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Player welfare is serious business


Former Nigeria International footballer, Wilson Oruma.

The recent dispiriting news regarding former Super Eagles midfielder Wilson Oruma has once again brought a sensitive subject to the fore: the welfare of athletes’ (and especially footballers’) post-retirement.It is sadly not uncommon to find that retired footballers, in Africa especially, quickly fall upon hard times even after lengthy careers playing in some of the biggest leagues in Europe.

The career of the footballer is short, and so it doesn’t take much to run aground: when you combine semi-literacy, bad advice, and a wide circle of “friends and family” who really are just hangers-on and leeches, what you get is a corrosive mix that eats through wealth.When this happens, the popular response is often an emotional one. People are quick to blame the government and the football authorities, football being dear to the heart of the average Nigerian. However, wouldn’t the cries of our ex-players be better accommodated within a players’ union?

As an example, consider the case of England’s Paul Gascoigne. The former Three Lions midfielder, after a career that did not quite live up to its promise, has battled alcoholism in his retirement, but help is never far away, thanks to the Professional Footballers Association (PFA). In 2013, PFA Chief Executive, Gordon Taylor, pledged the body’s full support to the former England international, at his lowest after he suffered a relapse. More recently, Aaron Lennon received the emotional support required to speak openly about his mental health challenges, and now he’s back on his feet.

Admitting openly to mental health issues is considered taboo in this clime, of course, but comparing the above instances to what Oruma has had to go through, it is evident that there is a huge void that can only be filled by having a proper players union.I say “proper” because, at this time, and in a development that should surprise no one, there are in fact two separate factions purporting to represent the interest of Nigerian footballers: on the one hand, the National Association of Nigerian Professional Footballers (NANPF) and the Association of Professional Footballers of Nigeria (APFON). 

It says a lot about our society: it is almost as though our diverse ethnicity and language makes it impossible for us to pull in one direction. Then again, perhaps the problem is a simpler, more fundamental one: that of ego, which has been the bane of some of the nation’s finest stars.

According to Stephane Burchkalter, Secretary General of World Players’ Union (Fifpro Africa), the likes of “Geremi Njitap (Cameroon), Didier Drogba (Ivory Coast), Anthony Baffoe (Ghana), Herita Ilunga (Democratic Republic of Congo) and others are showing their solidarity with lesser-known players in their home countries and have really advanced player unions.” Nigeria (and Nigerian footballers) is, of course, conspicuously missing from this list. 

Fifpro Africa president Geremi once revealed to me his surprise that a nation that produced such renowned footballers as Nwankwo Kanu and Jay Jay Okocha could not boast of a vibrant players’ union, capable even of shaking the establishment. Instead, the lack of a united front has robbed the players’ union of a place altogether on the board of the NFF, as well as voting rights. 

Unsurprisingly, we are left with a situation where our footballers’ interests are not looked after, and there is no concern regarding their working conditions as they ply their trades in all corners of the globe. 

When former international, Sam Okoye, died in Iran back in 2005, there was no clamour. Izu Joseph was shot dead while on holiday, and there is still no radical push from either of the factions parading themselves as legitimate, for the murder to be investigated. Is it any wonder then that our ex-internationals always seem to find themselves in difficulty?

Aside providing a support structure, player unions afford younger players a chance to learn from the experiences of those who have gone before them. For the average Nigerian footballer looking to make a move to Europe, for instance, it can be a culture shock. Yet, within a union, that blow could be softened; there would also be seminars and the like, organised around making wise investments, as well as a psychologist to take care of their mental well-being.

It really is about time we got serious about the welfare of our former and current players, and create an enabling environment for them to open up and find solutions to their troubles. It is vital that, when they fall into the traps that our society lays in their way, they have a place to turn to.Thumbs up for Amaju: The Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) president Amaju Pinnick had previously been the cause of some consternation for people on the internet. But his decision to come to Wilson Oruma’s aid – providing medical and social support – is totally awesome. Oruma will hopefully get back on his feet again, knowing that there is a job and support system waiting for him thanks to the NFF boss.

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Wilson Oruma
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