraway Namibia, where they refused to board a flight for the Confederations Cup competition in Brazil, the minister inaugurated a panel to, among other things, determine the remote and immediate causes of the match bonus crisis. The five-man panel led by a former presidential spokesman, Olusegun Adeniyi, is also saddled with the responsibility of hammering out an acceptable code of conduct for the players while on national assignments.

According to reports from local and international media, the Eagles, after their hard-fought victory in Kenya and a come-from-behind draw in Namibia, had rejected the $5,000 and $2,500 bonuses given for the win and the draw respectively. They insisted on the $10,000 and $5,000 that they were used to receiving. They allegedly spurned entreaties, even by Abdullahi himself, to board the flight to Brazil and thrash out the bonus issue later. Their resultant late arrival in Brazil, just 24 hours to the commencement of the FIFA tournament, has been cited as partially responsible for their poor outing in the competition, seen by many as a dress-rehearsal for next year's World Cup.

Wrangling over bonuses has been part and parcel of Nigerian football for long, dating back to the days when the current Super Eagles Coach, Stephen Keshi, was captain of the Eagles. It is common for players to complain of either being shortchanged or being owed backlog of unpaid bonuses. In the current spat, the Nigeria Football Federation said that the bonus cut was necessitated by the new realities facing the federation after the spending spree that attended the last African Cup of Nations finals in South Africa, where the Eagles defied predictions to win. At some stages, the players were paid bonuses beyond their entitlement. For instance, they were reportedly paid a 'winning' bonus for a match they drew.

Besides, the NFA also argued that before going ahead to implement the reviewed bonus regime, there had been a meeting with some key players, including the captain, Vincent Enyeama, and midfielder, Mikel Obi, during which the dire financial situation of the federation was explained to the players. The same financial constraint, the NFF claimed, was responsible for the reduction in the backroom staff of the team and the planned withdrawal from some international competitions.

To cap it all, the NFF renounced the $10,000 and $5,000 bonuses, saying they were a creation of a task force set up by the Federal Government to ensure Nigeria's qualification for the 2010 World Cup finals in South Africa. The federation's Secretary-General, Musa Amadu, said, 'The Task Force had a meeting with the NFF and said it had agreed to increase the team's win bonus to $10,000, but the NFF would only pay the normal $5,000, while the task force paid the balance of $5,000… The present NFF administration came into office to meet the situation of $10,000 and with good intention, decided to continue.'

Naturally, the NFF expects understanding from the players over its current financial straits. Like every organ of government, the federation operates within an approved budget. But did the NFF take cognisance of this when it was dishing out winning bonuses for drawn matches? Was it in the budget? Why overpay the players when it is known, from experience that they would never compromise when called upon to sacrifice?

Moreover, the NFF has a history of shady financial dealings, which makes it difficult for the players to believe the story that it is broke. It was at the same NFF that a hefty sum of $236,000 once developed wings and vanished without trace. It is also on record that an employee of the federation who once disappeared with millions of naira made from gate-takings was never brought to book. In asking the players to sacrifice, did the NFF officials also make cuts on their own estacodes? Such an establishment that compromises on financial transparency, when in trouble, is not likely to enjoy the sympathy of players.

But then, it is still possible for footballers to make their points without washing their dirty linen in the public. If they feel shortchanged, players can refuse to answer national calls when next they are invited - unless they have been given their due - instead of going to the world stage to disgrace themselves and the country. They are so quick to forget how they were showered with millions of dollars by the government and corporate organisations for winning the last Nations Cup. How much is $5,000 to a player like Mikel Obi, for instance, who earns £75,000 a week (about £300,000 a month) at his club, Chelsea?

Again, it is not as if the $5,000 that sparked the row is so small compared to what other African players earn for representing their country. Do the Nigerian players know that Malawian players, their last group opponents in the ongoing World Cup qualifiers, will go home with only $85 if they beat the Eagles? Professional players make their money playing for their clubs, not for their country.

To make a success out of its job, the Adeniyi panel should also take a critical look at the allegation that Keshi is fuelling the bonus crisis. Keshi has done so well since he took over as the national team coach, but there is this coincidence of bonus crisis always popping up whenever he is around. Since Keshi left the national team in 1994, there had not been any bonus row until his recent return. This same coincidence was noticed when he coached the Togolese national team. This is also relevant because coaches usually take double what goes to the players and Keshi should be given the chance to clear his name.

The NFF should endeavour to be transparent in its financial transactions. Aside from money that comes from the government, the football body also gets money from corporate sponsorship and from FIFA. Only by coming clean about its financial records will the NFF earn sympathy from the players and the public.