We play on empty stomachs, borrow money to eat — Nigerian footballers
In this report, ’TANA AIYEJINA takes a look at the plight of Nigerian players on the local scene, despite their huge potential
That Nigerian football has followed the part of the country’s economy—always running cap in hand to the West despite its huge human talent—hasn’t come as a surprise to close followers of the game.
With an enormous pool of players scattered all over Europe, the United States of America and other parts of the world, there are even suggestions that footballers could soon overtake crude oil as the country’s major export product.
But behind this brain drain to the West is the harsh economic suffering that has befallen most players in the Nigerian Professional Football League.
Besides playing on bad pitches and insecure match venues, they are frequently owed sign-on fees and salaries, are underpaid in some cases and lack proper medical care and insurance like it’s done in the western world. Unlike in the 1980s and 1990s when players blossomed on the domestic front before moving abroad, the anguish experienced by these players make them want to jump at any offer outside the shores of the country, just to live better lives.
Due to the persistent owing of players’ salaries last season — the likes of FC IfeanyiUbah, ABS, Sunshine Stars, Gombe United, at some point reportedly owed their players up to five months salaries — some of the country’s finest talents were reportedly forced to grab deals in obscure leagues abroad.
Former Sunshine Stars striker Okiki Afolabi snubbed Nigerian champions Plateau United for newly-promoted Ethiopian league side Jimma Aba Jifar after earlier efforts to seal deals in Argentina, Turkey and Malaysia failed.
Exciting former Nigeria U-23 winger Daniel Etor completed an eight-month deal with Omani club Al Nasr in August.
Etor, who had featured for top Nigerian club Enyimba, was Enugu Rangers’ leading scorer with eight goals last season but he evoked a clause in his contract with the Flying Antelopes to seal a move to Al Nasr.
“I am grateful to God for making it possible for me to now play outside Nigeria. I will work hard that before the end of my eight months in Oman I would have moved to Europe. That’s my target,” Etor, whose earlier move to Iran failed, said.
Big striker Bobby Clement shrugged a FIFA ban on Kuwait due to political interference, to sign a deal with one of the country’s top clubs, Al Arabi, from Rangers.
Clement’s goals helped Rangers to a historic first NPFL title in 32 years in 2016 and was previously linked with a move to an Egyptian club, who were reportedly willing to offer $300,000 for his services, but he couldn’t wait, and instead joined the Kuwaiti club in search of greener pastures.
The above instances are the few fortunate cases of the players. Most of them, who hardly have the educational qualifications to do other jobs, haven’t been that fortunate to earn a deal abroad and have had to grope with the harsh economic conditions back home. And they are barred from disclosing their plight in the media by the club officials.
Former Ikorodu United central defender Gbenga Okoro has been without a club since he left the Oga Boys due to an illness two seasons ago.
The 29-year-old told our correspondent that life has not been easy with him since he had no savings to fall back on despite playing for a number of high-profile clubs on the domestic scene.
He said oftentimes, clubs don’t pay players the amount they pledged to pay, adding that officials force the players to forfeit what they are owed or they won’t be released to other clubs.
Okoro added that players were also made to forfeit their sign-on fees and match bonuses sometimes in millions of naira, in exchange for clearance papers to continue their careers elsewhere.
He stated, “The truth is that all the clubs owe players. Sometimes, some of the club officials negotiate well with the players and later reduce the money when they pay you the salaries. I once asked why I was paid less than I negotiated at one of my former clubs and I was told, ‘that is what is available for now.’
“Most players forfeit the money owed them in order to collect their (transfer) papers, so that when they want to leave the club, they will use it (papers) to collect their clearance and avoid any delays or gimmicks from the clubs indebted to them.”
He narrates his personal experience, saying he had to give out ‘loan’ to a former club before he was allowed to move to a new club, despite being owed. ‘Loan’ according to Okoro is the language used to describe when a player forfeits money owed him by his club.
“I have been a victim. It happened to me when I moved from 3SC to El Kanemi; I gave them a loan and at the end of the season, I was able to move to Kwara United. When you want to leave for another club, they (officials) normally put a huge sum of money on the players despite owing them salaries and sign-on fees. But if you give them the loan, you are allowed to leave without problems,” Okoro added.
Players — those playing for the state government sponsored clubs — besieging State Government Houses across the country protesting non-payment of salaries have become a regular occurrence in Nigeria.
Action from the Nigerian league
Even the female footballers are not exempted. In August, Nigeria Women’s Professional League side, Heartland Queens, blocked Imo State Governor, Rochas Okorocha’s convoy from entering the Government House in Owerri in protest against their unpaid salaries.
The placard-carrying protesters said they had not been paid for seven months by the Imo State Government, owners of the club.
However, the footballers are sometimes brutalised by their paymasters, if they run out of luck, while fighting for their rights.
On December 4, 2015, players of disbanded FC Taraba and Taraba Queens besieged the Taraba State Government House in Jalingo to demand the payment of their outstanding 11 and 21 months salaries and match bonuses respectively.
The players were not paid by the management of the state-owned club throughout their campaign in the 2014/15 season of the NPFL.
However, about a dozen armed soldiers deployed by government beat up the footballers, inflicted varying degrees of injuries on them and forcefully stopped their protest.
However, one of the most worrying scenes in Nigerian football took place earlier in this month, when a picture of Rivers United players lieing down and kneeling while begging Governor Nyesom Wike to pay their allowances and sign-on fees for the 2014/15 season, went viral on the social media.
It was gathered that the players were owed by the previous administration, before Sharks and Dolphins were merged, which gave birth to Rivers United.
Former Enyimba striker, Victor Ezeji, who played in the domestic topflight for 20 years, lamented the situation, saying it wasn’t as bad during his playing days.
“It’s a very difficult situation for the players; that is why the people who really don’t understand blame the players when they protest,” the 2003 CAF Champions League winner said.
“In our time, it was sign-off fees that were being owed, not salaries. But the issue of money owed players today is because most of the clubs don’t have budgets. In a situation they run to government every moment for sustenance, they will never be able to cater for the welfare of their players.”
So how do the footballers, who are breadwinners of their families, meet up with their responsibilities on the home front?
“We are supposed to be our families’ breadwinners but most times we are not,” ex-Remo Stars attacking midfielder, Opeolu Olufemi, who is currently on trials at 3SC, said.
“Our family members wonder when we call them and ask them to send us recharge cards and money. Sometimes we borrow each other money; sometimes we eat food on credit from food sellers and sometimes live on the goodwill of well-wishers.
“Can you imagine a registered professional league player borrowing money not to buy a house or car but to eat? That’s how we survive.”
Okoro said the footballers have adopted several other means to survive.
He added, “The fact is that if you play football here, you have to save some money, even when you can’t eat, especially when you are married. What the married players do now is to quickly establish their wives, so that in times of distress, they can take care of their families.
“Some others take to trading selling boots and clothes as a back-up. Those who earn big salaries can buy cars, which they use for transport when they are owed. The other option is to have some people you can borrow money from till your club pay your salary before you refund the money to them. It’s not easy with us.”
But Ezeji says the moneylenders take undue advantage of the situation to rip players off.
“There are people out there who take advantage of the situation. These people are ready to give you loans to survive but in most cases you pay 100 per cent interest on the loans. Sometimes you are given N50,000 to pay N80,000 or in some cases N50,000 to N100,000. When the salary is not forthcoming, the players will always run back to these same people,” he said.
“When the salaries are paid, the players are already owing huge sums of money and can’t do anything it. But if the salaries are regular, the situation will be better.”
Though the likes of Kano Pillars’ trio Rabiu Ali (N800,000), Gambo Mohammed (N800,000) and Chinedu Udoji (N800,000), as well as Akwa United defender Namso Ede (N700,000) and IfeanyiUbah goalkeeper Ikechukwu Ezenwa (N600,000) are the highest earners in the league, our correspondent learnt that some of the clubs don’t adhere to the N150, 000 minimum wage stipulated for the players by the League Management Company, organisers of the league.
“In Nigeria, anything is possible. They tell you they will pay you N1 today but give you 50 kobo eventually. If you don’t collect it, you lose everything. That’s what we suffer as footballers in Nigeria,” Olufemi added.
Former 3SC striker Gbolahan Salami, who moved to Finland in 2016, said one of the major reasons he left for Europe despite being one of the most celebrated players in the local league was to live up to his responsibility as a breadwinner of his family.
“I have a family that I feed. I have a mother, a sister and wife that I take care of. Should I go and rob? When I demand for my rights, they say I’m rude,” he said.
The Chairman, LMC, Shehu Dikko, urged the players to get lawyers and advisers to negotiate on their behalf before signing contracts with any club, saying that would halt the incessant problems of being owed or underpaid.
“The issue is not about LMC not enforcing players’ welfare but we are trying to work within the reality on ground and set out strategy to eliminate the issue completely. But the biggest problem mostly comes from the players and coaches themselves. They sign contracts without advisers and only run to us when they get into problems. A player or coach has no business going about chasing money but rather his lawyer and or intermediary should be doing that and believe me, even the clubs would sit up,” Dikko, who is also the 2nd Vice President, Nigeria Football Federation, said.
Ezeji, who was once the highest-paid player in the league, corroborates Dikko’s stand, saying he was never owed during his playing days because he employed the services of lawyers.
“I’ve always told my fellow players to use lawyers when they are negotiating their contracts with the clubs. If players do things the legal way, nobody or club can cheat them. It is cheaper to hire a lawyer than to go without one and get cheated by club managers. A club can rob a player of up to 80 per cent of his sign-on fee but a lawyer will collect only about 20 per cent.”
But a footballer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said hiring a lawyer was a difficult task for the present day Nigerian footballer because of the harsh economic torture he is made to pass through.
Our source said, “Is it a player that hasn’t been paid for eight, 11 months that will employ a lawyer? Where will he get such money from, when he has huge debts to settle after being owed for several months?”
Olufemi believes the trend might not end too soon.
“The problem is everywhere. If you like, leave Enyimba to Abia Warriors, you will meet the same problem. When I watch European football, I marvel because the players give their best because they are well-paid. Here club managers want us to play like everything is fine? How is that possible when we play on empty stomachs? It’s frustrating,” he stated.