To what extent are local football associations determining results by successive pay-dispute rows?
Local football associations are the seedbeds for continental talent. Before we meet players at large tournaments like the Africa Cup of Nations and FIFA World Cup, the conditions that they are subjected to while within their localities actually determine their overall performance. Over the years, several teams have had pay disputes with their national associations. They have refused to board planes and have even threatened to boycott some matches without getting their pay. This article wants to dig deeper into this problem by analysing some of the underlying issues and what the implications of pay disputes are on African football. Before that, we will take a quick look at some countries that have fallen victim to this problem.
Cameroon came 24 hours after the deadline because the Cameroonian Football Federation had delayed to pay their salaries and bonuses. This is in spite of the fact that the tournament regulation stipulates that teams should arrive at the host country at least 5 days before their opening game. In light of that, Cameroon might have to pay a fine for that. Is that irresponsibility? Definitely, not. The team refused to board a plane to Egypt because they demanded their salaries to be doubled for playing in the tournament. This was one of the players’ last technic. They had agreed to only 25% on their salaries and bonuses and even paid for their plane tickets to training camps which were held in Madrid and Doha. Such sacrifices are a testament of how much the players are willing to do for their country if only that would be complemented by efforts from the government.
Nigeria almost missed their 2013 FIFA Confederation Cup campaign after they also refused to fly out of Nigeria without their bonuses being paid. The most daring one and my personal favourite was that of the Super Falcons who decided to stay in their hotels in France and not fly out unless their bonuses are paid. In 2016, they also protested after they won the African Women’s Cup of Nations. It is very hard to understand how a team that has demonstrated consistent excellence is not paid on time. There are countries that would kill to have teams that play like the Nigerian Women’s national team.
Zimbabwe national team did go on the plane but refused to go for training while they were in Egypt as a way to express their grievances against the Zimbabwe Football Federation. They too had not been paid for some time. They also threatened to miss their first game if their accounts were not credited on time. Despite having a talented squad that looked quite promising, the Warriors were eventually eliminated from the group stages.
Where is the problem?
For countries like Nigeria whose players have continuously done this to prove that this is not a one-time off problem but a challenge that is deeply engraved in the system, problems such as corruption and mismanagement of funds have been cited as some of the major causes for these pay disputes. Even when the money leaves the government coffers intended for the soccer players, for some reason it finds itself in the pockets of government officials who have perhaps not kicked a ball in decades. Corruption is such a rampant problem that has stifled many sectors of African governments. The bigger problem is that some African countries do not generally prioritise sports so much they are not given adequate funding. Private companies come in to sponsor local soccer leagues with the hope that the government will come in to take care of the national team. For example, in South Africa there is the ABSA Premiership and the MTN Super 8 which are sponsored by private companies. Instead, the government will give excuses about more pressing problems that need to be taken care of in the country. What makes things even worse is that some federations would not proactively communicate their challenges ahead of time. Sometimes, well-communicated disappointment is better than unkept promises. Some governments will go all the way to signing contracts with players only to go silent on them when it is time to pay. For example, Cameroon had a presidential decree in 2014 that stipulated that all salaries and bonuses will be paid at the commencement of any tournament. Was it ever upheld though? We told that story already.
Setting a precedent
Under no circumstances is it ever justifiable for anybody to work with no compensation, but why is it important for governments to set the right precedent for national teams? Firstly, the amount of effort it takes to get into the national team just deserves the rightful amount of compensation. Most of the players that make it to the national teams are their local teams’ star players and some have become so good that they have been outsourced by teams outside of their countries. The saturation of unquestionable talent in most national teams across Africa should prompt governments to do the right thing.
Sports has become the escape route from social ills for most African youths. In a continent with high unemployment rates and pressure to engage in crime and corruption, sports is the unifying factor for young people that helps them evade these things. Beyond the fitness benefits that soccer comes with, it is also a sport that requires dedication, discipline and focus. Playing at the highest level of this taxing soccer journey should be rewarded profusely so that other young people can be motivated to continue working hard. If you cannot give African youth jobs, then at least give them the motivation to work hard on something.
Impact on performances
We have already established that the ability to win a game is not just determined by the talent and skills displayed on the field. It is also determined by the players’ emotional and mental wellbeing. Compensation gives one the motivation and aspiration to do more. In the absence of that, the opposite can also be true. It is not a shock that Cameroon went into AFCON 2019 as champions but barely made it far in the tournament. They were eliminated by Nigeria at the round-of-16 stage.
It also destroys team morale. By the time a whole team has agreed to boycott a game, it means the individual frustration that comes with being unpaid has mounted to a team level. Imagine how a group of frustrated players are supposed to train together, take each other’s mistakes and say their chants with high voices and joy. It is almost impossible. There is only so much that a good coach can do for them when they are not intrinsically motivated.
Before we blame players for not being focused or not training hard enough, it is important that we look at issues such as pay disputes that affect how much they can bring to the field. It has also transpired that the problem is with internal systems that do not prioritise or facilitate the timely payment for the players. Sadly, national teams which are meant to be countries’ pride are then not able to perform to their best levels due to factors that could be avoided. The lack of transparency also does not make it any better.
With all that said, do you think teams are actually justified in boycotting matches and tournaments in order to get the attention of their governments?