The pathetic plight of Nigerian sports heroes
By the time you are reading this, my late friend, Taiwo Ogunjobi would have been finally laid to rest in the city of Ibadan.
Taiye did very well for Nigerian sports, first as a football player and later as an astute football administrator.
He captained the country’s national football academicals and represented the country as a member of the Green Eagles. After his playing career in football ended, he went into football administration and served in different capacities as general manager of some football clubs, Chairman of a State Football Association and Secretary General of the Nigeria Football Association.
He lived a good and fulfilling life with a degree in Textile Technology from Clemson University in the U.S., but never did anything outside of football for a living. He was lucky, very lucky.
The same cannot be said of most other football players, as well as athletes across all of Nigerian sports.
Taiwo Ogunjobi was an exception. He was a self-driven and self-made man living very well and never needing any handout from government, or anyone to meet his obligations.
Unfortunately, his story is not replicated in Nigerian sports. It actually draws attention to the plight of many Nigerian sports heroes, who spend their careers and the life after in poverty.
The reality is that athletes, generally, do not do well in Nigeria. There are two major reasons.
The first is that during the first half of our lives when we lived off sport, we earned very little and never prepared well for a life outside it.
The second is that there is no programme in place to introduce and expose athletes to the numerous lucrative opportunities that exist in the global sports industry.
The trend may be changing slowly these days with megastar footballers returning to the domestic market, like Jay Jay Okocha, Kanu Nwankwo, Victor Ikpeba, and Joseph Yobo, to blaze a new trail as football analysts on television and endorsing products often related to sports, particularly in the huge betting industry.
Until a few years ago, for decades, there were hardly any known opportunities in sports to explore, and endorsements were almost non-existent. Most athletes were forced to seek work and livelihood outside of the sports industry and that was their greatest challenge.
I learnt my own lesson then. I wanted to publish a comprehensive book on the potentials of Plateau State as a major tourist destination. The project had nothing to do with sport. The governor at the time was my friend. We usually ate, drank and partied together. I thought it was going to be easy to get him sign off the small contract to support my livelihood, after all he was my friend and he knew my needs. So, I took my beautiful proposal to him.
I was shocked when he rejected it.
He would not award such a contract to a famous footballer. It would attract unnecessary attention and raise questions about my competency, qualifications and experience to do a publishing job.
He advised that because of my fame and background in sport, if I wanted to survive the harsh and difficult Nigerian business terrain, I should strictly stick to opportunities in the sports world.
I heeded his advice. Since then, I have managed to discover a little of the scope, extent and opportunities that exist in the sports business world to sustain my livelihood. Even then, it has been tough and rough because, in Nigeria, the field is still relatively virgin.
That may be why the story of sports heroes after retirement is a litany of woes, of neglect and abject poverty. As time and age catch up with them, there is little or nothing to fall back on. So, they suffer as paupers to be forgotten in their lonely graves scattered all over the country when they pass on.
Former International goalkeeper, Peter Fregene has been bedridden for almost 20 years. He is suffering, dying slowly, painfully and without any support or hope.
Former International and Bendel Insurance of Benin midfield player, George Omokaro has also been bedridden for almost 10 years and is currently lying in a hospital bed in Benin following another one of several major surgeries he has had to undergo for various ailments, including arthritis as a result of injuries from football.
There are a lot of other players all over the country and in all sports, suffering and needing support of the sports fraternity. They love their sport with a passion but were poorly paid as active athletes and have no means of livelihood (outside of coaching and marketing young talents) when they retired.
That is the state of affairs with sports heroes in Nigeria. Taiwo Ogunjobi was very smart and very lucky. He found a way to get into sports administration and excelled.
I spent two years of my life chasing the Jos contract that I never finally got. Although I did not make a single kobo from the project, I learnt a big lesson that has kept me engaged in business till this day – every job that I have applied for and done since then has been sport-related. That way I have stood a good chance of getting the jobs without anyone claiming I have no knowledge or experience.
Anything outside of sport has been very difficult to get.
It is for the reason given by the governor that I realized that most sports heroes that attempt to work outside sports encounter huge challenges.
Not being aware also of the scope and opportunities in the sport business, (because the industry is still at virgin level in the country) their involvement had been very limited and difficult.
That is why most sports heroes end up with little to do, and live a life of hardship and penury into old age. Their fame never translates to business outside of sports. It is not entirely, therefore, their fault where they find themselves, between neglect and abject poverty, many years into retirement from active sports.
There are no institutions, monuments, libraries, and even events to remember our sports heroes, honour them occasionally, celebrate them and keep their memories and achievements alive in the public domain to inspire a new generation.
The Federal Government attempted to introduce a welfare package of some sort for retired international athletes many years ago, but that did not sustain as a result of the high turnover of sports ministers.
The time has come for the present government to take solid and permanent steps to put in place a structure to institutionalise a welfare programme for sports heroes so that when they retire there is a system in place to prepare them for the opportunities within the global sports industry.
Like so many other aspects of our lives in Nigeria, the key to success still lies with government, the foundation it lays, the environment it creates and the policies and personnel it puts in place to drive sports and improve the condition of sports heroes during and after their active years.
The first major step should be to appoint a Minister of Sports that knows his onions.