The four-year tenure of the Amaju Pinnick-led board of the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) elected on September 30, 2014 in Warri, Delta State will run to a close next week. Already, fresh elections have been scheduled to hold on Thursday in Katsina, with most members of the outgoing executive committee seeking fresh mandates to return for another four years in charge of the Beautiful Game in the country.
Just before Pinnick left Nigeria on Tuesday afternoon for Accra as leader of the FIFA/CAF delegation to put in place a Normalisation Committee to run Ghana’s football, the 1st Vice President of the Confederation of African Football, took time to speak with DURO IKHAZUAGBE on his stewardship in the past four years, his achievements and challenges. He also spoke of his desire to accomplish the mission of making Nigerian football become self-reliant. Excerpt….
Can you give us a run down of the achievements of your board and why you think you deserve another term at the Glass House in Abuja?
I want to say that from the very beginning, we had a vision of where we are taking Nigerian football to. Our vision was built on youth development, sustainable football culture and capacity building. We actually started with capacity building because we realised that it was the foundation on which every other things we planned to achieve will be placed upon. Anything built on a faulty foundation was not going to stand. I gave myself the mandate to ensure that in eight years from my first day in office, a Nigerian referee should be qualified to officiate at the World Cup. Nigeria is too big and important in football not to have her officials referring at the summit of the game or in the global scene. At that point, we then decided to take about 40 Nigerian referees to England for training. And on their return, they started getting invitations for big matches globally. That was the first thing we did. We also took coaches for training. Two of the coaches we took on that capacity building programme, Florence Omagbemi and Anne Chiejene won the African Women’s Nations Cup. That was a direct impact of the programme. Then again, we took administrators for similar capacity building for them to really know how to handle football development at the grassroots level. They all went to England for the training. Today, if you look at the Congress of the NFF there is now quality unlike before when ethnicity and ‘who you know’ was all that you need to be part of that August assembly. What is on the mind of these people now is football development. That is what informed the need to take these critical stakeholders in the country’s football on the capacity building programme to England. Those were the first three things we did on coming on board.
And of course because we wanted a self sustaining NFF, we went about getting key players in the Nigerian economy to come under one roof to rub minds on how they can be of assistance in the new vision we have for Nigeria football. But unfortunately, the very day we scheduled for that event at the highbrow Eko Hotel in Lagos, a court process stopped us from achieving that but a few companies like Zenith Bank, Emzor, Taleveras and several others that made it to the venue, gave us sponsorship to kick start this vision of self reliance. I am 100 per cent sure that if that event had took place as planned by now NFF would have become self-sustaining by now. We used our contacts extensively to let them know why football should be liberated from government in terms of funding. Government controls football by providing enabling environment like security and facilities but securing funding from the private sector would have reduced dependence on government all the time.
In this last four years, we also looked at the professional league and strengthened it with the creation of the League Management Company. Some of the reforms carried out returned the NPFL to amongst the best leagues in Africa today. Board room points became a thing of the past, teams went to play away matches without fears of harassment from the home team fans, and above all, a place like Maiduguri that has been starved of league matches due to the insurgency in that part of the country began to see their darling team El Kanemi play home matches at home. We entered into partnership with airlines flying teams to play there. Security agencies gave back up. It drew wide plaudits from home and abroad that even BBC reported the first match there.
How did you achieve all these with some of the key sponsors pulling out of their deals with NFF at the inception of your administration?
I must confess, it was difficult for us. We had some of the key sponsors we inherited pulling out due to certain things that happened before we took charge. First was Adidas. We didn’t know why. We made countless trips to their headquarters with no result. They didn’t tell why. At that point Nigeria was supposed to be a beautiful bride having just on the AFCON 2013 and qualified for the World Cup in Brazil amongst other successes recorded by the previous board. Why did they pull out? They didn’t tell but we later realised why. We cannot put them in public space now due to what transpired. But it was most unfortunate that the former administrators allowed that to happen. It was a big minus for the NFF. The first day that I signed a document to purchase jerseys for Nigeria, I wept. It touched me that a football-playing nation like Nigeria with almost 200 million people, we are buying jerseys instead of enjoying sponsorship from any of the major sportswear companies as it were in time past. It was at that point that we went all out and didn’t just get any brand but NIKE. When we got NIKE there was no money attached to the contract. But if you look at what was coming to the federation as kits and equipment as well as bonuses, we believe it was good enough. We knew it was very difficult for NIKE to return to Nigeria but we were going to get them renegotiate at the expiration of the contract without cash. Today, NIKE is very happy with Nigeria. They have conducted an integrity test on the NFF and it’s leadership and are satisfied with the result. Now, they have made an offer to us and we are studying it. Our Marketing Committee is studying it and will make its report to the executive committee. We will then tell Nigerians what they are offering us and why they are offering it. What they are proposing is an eight-year tenure contract with the NFF. Part of what we are requesting from them is to have their factory in our export free trade zone in Nigeria where they will be producing NIKE products. Most of the NIKE products are not produced in the USA. They are produced in their satellite factories in Indonesia under their standards. Indonesia is not better than Nigeria. We have the labour force here too. If that happens, you just imagine the value chain and what Nigeria stands to benefit. From production to marketing and other ancillary benefits, it’s going to be huge for us. We would have succeeded in impacting the Nigerian economy with that singular contract. That is our dream of making football an integral part of the economy.
If you recall what happened in England in the early 1990s, the English government gave a seed money of £200million as loan to upgrade their stadia and facilities. Today, the English government gets over a £1billion or more in taxes from football. Take for instance, if the English Premier League’s grosses £6billion a year, 30 to 40per cent of that money goes to government as taxes. That is what we are aiming to do with football in Nigeria. It is a clear vision and we are on course to making that happen here also. But to achieve that, the government needs to create the enabling environment to make that possible. I want to specially thank President Muhamadu Buhari for saving Nigerian football at the point he did through Vice President Yemi Osinbajo. His intervention saved over 60 million Nigerian youths. Football is more than a passion here in Nigeria. The ripple effect of what would have happen if the President didn’t intervene would have been left imagined. We are not where we want to take Nigerian football yet but we believe we can take our football to become self-sustaining. We are 65 to 70 per cent of where we are going. As I speak to you now, there are four deals on the table. If we are able to conclude those deals, I can tell you that in the next one and half years we can tell government, “Thank you for funding football, we can now stand on our own and fund all our football activities.”
You came in at a time things were really tough for the NFF, how difficult was it convincing Corporate Nigeria to partner the federation with you in charge?
It was very tough I must tell you. To Corporate Nigeria the NFF was a filthy place. There are certain things that we know as leaders that we cannot come out to speak about here. There were so many things that we should rather not talk about here now. For us to be able to make them look in our direction as a new board, we went ahead to get international consultants to make us look good in the new mission to rebrand the NFF. That was why we went for Financial Derivatives as our financial consultants, PwC as our auditors and Baines & Company as our management consultants. So if we were going to negotiate a deal and introduce Bismarck Rewane as our financial consultants and Uyi Akpata from PwC as our auditors, people began to look at us differently that something new was happening in NFF. That became our MO (Modus of Operation). At that point, we started attracting sponsors who believed their investments were safe with our NFF. These people agreed to partner us because they know the background of members of our board and where we are coming from. The level of trust became appreciative to the point of doing business with us. I must confess the recent court crisis almost dented all that gain made until the Presidency intervention. The last three weeks have been good to enable us conclude some of the Programmes we have on the table. When people say yes, we collected this or that, we have no problem with that as all. Our deals are open for scrutiny. Our partnership with AITEO is N1.2 billion a year. It is captured in our budget. It is for the AITEO Cup, payment of salaries of coaches and the AITEO/NFF Award. We also have our Football Houses. The essence of building these football houses is for us to have good grassroots football administration. After training them in England, they need offices to operate. Normally, they operate from one cubicle or room in the ministry of youth and sport. We want them to have places to operate from and key into FIFA Connect programme. Once you are connected any player discovered at that level is entered into the database of the system. This ensures that such a player can no longer change his or her name and age. There is a record of him or her to whelp avoid situations of age cheating in our football. Such moves strengthen us and makes for integrity checks possible. We have six of such houses waiting to be commissioned. In the next 12 months, six more are going to be commissioned around the country. AITEO is sponsorship all these. In the next two years, we want to have football houses all over the country. After that, we will have to pitches per state. Nigerian kids love to play football. They don’t care whether you lived in Ikoyi or Ajegunle. Everybody just want to play football.
Given all these you have elucidated how do we then describe the youth programme of the Pinnick-led NFF board?
I need to give kudos to my NFF 1st Vice President Seyi Akinwunmi. He has been exceptionally bright in that area. He’s the chairman of our Youth Committee as well a member of CAF youth development committee. When people say we did not qualify for the last AFCON Under-17 I am not bothered because we went to the competition with players who are truly under-17. The essence of these cadet competitions is developmental not an end. Now we are doing the right things. Nigeria has won the Under-17 five times at the world level but what has it achieved for us at the intermediate and the senior levels? Look at the ongoing Zonal qualifiers in Niger Republic, only two of our boys are said not to be within the age bracket. Benin Republic lost 10 players to cheating. We don’t want to belong to such groups any more. Even our two players disqualified will be found to be within the age limit if they are retested. They will pass because they passed through our youth system sponsored by Zenith Bank. It is called the Next Eagles Challenge. We are starting the programme immediately after the elections. Our priority is getting the right players who will naturally transmit from the junior to the intermediate and the senior category.
Is there really a synergy between the NFF, ministry of education and the schools to ensure that we return to the collegiate system that produced the bulk of past national team players?
The boys in our youth development projects are not picked from the streets. They are picked from schools. Now, we start our Programmes from the states. We ensure that our tournaments fall within the school calendar period which explains why we have not started now until the schools are in session. It is different from those days of academical that begins from local government to state and national. Now we pick the best of our system and call them the next Eagles. We have been working with the schools but it has not been easy as we have to tailor our Programmes in line with their calendar and curricula. Of course, we are not all knowing. We are open to suggestions on how to make it purely an academical.
What would you consider your greatest achievements for the senior national team, the Super Eagles?
Our biggest gain is building a virile, young team almost from scratch. As our biggest brand, we are talking of a sustainable Super Eagles. I must admit that it is still work in progress. We are seeing a youthful, disciplined and dedicated Eagles. It is a major plus for us. We are not just going to be counting what we have won within the period. We are not in competition with any previous board because football evolves and is dynamic. If you look at what happened recently, who will never believe that Madagascar will play draw with Senegal with all their star footballers? Football has gone beyond what anyone thinks. Nobody is sitting and waiting to be rolled over by so-called football powers. Not any more. What you achieve four years ago is different from what can happen now or tomorrow. Of course we can talk about the Rio Olympic medal, the Under-20, Under-17 World Cup, Falcons AWC etc. But the Super Eagles remain the top brand as it remains our benchmark in negotiating with sponsors. We have got a world-class coach. We are also not resting as we combed around the world for Nigerians born overseas to come play for us if they are good enough. If England can make our son Dele Alli to play for the Three Lions, we must be proactive not to allow others snatch from us those good enough for Eagles. That however doesn’t mean we are ignoring quality players from our domestic league in getting into Eagles. We saw what they did against Atletico Madrid during the friendly before the World Cup in Russia. If we get the mandate to continue for another four years, Nigeria will become a power both in the game and in the administration in the continent and at the global level.
What will you attribute to responsible for why Super Eagles failed to qualify for AFCON 2015 and 2017 back-to-back?
Government all over the world is a continuum and I will not put the blame of why the Super Eagles failed to qualify for the AFCON 2015 on the previous board. If you will recall, when I took over the NFF, Nigeria had only one point from a possible six points. Our first game was a difficult one as we played away to Congo Brazzaville. We however won that game. All we then needed to do to qualify was beat South Africa. I recall, God bless his soul, Stephen Keshi, warning all the big names in our Eagles to go into their rooms to rest before the game as it was a big one for Nigeria. But they insisted that they were professionals and that nobody should dictate to them like kids. They sneaked to indulge in things not for this public space. The result was that early in the clash with Bafana Bafana, Eagles concede two goals. It was quite regrettable. We did our best but it was not good enough to see us through. In the qualifiers for the AFCON 2017, we were unfortunate to be grouped with Egypt who were also hungry to be at the AFCON having missed three editions after winning back to back three times. They had a new coach, Hector Cupper who wanted to make a statement with the AFCON. I believe that Nigeria had the capacity to make it along with Egypt but just as we were thinking of seizing the momentum, Chad pulled out of the competition leaving CAF with no option than to deduct points of matches they played. That decision left us in the cold. But now we have learnt our lesson. We now have a very disciplined team with a coach who does not tolerate nonsense from any player. We have put everything Eagles’ need at their disposal and believe strongly that Nigeria will qualify for the AFCON 2019. We have lined up friendly games for the coaches to have opportunities of looking at other players in order to have stand bye and those who are good to step in when the preferred are not available.
But the women’s team, the Super Falcons, has not enjoyed the same benefits as the Super Eagles. Why that?
Like I said earlier, the Super Eagles is our best brand and that is what Corporate Sponsors discuss in negotiating a contract. They watch the players play for their clubs in Europe and elsewhere every now and then. It is Eagles they want and not the Falcons. It is regrettable but that is the reality we are faced with when dealing with sponsors. But we have now hired a top-notch coach to be in charge of the Falcons. There is no doubt that the Falcons is the most successful male or female team in Africa. They have won the Nations Cup nine times and have played countless times in the Women’s World Cup since inception in 1991. We remain hopeful that success for Falcons at the world stage will bring sponsors to the team.
Don’t you think the non-passage of the NFF bill into law in the National Assembly could work against some of the laudable projects you have outlined to make the federation self reliant?
We have done all that we need to do to get the bill passed. We have interfaced with the National Assembly and let them know the delay in passing the bill for the President to assent it into law was doing to the business of football in the country. They have passed it at both houses. They need less than 15 minutes to get it concurrent and pass it to the President for assent. This was part of what we told the Vice President when he was acting during President Buhari’s vacation. We want the Presidency to press it upon the House the need to finish its work for the bill to be signed into law. Trust me, if we have the enabling environment in place, Nigerian football will not go to government for funding in the next one and half years from now unless in very rare case for intervention. This liberation is the first thing the NFF needs to become self-reliant.
Your thrust into continental and global bodies came to some like a shock. You are CAF 1st Vice President, head of the AFCON Committee as well as member of an important Committee in FIFA. Is there a movement involved in all these?
First, I will like to thank the President of the country for giving me the opportunity to serve because if he did not, I will not be where I am today in both CAF and FIFA. However, I must say here that there are very few people who have been accepted to play vital roles in the global space. I also believe that some of Nigerians who have been called to serve should enjoy some form of protection from home. Very few Nigerians have been accepted into the global space when it comes to sports matters. With all modesty, I want to say yours sincerely is one of such. Engr. Habu Gummel is another Nigerian who has risen in that sphere. It is not easy to get there. When I got to CAF I looked around and discovered that there was no Nigerian in sight in terms of administration and decision-making. That was what spurred me to say no, Nigeria is too big to be playing back bench roles in football administration in Africa. I let my colleagues know that in Nigeria the first love is football, the second love is football while the third love is also football. We are a 100 per cent football-playing nation and so ought to have some of our people in right positions in the administration of the game. I let them know that Nigeria is one of the very few countries in the world that have participated in all FIFA competitions. I preach Nigeria and Nigerian football to them. I let them know what will be missing when Nigeria did not qualify for any competition. With this my strong Nigerianess, I started getting attention from my colleagues and today, as they say, the rest is history.
My happiness today is that we are now having Nigerians coming into CAF administration. We have a Nigerian as Director of Organisation in CAF, Nasir has just been appointed as a General Coordinator. Our target is to within the next four years get him to FIFA as a general coordinator. Nigeria is a big country and important in football. We need to rally round those in those positions in CAF and FIFA. If for instance something happens and such Nigerians get pull down, it is not another Nigeria that will take the position. It will go to another country and Nigeria will be loser after all. These positions help one way or the other. Take for instance, if I was not in CAF I will not be able to direct the Libyan federation to order their coach to apologise when he made snide remarks about our country.
Elections into the NFF board are scheduled for next Thursday in Katsina. Why do you want a fresh mandate?
Like I said earlier, my board has achieve close to 65 per cent of the dream to make the NFF self-reliant. I need another tenure to complete the job we have started. I want to say that it will be difficult for whoever comes in if I don’t get re-elected to continue where we have reached now. There is going to be a lot of apprehension between who takes over and the sponsors because of the confidence they have built on my board. I relate with them because of the trust they have in my capacity and the structure we have put in place for probity. Getting such trust from the corporate players in the Nigerian economy does not just happen over night. We have developed a synergy that makes the sponsors not doubt what we are doing. They are involved in all that we are doing. Take for instance, we are taking three of our sponsors to the next FIFA Best Award for them to see how things are done fit and proper. I requested these special invites for them to be in the centre of how FIFA run their events. So, I think we need to be reelected to continue the transformation we are bringing to Nigerian football in terms of vision, youth development and the drive to be self-reliant. It was a difficult call for me to want to come back because of some of the things that have transpired since I was elected in 2014. There where times that I ask myself why go through all these stress? I feel like throwing in the towel but that would amount to betraying members of my board who believe we are doing the best thing for Nigeria football and should not jump ship now.
I have a young family and I know the denials they have been made to go through because of my NFF position. Serving Nigerian football is because of the passion I have for the game. Nothing more. Like all good things, beautiful roses come through thorns. Nothing good comes easy.
I also want to say that as human, some of my actions may have offended some Nigerians. I say sorry to those who feel offended. Such decisions were certainly taken for the betterment of the game in Nigeria.