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CAF Champions League, Sunshine Stars and the tragedy of Nigerian football

By Paul Bassey
Last Saturday at the Dipo Dina Stadium, Ijebu Ode, Sunshine Stars of Nigeria were involved in what was obviously their biggest continental match ever and the opposition don’t come bigger than Al Ahly of Egypt.

Also mention the fact that this was the Semi final of CAF’s flagship club football competition, the CAF Champions League where the winner earns the right to play in the final of the FIFA Club Cup and all its attendant exposure and benefits. Ask Tout Puissant Mazembe.

Fifteen minutes to kick off, I stood with veteran broadcaster Mitchell Obi lamenting, bemoaning the poor turnout, less than three thousand spectators, in a stadium that seats over 15 thousand… and to think that the gates were thrown open, free of any charge.

And then the match. What a cracker. A six goals classic that can best be described as a good advertisement for African football, if you were not a Nigerian and a Sunshine Stars supporter.

At three goals apiece, the first assumption is that the Nigerians are out, except they play a 4-4 draw or beat the Egyptians with whatever goal margin in the return leg….a mission that is not impossible given Sunshine’s away record!

Before we laugh it away as wishful thinking given the pedigree of the opposition, we are quick to be reminded that Kano Pillars found themselves in a similar position and triumphed. A team that finds itself two goals down against Al Ahly and still claws her way back to end it 3-3 may be a team with character after all

Anyway, that is a topic for another discussion, perhaps in two weeks time.

Presently I want to remember that earlier in the year the players of Sunshine Stars found themselves in a position where their SIGN ON FEES had not been paid and decided to go on strike to press for their demands.

Linus Mba and I had the opportunity to address the boys. We told them we will help them fight for the payment of their wages and that they should not lose sight of the bigger picture…the benefits they stood to derive individually should they do well in Africa.

We also gave them the classic example of Dolphins, a club that chose the eve of a continental assignment to strike, refuse to train and when eventually their demands were met, they went to the field and could not play, and were thrown out of Africa in their very first match.

The players of Sunshine accepted the position and went back to work.

You can imagine my surprise and fright when I learnt that over five months after that incident, the players had not been paid and they decided to go on strike, two weeks to their all important semi final clash against Al Ahly.

This is it, I said to myself. THIS IS THE END OF THE ROAD.

A week to the match, they were paid and they resumed training, but this was definitely not enough. The damage had been done.

Last Saturday in Ijebu Ode, Nigerians and indeed Africans saw players that were rusty, slow and uncoordinated and before you could say Paul Bassey, they were two goals down…….

Then came panic on the technical bench, hysterical reactions of management, forced substitutions (two by the 41st minute) exposing the team to danger should there be injuries later in the match! Disenchantment all round.

Later in the match, as the players struggled to make amends, injury threatened in the form of incessant muscle pulls…in one instance the mid field live wire Medrana Tamen  was out injured for close to seven minutes and while they were busy treating him, his colleagues played one goal down, one man short!

Let my focus this morning be on a monster that has impacted negatively on the game in this country. The SIGN ON FEES PHENOMENON. The sooner we do away with this fraud induced aspect of our football, the better for all of us.

Those who run football in this country have to come together and review the situation where a player comes into a club, “ negotiates” for sign on fees, gets as much as five million naira and ends the season without kicking a ball even when he must have been paid fifty per cent of that amount before the season starts.

Incidentally, this is a country where 99 per cent of the clubs are owned by government. A club will therefore commit a state to sign an obligation of as much as 300 million naira only to renege when time comes for payment and the resultant blackmail and holding every body to ransom whenever the situation arises.

Perhaps I should not use the word ‘black mail’ because a worker deserves his wages and the moment you agree to pay you just must pay.  The coaches who are “partners” in the whole deal sometimes fuel the fire because when the players are paid they are also guaranteed their dues.

I mentioned ‘fraud’ earlier to depict the fact that there are certain players coaches and managers bring into the team, just for the purpose of collecting sign on fees which they control. You can imagine a coach who brings as many as four players into a club, helps them negotiate a cumulative sign on fees of about 16 million and ends up taking more than fifty percent…you can imagine…not mentioning the percentage he gets from their salaries as well, salaries that are paid by the ministry of sports every month without recourse to whether that player has kicked a ball since he joined the club.

The solution is enhanced bonuses. A player can earn as little as one hundred thousand naira, but if that player is guaranteed a winning bonus of say fifty thousand at away and thirty thousand at home you can imagine how much a regular and productive player will make at the end of a month.

I know the efforts made by the Ondo State Football Agency to clear the sign on fees of the players. But this is an Agency that also runs two other clubs and by the time you add up the figures, the amount becomes so outrageous and so distracting to a Governor busy seeking re-election.

The near tragedy of Sunshine Stars should not be allowed to repeat itself even as we get set for the miracle of Cairo. Can someone say AMEN?

See you next week.


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