Basketball And Football – In The Woods By Segun Odegbami

There have been two very significant developments in Nigerian sports this past week. The first is that November 30, 2017 came and went and the world did not end! The second is that Nigeria escaped by a hair’s breadth what would have definitely become the worst possible scandal in the country’s football history. Let us take a look at the first situation.

The impression was given that if nothing were done by November 30 to resolve the crisis in the basketball federation in favour of the position of the National Sports Commission and the Nigerian Olympic Committee (NOC) that openly supported one faction of the two feuding boards of the Nigerian Basketball Federation (NBBF) the country would be banned from international basketball.

So, from August to November 30, everyone was walking on tinder wood. The government-supported faction took control of the country’s basketball and acted as if the three months would not come to an end. Somehow they acted as if they would continue to rule even if the issues that created the crisis were not resolved because, typically, no one takes on government and wins.

But not so this time. The matter was not resolved. The other faction that was more in control of the major stakeholders (the clubs), determined to follow the matter through to a logical and legal conclusion based on the fundamental principle that sports federations are independent private bodies that must not be directly influenced by third parties (including government), stood their ground and waited patiently.The NOC, saddled by FIBA with the responsibility to intervene and resolve the matter, could not do so successfully because they had been complicit in the matter from the start and could not now become neutral arbiters. What followed was ‘the silence of the graveyard’. A very small matter became a monster.

This week FIBA returned in the form of a letter to the federation. The international body would send a three-man delegation to the country to conduct their own findings and report back to it by March 10, 2018. The initial administrative mandate was extended.The facts of the matter have been so simple and straightforward that I am amazed an entire NOC, custodians of the ethics of sports, and a body whose mantra is conflict resolution and promotion of peace could not observe the simple fair play rule and resolve the matter amicably.

The reason for their failure is simple: They took sides and got involved in the internal affair of a federation, an anathema to the Olympic charter. Now, the matter has been taken off the hands of Nigeria. It will be determined by FIBA and everyone would have to face the reality that the matter had been very simple all the time.
The two elections were pronounced flawed. New elections will be conducted using new guidelines that will be extracted from a constitution of the federation that shall be ratified by the general assembly of basketball stakeholders. It will not be the Ministry’s or NOC’s constitution.

A neutral person or institution shall supervise the new election with everybody eligible to contest freely and fairly participating without government’s direct interference.A new board leadership will emerge and this entire crisis will be over. This is what the NOC should have done very easily, but could not do for the reasons I have stated earlier.

Mark my words; by March 10, 2018 the present crisis shall ‘have a head’ as Nigerians would say when a seemingly knotty issue becomes very clear. The good thing about this whole development in basketball is its eventual impact on all other sports federations when this matter is finally settled.It will clear the air on several knotty issues, including the level of government involvement in the administration of federations, and the consequence of government’s direct involvement in the internal affairs of federations particularly where government funds international competitions!So, February is just around the corner. The country can afford to wait two more months for all this to be cleared, finally.

The NFF Near Miss
The second matter is a more serious one. Let me take us back a few decades. Nigeria did not go to the 1978 World Cup in Argentina as a result of one slip, a player attempting to clear the ball with his head but, instead, the ball grazed the side of his head and was deflected away from his own goalkeeper into his own goal. 40 years after that slip Godwin Odiye’s name is now a synonym for a person that prevents his country from going to the World Cup!

Seven years ago, in South Africa, the Eagles needed a victory to get to the second round of the 2010 World Cup. There was only one meter between him and a yawning goal (the goalkeeper was already sprawling helplessly on the ground), when the ball was passed to him right in the middle of the goal. It was going to be the easiest goal ever scored and would have taken Nigeria to the second round. Then the unthinkable happened. Yakubu Aiyegbeni’s shin mis-hit the ball and it went back across the face of goal and out of play for what is considered one of the worst misses of the World Cup.

With that singular miss, Nigeria did not qualify for the second round. The price was Yakubu’s last match for the country. ‘Little’ things produce giant effects for good or for bad.Now this.

With one match to the end of the World Cup qualifying matches, Nigeria had qualified for the World Cup already. Then the Super Eagles went on to play their last match with an ineligible player who already had two yellow cards from previous matches. It was a simple rule.

FIFA came calling last week. Nigeria would forfeit the entire match and forfeit the three points for the match. Nigeria must be the luckiest country in the world going to the 2018 World Cup. At any other time in the history of Nigeria and qualifying for the World Cup, nail-biting experiences up till the last matches, Nigeria would have waved good-bye to their qualification!

The entire country would by now be wailing, livelihoods would have been lost, some lives may be lost, the economy would be badly hit, whole businesses that depend on this four yearly qualification ritual to sustain them, and the millions of Nigerians they would impact, would also have been lost. The country would have been put to global shame and careers would have been truncated that would affect generations to come.All of that as a result of a ‘little sin’, a moment of administrative laxity, ignorance, distraction or carelessness.

‘Little’ incidents had happened in the past with devastating effect on the country and repercussions for the football leadership. Somebody once forgot to carry the playing shorts of the team to a match.The match was held up for a long time and the federation had to improvise by cutting tracksuit bottoms to shorts.On two other occasions the country was banned from participation in grade age competitions because officials carelessly recorded different ages for the same players in competitions.There are a few other examples of such shameful laxities.

Whilst one is not advocating for any drastic action be taken against the leadership of the NFF, but for the association to give itself two weeks to investigate itself, is applying kid gloves to a very serious matter. Would these investigations have been called, and would the NFF have granted itself two weeks of a break had Nigeria suffered disqualification and failed to make the World Cup?

The matter should be treated as if Nigeria had missed going to the World Cup. It is as serious as that. That way it will be clear that the leadership is not looking for scapegoats to take the can for the failure of an entire federation!

In sports it is the ‘little’ things, the micro-seconds, the millimetres, the split seconds, the momentary state of mind, the slight distraction, the close shaves, the near misses, the instinctive actions, that make the ‘big’ difference between winning and losing matches, and between qualifying and not qualifying for a major competition.

Nigeria could very easily have been stranded now on the tarmac of qualification as a result of one person’s dereliction of duty, lack of proper supervision, ignorance, inexperience, or just a distraction from the little details.This is where an intervention should have happened at a higher level. Instead the silence from the government, from the National Sports Commission, has been deafening!