By Dr Segun Odegbami,
Two nights ago, I hosted my regular television program, The Sports Parliament, on Africa’s largest television network, Nigeria Television Authority, NTA.
It featured a number of megastar African football players from different parts of the continent. Many persons have wondered how I pulled it off, getting all of them to agree to join me in celebrating ‘Chairman’ Christian Chukwu, a legendary African player who played at a time when none of the 6 players on the show was active.
When Anthony Baffoe and I were discussing the idea a few days before, and he was listing some names, the first question I asked him was: ‘Will they remember who ‘Chairman’ Christian Chukwu is?’.
‘Who does not know the Chairman of African football?’, Tony responded with his own rhetorical question. ‘It is like asking if I remember ‘Mathematical’”.
He is quite right, of course. I have known Tony for quite a while. We did not play in the same era. When I retired was the time he started in the next generation with Wole, my younger brother. They only met the lingering ‘scent’ of our stardom on the continent. That was the era when playing in Europe started, became fashionable and the ‘umbilical’ links with us were severed.
In the case of Anthony Baffoe, I had read about him and his exploits; how he played all his professional football in Germany, speaks German, French and English very fluently, and played for the Ghana Black Stars for many years.
We met a few times several years after his own retirement when I was a member of the Players’ Committee of CAF and he was a very active member of one of the committees also in CAF and FIFA at the time. Even at that time, I could see that he was not your regular retired player. He was very educated, eloquent, confident, and upfront about his intentions to be an active part of football administration, not just in Africa but in the world.
He had the incredible gift of good human relations, respectful, inquisitive, friendly, easy-going, smooth and confident.
That’s why it is not a surprise that he moved up the rung of football administration in both FIFA and CAF slowly but steadily. Through all the crisis in both organisations over the years he stayed above the fray and survived, so much so that currently he is the Deputy General Secretary of CAF, a very powerful position in the emerging new CAF. Do not be surprised, one day soon he could be sitting on the chair of either the General Secretary of CAF or of FIFA, on merit. He is that good.
“Shall I call and let’s talk with Yaya Toure, and Patrick Mboma, and Samuel Eto?” Anthony asked me.
“They may not know Chairman’, I insisted.
“Look why do you underestimate African footballers? We know our history. Samuel Eto knows African football history very well. Like Yaya Toure. You too, you know so much about the history of African football. We know ourselves’.
Most of our generation have disappeared from the radar of African football. I used to have the contact of many well-known players from my generation; players from Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco in the North to Ghana, Cameroon, Cote D’Ivoire, Sierra Leone and Liberia in the West. I also had contacts with a few players from East Africa. None from Southern Africa.
With Nigerian megastar players, I do not have any problems really. For some reason, I did not hear from Papillo when I sent him a word. Jay Jay responded within minutes. He was ‘game’, and ready to honour his ‘father’ and coach!
So, that’s how Anthony Baffoe took up the challenge and within a few hours, it was done.
Kalusha Bwalya has been my friend for ages. He had come to Lagos as head of a delegation of the youth national team of Zambia. For some reason, the team had to pass through Lagos and spent a day, or two. He had called me up and we met in the hotel where the team was staying somewhere in Ikeja, I think.
That’s how we spent hours together and became very acquainted. After that, we met several other times around the African football circuit, particularly around CAF.
Abedi Pele and I were in the Players’ Committee of CAF for several years and were the closest of friends because we were the only two that came from Anglophone African countries and could communicate in English. He had the advantage of being able to speak French as well and became my translator whenever we went out. At different times, there were Basile Boli, Francois Mpele, Jules Bocande, Theophile Abega, and several others on the 13-player committee.
Beyond that, Abedi and I spent great times hanging out in Accra as well as in Lagos on different occasions.
Yaya Toure. I have never met him up close. When he won the African Best Player award for the first time, I was in Lome, Togo as part of the African Football legends invited by Globacom to ‘decorate’ the venue of the event with our eventually ‘subdued’ presence. But that’s a matter for another day. It underlines how players are often treated, given only the less serious things in football governance.
We met briefly but did not have time to be properly introduced. He flew back to France that night, immediately after receiving the award.
However, since then, I have left the CAF Players’ committee, my shelf-life as a recognizable African football star has waned, new players have taken over space on the display shelf, and CAF has stopped inviting older generation footballers to their events, understandably.
I used to be quite an activist in African football, always ‘fighting’ for causes related to footballers, always demanding respect, relevance and better welfare for African footballers within the scheme of things. We are often kept at a distance from the seat of administration. I fought for retired players to be used technically, to help educate and supervise the construction of good football grounds all over the continent as a panacea for good football and more lucrative marketing of the game.
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Not too many players are allowed into the fold of CAF because to do so is to court jealousy or contempt of administrators who love to share the limelight with the players but hate to see them in the space where dividends are shared.
On one occasion in the mid-1990s, I think, I sat by my desk at home in London and decided to organize the first conference of African footballers in Cairo, or Johannesburg, or even in Lagos.
I called up my friend, Jenny Horrocks of the BBC, who is an encyclopedia of African footballers and has every known African footballer’s contact around the world, to help me with establishing contacts. She sent by fax a long directory with the phone numbers of every well-known retired and active African footballer. That’s how I connected with George Opong Weah, Tony Yeboah, Abedi Pele, Rabah Madjar, Farouk Gafar, Sunday Ibrahim, Tarak Dhiab, and several others all over Europe.
I drew up a great plan of action and started to call up every player including Michel Platini, Franz Beckenbauer, and a few other European greats to seek their support to make it happen.
Amongst those most excited about such a body was George Opong Weah even though he was in his prime at the time, and did not have much time to work on it with me. I even informed the Presidents of FIFA and CAF. FIFA promised to help, and Issa Hayatou replied me and extended my stay as a member of the CAF Players Committee.
The project never took off because I needed the time and finances to move around a bit more, set up a secretariat in Europe (it would not work from any place in Africa), and get the buy-in of many more of my African colleagues to succeed.
In the Players/Football Committee I was amazed at the depth and capacity of most of the players in understanding the finer intricacies of football on the field. They were very well informed and knowledgeable. If only administrators had taken our suggestions seriously African football would have turned the corner a long time ago and caught up with Europe in terms of quality of play on the fields all over the continent.
Since then, I have retired into the cocoon of my personal interests until now, drawn out by my desire to honour my friend and brother as he leads many of us on a journey to the beautiful evening of ‘old’ age from 70.
I am glad it happened two nights ago.
This is to thank Anthony Baffoe, Abedi Pele, Yaya Toure, Jay Jay Okocha, Godwin Odiye, Emmanuel Merenini, Femi Adesina, former Governor Peter Obi, Senator Enyinnaya Abaribe Benson Ejindu, Chuks Egwuoke, Ikeddy Isiguzo, Emmanuel Okala, Oliver Johnson, and all the parliamentarians on the show for making the celebration of ‘Chairman’ Christian Chukwu possible.