FIFA PRESIDENCY: INTERNAL POLITICS THAT CAUSED NIGERIA A CHANCE

At a time FIFA president was supposed to come from Africa especially to Nigeria given that Africa was the next after Europe (which has produced eight presidents since the establishment of FIFA in 1904) in six regional grouped confederations namely, Europe, Africa, Asia, Oceania, South America and North and Central America, Odimegwu Onwumere writes that the continent blew the opportunity due to perceived years of acrimony that exist among the football stakeholders and groups on the continent

All eyes were on Africa in 2015 to produce the president of the International Federation of Association Football otherwise known as FIFA in February 2016. The move was to replace Sepp Blatter who ruled the football governing body from 1998-2015.

Analysts believed that the president of FIFA position was lopsided; it favoured Europe than any continent in the world whereas from 1904 the body was founded and headquartered in Zurich with national associations as members, there were six regional grouped confederations namely, Europe, Africa, Asia, Oceania, South America and North and Central America and the Caribbean, but Europe dominated the position.

Checks revealed that eight presidents that have ruled FIFA came from Europe except Havelange, who came from Brazil, South America. Others are Robert Guerin (1904-1906), Daniel Woolfull (1906-1918), Jules Rimet (1921-1954), Rodolphe Seeldrayers (1954-1955), Arthur Drewry (1955-1961), Stanley Rous (1961-1974), Joao Havelange (1974-1998) and Sepp Blatter (1998-2015). Many of those who hyped Africa should produce the FIFA president, looked up to Nigeria for that position.

But the clarion call came at a time when FIFA was battling corruption hypothetical to be in the areas of fraud and money laundering clamoured to be the highest in the history of FIFA. There were allegations on the neck of former representatives of FIFA concerning their involvement in the 2018 FIFA World Cup offer, which consumed Blatter and he resigned as FIFA president. Many believed that Nigeria was known globally to score low in Corruption Perception Index and might not be regarded by the world for the position. However, enthusiasts overlooked all that and bent on a former governor of Abia State, Dr. Orji Uzor Kalu, to vie for the FIFA presidency.

John Fashanu, a basket ball legend was among the early persons that fronted Kalu. Apart from Fashanu, a group like United Africa for Sports Development showed their interest in Kalu. The group even went further to induce the government of Muhammadu Buhari to support Kalu’s candidature. All of these happened without Kalu formally declaring his interest. However through one Mrs. Rubby Obinna, Kalu in a media statement described those calling on him to contest as great minds discussing great ideas. Correspondingly, a former captain of a national team, Segun Odegbami threw in his weight for the plum job and said in a statement through one Ade Adeagbo, Head Campaign Team of Odegbami, that he was able-bodied for the leadership of FIFA. Both Kalu and Odegbami had track records in the business of sports.

Beginning of problems

There was an emergency meeting of the executive committee of National Football Federation, NFF, held in Port-Harcourt on Monday, 7th September, 2015, at the Hotel Presidential. The NFF disclosed that there was enough room for anyone who wanted to declare his intention for the FIFA leadership, but should consult properly to avert denigration at the international level. The Nigerian football body gave point how two Nigerian football administrators lost elections at FIFA/CAF Executive Committees because they did not consult very well.

In that year, a Chairman of Media and Publicity of the NFF, Hon. Suleiman Yahaya-Kwande released a statement published on the NFF official website which further demanded that aspirants from Nigeria had to produce some documents that would show they were competent for the position. Such documents the NFF said that candidates should produce in order to be properly endorsed included:

  • Letter of endorsement from the relevant State Football Association.
  • Provision of evidence of fulfillment of the FIFA Presidential election eligibility provisions.
  • Endorsement by continental football governing body, CAF (the NFF can facilitate meetings with CAF top hierarchy).
  • Letter of support from the National Sports Commission.

But in a swift reaction, Odegbami rejected the NFF conditions. He wrote a strappingly worded letter regarded as a letter of protest directed to NFF President Amaju Pinnick. Odegbami threw tantrums at the leadership of the NFF describing the body as creating “obstacles” to his interest in lieu of being happy and proud to push his interest and application forward. In short, Odegbami called on the NFF leadership to be prepared to purge themselves of corruption when the “upcoming FIFA” emerged. The letter was copied to President Muhammadu Buhari; General Secretary, FIFA Zurich; President, CAF, Alhaji Issa Hayatou; and the media.

Media war

Odegbami’s letter threw him out of favour. When he noticed this, he resorted to media war to send his countenance across the world. He engaged the NFF and Kalu in persistent media war. On one occasion, Mrs. Obinna in a press statement extolled Kalu as Pillar of Sports in Africa but said that Odegbami, who was a former skipper of the Green Eagles, should leave Kalu out of his failure to get enough support for his bid to become the FIFA president.

Mrs. Obinna said this with a view that Odegbami hinged his failure on Kalu, apart from the NFF. Apart from his letter, Odegbami’s problem could have started when his name was missing on Monday, October 26, 2015, deadline for the submission of nomination form for candidates vying for the presidency of FIFA. An ex-FIFA executive committee member, Amos Adamu, who tremendously endorsed Kalu, shared in Odegbami’s affront, just as the President of the body, Amaju Pinnick was not left alone.

Odegbami who was also a former chairman of the National Institute for Sports (NIS) nearly went barmy for this reason as no day passed by without him appearing in the media to further his campaign of denigration against Kalu or any of the marked persons or groups he felt were behind his torment not to get the backing of other African countries in his quest to be elected FIFA boss. Conversely, indications emerged that Odegbami was incorrect with his claims against Kalu. Rather, he was just powerless to win the required backing of five member associations. But instead he would accept that his frail political standing and perceived sadistic nature were behind his failure, he rather claimed that the NFF did not give him the support that he needed.

Forecasters said that he was wrong as a report in The Nation, October 27 2015, said he was endorsed by the NFF to run for the FIFA presidency in February, but he could not muster nominations from five African soccer federations by Monday’s deadline to enable him stand for the FIFA elections. Odegbami spoke haphazardly that the NFF offered him its support too late to meet the deadline. Again, he blamed himself, saying, “That was their reaction to my letter sent to them two months ago. It is preposterous.”

The difficulty to come to term with Odegbami’s uncertain-statements was that the NFF he claimed was aloof gave him its support, at least. But he preferred to deny this fact and accepted it later or said that the support came very late. He exposed his boisterous self again and said that he had criticised de cream de la crème in the world of football. He started with his uncouth criticism of what he said was the “long-standing Confederation of African Football president Issa Hayatou.”

Odegbami who had a long rope for those he believed were behind his aborted FIFA presidential ambition without holding anybody or group liable said that his biased standing against Hayatou might have counted against him. “Of course there are local politics within the Nigerian and African football system that pitches some of us against the established system,” he accepted. “I have been one of the most virulent critics of the perpetuity in office of Issa Hayatou and I knew I was not one of his best friends.”

Some commentators believed that Odegbami would have been better known if he was a writer on football critiques rather than his venture into football politics. A football commentator who would not want the name in print had warned Odegbami to watch his words. The commentator said, “Odegbami should watch his words. It was a primary school mistake for him to have aspired to contest in the first place when he never did any homework on such post; or how many times did he work for FIFA before now, in any capacity? He could not have expected to get favour from the same people he had been fighting for years.”

While Odegbami claimed that a mountain of persons and groups fostered to his failure, the NFF warned him to stop his “campaign of calumny” against the federation and prominent Nigerian football figures, Premium Times, November 2 2015, reported. The source said, “It also asked the ex-footballer to face up to the reality that he undid his own campaign for a slot at the FIFA Presidency.” Adamu averred in a statement by his media aide, Gabriel Omonhinmin, on Thursday, October 29 2015, that it was not his duty as one of the executive members of CAF to help Odegbami secure the support of four other African countries after he was supposedly endorsed by the NFF for the top job. Adamu dismissed Odegbami’s allegation with a wave of hand and said it was a tissue of lies and cheap blackmail, stressing that such frivolous allegation was not to be expected from a man of Odegbami’s standing.

“It was absolutely the duty of Odegbami to go round other African countries to campaign and sell whatever programmes he had, that would improve not only the lot of Africa football but global football generally. If he has done this successfully, I am sure he would have gotten the support of four other African countries to contest the FIFA presidency as stipulated by FIFA’s status,” Adamu said.

The President of the NFF, Amaju Pinnick told journalists on October 28 2015, after an emergency committee meeting. According to Vanguard report of October 29 2015, “Pinnick said the NFF after getting the final government endorsement of Odegbami last Thursday forwarded same to him because he was the person that substantially complied with the laid down requirements needed for anybody to be presented as a candidate for the election slated to take place in February, 2016.”

Adding, Pinnick said as a federation the members were just to nominate, which they thought that Odegbami had gotten the other endorsements. “Ours was to be the icing on the cake and at a point he said all he needed was our nomination and we thought he had other nominations because he is a very popular person not just in Africa but beyond,” said Pinnick. “I did my best as president of NFF.”

For Yahaya-Kwande, “We are thoroughly disappointed at the conduct of Chief Odegbami since his failed bid. He was his own big problem, with the letter he wrote castigating the leadership of FIFA and CAF, which he brazenly copied to these eminent figures. We consider Chief Odegbami an elder statesman in Nigeria football, but he has been throwing a lot of tantrums lately. He has been accusing very prominent and illustrious persons of so many things, and imagining himself to be a saint.”

Then-again Yahaya-Kwande who’s said to be a member of the House of Representatives added, “The NFF is aware that Odegbami reached out to the Football Associations of Ghana, Togo, Benin Republic and Zambia. How is his failure the fault of the NFF? They told him to his face that they were opposed to him because of his statements against the President of CAF, who is now Acting FIFA President.”

Supposed reason Odegbami joined the FIFA race

Making Odegbami a liar of his claim, from some quarters emerged information that it was his gullibility and ‘let down’ on NFF and other personalities that marred his ambition; also he had a mentality that since Kalu is a Nigerian politician, he (Kalu) might not get the needed support from Nigerians who see their politicians not to live up to leadership expectations. But Odegbami misfired, because he did not know that Nigerians believed that Kalu had a clean bill as a politician.

According to a commentator, “Odegbami played a spoiler game. Immediately he heard about Orji Uzor Kalu’s interest to vie for FIFA presidency, he jumped out of his cave without a proper consultation. Now he is complaining. Why won’t he complain when he thought that he was clean than Orji Uzor Kalu. As if Odegbami was a saint while Orji Uzor Kalu was the devil, Odegbami was too judgmental against everybody and every institution of football.”

Yahaya-Kwande said, “Odegbami has this strange idea that everyone else is tainted and he is not! He worked against himself. It is not NFF’s problem; it is his problem, entirely.”

Presidency’s theoretical connection

It was observed that Odegbami’s outing had political colouration. Odegbami at a press briefing said, “I think the Nigerian government must call for an inquiry into the circumstance surrounding the whole episode because I believe we just wasted a rare opportunity for a Nigerian to take a shot at the FIFA presidency.”

But a source exploded, saying, “Odegbami was endorsed secretly by the President of Nigeria through the All Progressives Congress, APC, leaders who were majorly his kiths and kin, thinking that he could play the politics of FIFA without considering whether he had what obtains to march other contestants. Odegbami choose to interrupt when Nigerians could have queued behind Kalu who, at least, had huge connection all over the world and, the money as well.”

According to pointers made by Yahaya-Kwande, Nigeria was the only country where more than one person showed interest in the race; it’s also true that Kalu ‘indicated’ his interest before Odegbami did. Yet, the authorities eventually endorsed Odegbami. But in ThisDay, October 28 2015 edition, “Odegbami said his quest to vie for the coveted position of FIFA’s topmost position was doomed to fail from the start as the lofty intention was treated with disbelief.”

Adamu challenged Odegbami to name the people who treated his ambition with disbelief, or those who sabotaged his bid right from the word go. He asked Odegbami that if he was serious, why was he not in Cairo, Egypt for the CAF meeting to personally lobby the African countries he thought were favourably disposed to supporting his ambition? “He said the ex-international’s claim that Mr. Pinnick, who was in Cairo, Egypt, promised to use his weight to get the required five endorsements, was laughable and childish,” reported the source.

Accepting his lies

Odegbami later made frantic effort to accept as lies his claims that some persons and groups were behind his aborted FIFA presidency aspiration. In ThisDay, October 28 2015, Odegbami said he did not want to say that the process was sabotaged from the word go but that’s the truth staring the world in their faces. He also said that he thought his candidature was shrouded in disbelief with some people asking, “Why him, he cannot win, he is wasting our time, among other insinuations.”

But by then Kalu did not meet the Monday, October 26 deadline for the submission of FIFA presidency bid. In a statement signed by his Adviser, Kunle Oyewumi, Kalu commended football stakeholders across the world who supported him despite not making an official bid.

His words, “I feel humbled and honoured with the widespread call for me to vie for the position of FIFA president. I sincerely appreciate the show of love and support demonstrated by African countries of endorsements despite my decision not to submit a bid.

“I particularly remain grateful to FIFA President, Sepp Blatter and his team for personally acknowledging my capability to take the world football body to enviable heights.”

Kalu in the statement revealed that he decided to focus his attention and resources on his business and humanitarian activities due to the economic challenges in Nigeria. Odegbami also failed in his FIFA presidential bid as he couldn’t get the five required backing after the support from the NFF supposedly came too late. Accepting his wrong soundtrack Odegbami said, “I think the whole exercise is all about bad blood, I did it. Nobody asked me to do it. It just occurred to me that throughout the whole exercise nobody knew what the rules say about vying for the office of FIFA president, which is not more than get five endorsements and your federation’s backing.” He concluded, “Right now it’s over for me, it’s a personal thing. I started the race. Nigeria did not start the race for me. I took full responsibility for everything.”

 

Odimegwu Onwumere is a Poet, Writer and Media Consultant based in Rivers State. Email: apoet_25@yahoo.com

 

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