By Mumini Alao:
SUPER EAGLES MEDIA OFFICER Toyin Ibitoye is a very optimistic man. He has to be because his job is a very difficult one at the moment.
Toyin's primary task is to ensure that the national team is reported in a positive light in the media. He writes and talks to the media and the general public about the team's activities, arranges press conferences and interviews and handles public relations matters for the team as well. Although the Nigeria Football Supporters Club are the official cheerleader of the Eagles, Toyin also finds himself mobilizing support for the team especially ahead of big games. Toyin knows that when the Super Eagles win, his own job is made a lot easier. When they lose or are caught up in a crisis, his job becomes very complicated.
Three weeks ago when I published the article titled, "Eagles can Rorh…mble to Russia," where I made suggestions on how Nigeria can qualify for the 2018 FIFA World Cup from our tough group, I got a call from Toyin assuring me that he would ensure that Rorh read the article. Later, he called again to say that Rorh had indeed read the article and he found it "very interesting." Toyin then proceeded to 'mobilize' me for the campaign to get the Eagles to Russia.
He said: "Oga, I want you and Complete Sports to join us to launch a campaign to mobilize support for the Eagles ahead of the first game against Zambia on social media using the hashtag "SoarSuperEagles." That will be done, I assured him. And that is the reason for my title today.
Truth is, Toyin didn't need to mobilize me because I had already mobilized myself. But he is such a persuasive guy so I allowed myself to be mobilized all over again. Every knowledgeable and realistic Nigerian football fan knows that the Eagles' qualifying group also featuring Algeria and Cameroun is a very tough one, but we are positive nevertheless that it will be Nigeria grabbing the sole qualifying ticket at the end of the race. We all know also that our opening game this weekend against a young and crafty Zambian team in Ndola will be very tricky, but we are expectant nevertheless that the Eagles will snatch a win no matter the odds. That's the fan in me talking, in response to Toyin's mobilization!
However, the journalist in me is a bit more critical. While ordinary soccer fans are permitted to be fanatical in their support for the national team, journalists are, by training, expected to be more circumspect and probing. This sometimes creates a conflict between professional judgement and patriotic expectation. But we must be candid always.
The journalist in me also wants the Eagles to soar to victory in Zambia. In fact in my previous article under reference above, I set a target of three wins from our first three qualifying games as the minimum requirement to set us firmly on the road to Russia 2018. But I said also in that article that the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) must handle the logistics and team management very carefully if the Eagles must stand any chance. Sadly, that appears not to have been the case for this opening game against Zambia.
The story broke last week that the NFF directed the players to buy their own flight tickets from their respective bases, and that they must fly economy class because the NFF could not afford to make a refund on business class tickets. As a logistic procedure, asking players to buy their own tickets is not good enough in the first place, but I can tolerate it since the players themselves seem to have adjusted to the practice without fuss. But then, when you cut back on the level of comfort that the players are used to on such flights, then you have to communicate it to them better. For me, two questions arose from the ticket episode:
One, why did the NFF deny an earlier report that they were having problems financing the trip to Zambia? As far as I'm concerned, the trip to Zambia began from where the players are coming from abroad, and if the NFF could not provide the tickets to fly them down to Nigeria like it normally should, then the report of a cash or forex squeeze was true.
Second, even if we accept without interrogation the decision to restrict the players to economy class tickets because of the recession in the country which has constricted NFF's finances, I think the NFF hierarchy should have handled the communication of the matter with greater sensitivity and at a higher level, rather than leaving it to the team secretary to "tell the boys." In my opinion, it should have been the NFF president Amaju Pinnick himself briefing team captain Mikel Obi about the change in policy with Obi then calling the other players to explain the Federation's financial plight. It's simple logic that when you treat the players with greater respect, you will also get greater understanding and cooperation from them.
I do not envy Pinnick and his executive committee members because the times are truly hard for most people and organizations in Nigeria today, both private and public. Sponsorship money and foreign exchange are hard to come by. But, let's be candid: if the NFF could find the money and the forex to host the top brass of FIFA and several African FA chiefs to a lavish get-together in Abuja quite recently, then they shouldn't be complaining about inadequate funds to prosecute a crucial World Cup qualifier just a few weeks later.
What happened to planning and budgeting? What happened to prioritization of projects and commitments? What manner of father hosts a lavish party in August but can't pay his children's' school fees two months later in October? By all accounts, I would like to think that the 2018 World Cup qualifiers are more crucial to Nigerian football than the NFF's recent political jamboree. My view is that adequate funds should have been kept aside for players' welfare, team logistics (including payments for flight tickets) and paying the salaries owed to various coaches and secretariat staff, before bringing the FIFA president and the Secretary General into town on a fanciful visit!
Furthermore, this is the time for us to know the real value of our NFF executive committee members and what they can bring to the table for Nigerian football. Board members of companies usually come to the company's aid in times of difficulty either by dipping into their personal pockets or using their contacts to mobilize funds for the company. Do we have men and women of such calibre in the NFF or are they all people waiting for the next trip with calculators in their pockets to add up their estacodes?
Further still, what is the minister of sport Mr. Solomon Dalung doing about the current situation? I hope his excuse again is not that he doesn't want to interfere in NFF affairs because that would be unacceptable.
One of the reasons given to me by a former top civil servant in the ministry who originally sacrificed the National Sports Commission (NSC) in favour of retaining the ministry of sport is that the cabinet rank of the minister would facilitate better funding and other privileges for the sports sector directly from the President's office; the minister would also be able to submit memos at Federal Executive Council (FEC) meetings and lobby for approval. Well, the civil servants should tell Dalung now to use his cabinet access to tell President Muhammadu Buhari about the funding and logistic challenges facing the Super Eagles currently so that the President could intervene.
For starters, could Dalung please write a memo to request for a plane from the presidential fleet to fly the Super Eagles to Ndola? Just think about that! Not only would Nigeria save money on hiring an expensive chartered flight, the resultant morale boost for the players (riding on the plane of Mr. President!) will ensure that they come back from Zambia with nothing short of a victory. How about that, Barrister Dalung?
To conclude, I want to make a special appeal to the Super Eagles. Which ever way the NFF finally gets them to Ndola, whether on foot, by road, by sea or by air; whether by regular, chartered or presidential flight, the players must realize that they are playing these World Cup qualifiers primarily for themselves, for their careers, their families and their country. Like they've done so far, paying their own way to camp even when the win bonus for their last game against Tanzania has not been paid, they should simply ignore all official indiscretions and focus on doing themselves and the country proud again.
The players should know that even when they don't complain publicly about the way they're treated which is quite patriotic of them, the fans understand and appreciate their sacrifices. They should therefore go to Ndola this weekend with a determination to win in order to get the 2018 World Cup campaign on to a flying start. Considering the tough matches still to come against Algeria and Cameroun who have a World Cup pedigree like Nigeria, anything short of a win against Zambia, effectively the minnows of the group with no World Cup experience, will be a damaging set-back.
PS: The #SoarSuperEagles campaign has been launched by Complete Sports in print and on social media. You can send your good wishes to the Super Eagles on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Complete Sports newspaper, www. completesportsnigeria.com website and through my blog, www.soccertalknigeria.blogspot