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 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.

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