Former Super Eagles defender Taribo West bares it all about the plight of Nigeria’s ex-footballers in this interview with ‘TANA AIYEJINA
Are you happy with the current division among the country’s ex-footballers, which has seen them forming factional players’ unions?
It has come to a point that I need to speak out. There are people in top positions, who are supposed to manage football that are extorting money from our league. Are ex-internationals or footballers not supposed to bring in their experience to bear on the league? But they won’t allow it. In the last three years, there is accumulated money from FIFPro for Nigerian footballers but there are some ex-footballers who are working to divert this money. There are a lot of ex-internationals dying, those alive have no jobs and the government is not looking that way. The FA is not even concerned about their welfare or that of their families. Do you know how many ex-internationals call me in a month to ask for money to feed? Sometimes I ask myself if I’m a Central Bank. It’s true. If you check my phone, it’s filled with their account numbers of. Ex-footballers know all these but they are afraid to talk. But I will talk because we need to close the doors that these people are using to extort money from our football and footballers. I’ve not been living or feeding on their money. So, it’s high time I tell the world what we are passing through. I’m ready to challenge anybody, this is something that’s been going on for several years, yet we are quiet. And it’s not bringing any good to us. You hardly find my contemporaries in any office from the federal to state levels. Is that right? I was made a member of a technical study group by the Nigeria Football Federation but the last meeting I went for, I paid my transportation and hotel bills. At the end of the day, I can’t understudy anything, nobody is calling me and I’m in the dark over everything.
Why are ex-internationals not united in fighting a common cause?
The problem is that there’s so much faction of generational players. In my group, which did so well to bring Nigeria to global reckon, there’s so much grudges against each other. I’ve been trying to see how we can come as a body and brainstorm. What we have now are factions fighting for different selfish interests and the FA is supporting one against the other. It’s just madness. They should be scrapped if they don’t want to become one. I’m ready for the battle; enough of the cheating and negligence (of ex-footballers). Highest we get are ex-internationals getting national teams jobs. And the powers that be do everything to frustrate and bring them down. Those who have managed the national teams complained to me, so I know. They do this so that they can bring in people they can manipulate. If you can’t dance to their tune, you become their enemy. My soul and spirit is bitter.
There is a general impression that ex-footballers didn’t have a retirement plan…
(Cuts in) It depends on the individual. We have generational footballers and it’s not all of us that made money. Over there (Europe) if you retire, there’s a benefit which you can assess. Here we don’t have any plan, those who came back home don’t have access to football. Here you have doctors, lawyers and engineers in football but the footballers, who know what the game is all about, are not given positions to play their roles. If you watch FIFA awards nights, you will see that apart from the (FIFA) officials, every other person involved are footballers. In Nigeria, it’s not so, all you see are friends of those administering football. What kind of administration is that? If I didn’t save for the raining day, where would I have been? Most of us didn’t sign the right contracts, we didn’t know because we weren’t guided. Several of our players have died and we know their stories. There were no jobs for them. Our grassroots sports is begging for help. Where are the likes of Mary Onyali and Chika Chukwumerije? These are ex-athletes who can revive our sports at that level. But have they been involved? We don’t have a basketball team anymore because of infighting; where are the boxers? (Jerry) Okorodudu is retired. Where is he? Has anybody asked about him? There is money for grassroots sports development, where is it? It’s sad. So, when our athletes decide to represent other nations because of their future, we shouldn’t complain because we can’t guarantee their tomorrow. Our athletes arrive at international events on the opening day of the competition and they are tired. Is that right?
What sort of a sports minister do you think President Muhammadu Buhari should bring in, when he’s sworn in for a second term?
I don’t think we’ve made progress in the area of sports. There’s more to sports than just football but the focus of the sports ministry in recent times has been on football. Where is our basketball, athletics and other sports? I pity the President of the Nigeria Wrestling Federation (Daniel Igali). Anytime he has an international event, you’ll find him on national television crying for funds. And this is a sport doing so well internationally. Where are the funds budgeted by the sports ministry? We need a sports ministry that should create the right environment for sports to thrive. Most of the retired athletes are suffering, some have been diagnosed with various diseases but there’s no medical team to help them from the ministry or anywhere else. So, when Buhari reorganises his cabinet, I want him to look at the sports world, make changes and reorganise the sports ministry. Sports is big business that the government can benefit from. The President should ensure that someone who knows about sports, someone who can bring about mass restructuring, stability and prosperity to that department. That would put us on the global map once again. Sports has so much to offer; it can change the lives of the younger generation. Buhari’s administration can’t do everything but they can bring in people to turn around the sector. We shouldn’t just concentrate on football alone. There are other areas we can use to bring glory to the country.
Again, there’s a general belief that sportsmen and women lack educational qualifications, thus they are excluded from sports administration. Do you agree?
That’s total rubbish; nonsense. How educated are those in FIFA? In Nigeria, is it every politician that went to school? Some can’t even write their names. But it’s only in my country that those in positions use demonic criteria to keep people away. In other countries, if you are competent for the job, they will give it to you. We’ve got lots of ex-footballers who are graduates, lawyers, doctorate degree holders these days. Where are they? Some are doing very well in their various fields. I have been involved in the political system and things like this discouraged me from it. If it means I have to be a cultist to get a position, I’m not ready for that. I’ll prefer to drink my garri at home and be free with God. At the time I was in politics, a running mate to a governorship aspirant in my state (Rivers), brought me money and told me to join their cult. He told me if I wanted power, they would give me position, and that if I wanted money, I would be given. But he insisted that I must be involved in their cultism activities. So, I disassociated myself from them. From that day, I made up my mind that I will drink my garri, rather than become a cultist. Like I said earlier, I’ve met politicians who can’t speak good English but because they have godfathers and belong to various cults, they’ve been empowered. It’s total rubbish. I’m not afraid to say what needs to be said.
Is this the reason why you are not in Rivers to help discover and groom young footballers for the state?
I’ve made myself available for Rivers State for so many years. But if you are not their member, they won’t give you anything to do; they won’t involve you. You have to belong to a caucus, it’s at all levels. I have personal experiences, so I know. Nobody will look at you if you are not involved. They know that someone like me will disturb their activities, so they won’t get me involved. I’m the only big name in sports in my state that they don’t call for anything. So, it’s painful but hopefully, someday this will end.
What do you think the future holds for the current Nigerian footballers when they retire?
I think the young footballers are getting wiser. They understand that on retirement, or when they get injured playing for the national teams, nobody will look after them. So, when they get contracts abroad, they try to invest over there. Look at South American footballers for instance, they don’t invest in Europe. They return back home to invest because they have the right environment there and their countries give them roles to play when they retire. We are praying that there would be a transformation, that someone who knows and understands sports development, who knows about how sports can be a source of massive revenue generation for the country, and that there can be return on profit if we invest in sports, would be given the opportunity to run the sports sector.
What do you think is missing in the Nigerian league?
I think in the area of officiating and pitches, there are little changes. But the critical part is that the contracts of the footballers have never been respected. There’s so much complexity in how the league is being run, that’s why nobody is investing in it any longer. The fans prefer to sit at home and watch European leagues, rather than going to watch local league games at the stadiums. The clubs need to be more professional, I know some of them are trying. I see clubs buying good buses for their players but it goes beyond just that. They need to respect the contracts of players and coaches, they should educate the fans, because there is so much hooliganism in Nigerian football. Teams who play away from home are usually not secured, because they are afraid they may be beaten up if they score or win. There are also allegations about home teams being favoured by the referees. These are critical areas that need to be looked into. When I played for Enugu Rangers and we had an away match against Stores or 3SC for 4pm, the stadium would be filled up by 10am. You won’t find a single space; we didn’t have bias officiating as you see know. Any team could win anywhere. We need to involve stakeholders, who can invest in the game so that money can flow in the system. We can’t keep relying on government to do everything. Have you heard of government interference in football in Europe? Have you heard of government managing my ex-club Inter Milan or Barcelona? It’s the big companies that understand that football is big business that invest in these clubs. That’s why the game is thriving over there. There is the League Management Company led by Shehu Dikko administering the league. They have done well but they need to involve those who know the game. I pray that the future of Nigerian sports will change for the better.