TUESDAY WITH REUBEN ABATI
The Confederation of African Football (CAF) Awards 2020 has come and gone – the event was held in Hurghada, Egypt on January 7, but the dust is yet to settle on what is now known as “the betrayal” of Asisat Oshoala. Asisat Oshoala, 25, is the winner of the CAF Africa Women Footballer of the Year, 2019. She is Nigerian and one of our country’s greatest ambassadors in women football. Her latest award is the fourth time she would be declared Africa’s Best Female Footballer, making her equal the record of her compatriot, Perpetua Nkwocha with whom she now shares that distinction. CAF winners are chosen by members of the Technical and Development committee, journalists, football legends, coaches, and representatives and captains of national teams of Football Federations. Nigerians have always been strong members of CAF in both professional and administrative capacities. This year, five Nigerians were part of the final decision process in the women’s category. Ahmed Yusuf (aka Fresh), Osasu Obayiuwana, Chisom Mbonu, Tunde Adelakun, and Perpetua Nkwocha.
What shocked most Nigerians and what has now been termed “an act of betrayal” was the realization that none of these five Nigerians considered Asisat Oshoala good enough as the Best Female Footballer in Africa in 2019. Oshoala was voted for and rated the best by outsiders and international football Federations. Ahmed Fresh did not vote at all; he alleges that he did not receive the voting papers from CAF. Osasu Obayiuwana rated Oshoala 3rd, Chisom Mbonu thinks she is second best, Tunde Adelakun voted her 2nd best, while Perpetua Nkwocha rated her 5th in Africa, even when the judges were to choose from a final shortlist of three. No one would have known the pattern of the vote, were it not for CAF’s transparency. CAF’s openness is commendable.
But was Oshoala betrayed? Osasu Obayiuwana who has had to defend himself vigorously on twitter insists that he wasn’t on the panel of judges as a Nigerian to defend Nigeria’s interest but as an expert who is expected to be professional and fair-minded. In his own opinion, Oshoala was not the best female player in Africa in 2019. He and Mbonu insist that Tabitha Chawinga of Malawi is more deserving of the recognition. Tabitha Chawinga plays as a forward for Jiangsu in China. She won the best goal scorer award in the Chinese Women’s Super League, 2019. She is without doubt one of Africa’s great exports. She is a younger version of Nkwocha, Mercy Akide, Cynthia Uwak, and Asisat Oshoala, and an immensely gifted player in her own right. She has been shortlisted twice for the African Female Footballer of the Year, and now thrice. She is 23, with big potentials. I understand where Osasu Obayiuwana and Mbonu are coming from.
When Nigerians accuse them of “betrayal”; it would seem as if those critics are recommending favouritism or partiality or cronyism in a process that should reflect fairness, merit and choice. The only problem is that with all five denying Oshoala of Nigerian votes, it really looks as if there was a Nigerian gang-up against a lady who is probably currently at the peak of her game. Nkwocha whose record (2004, 2005, 2010, 2011) she has now equalled even rated her 5th out of a shortlist of 3. Is that a subtle way of suggesting that she did not deserve a place in the final shortlist in the first place? Is this a case of sibling rivalry? Is Nkwocha uncomfortable with her own record being broken by a compatriot? It is in the light of these questions that Nkwocha’s warm congratulatory message to Oshoala, after winning in spite of her 5th-grade rating, has been dismissed as sheer hypocrisy.
Osasu Obayiuwana and Mbonu have defended the choice that they made. But they really do not owe anyone any explanation. CAF is satisfied with the process and I guess their participation. The fans across Africa are pleased with the outcome. A judge is committed only to the rules of engagement and the criteria governing his or her assignment. He or she should not be bound by either umbilical or nepotistic attachments. I consider absolutely unnecessary therefore, the attempt by both judges to explain themselves to Oshoala’s supporters. Nigerians should get used to the right of persons to make their own choice, as long as there is no supportable evidence of ill-will, mischief or malice. The truth is that the Nigerian team’s seemingly unanimous rejection of Asisat Oshoala even makes her victory more convincing and credible. She didn’t win because the Nigerian team supported her. She emerged as Best Female Footballer on the basis of her impressive performance and her high estimation in the eyes of others.
While the controversy over her being betrayed or not may have further projected her, her response to the Nigerian judges is pointless. She has exchanged a couple of messages on twitter with Osasu Obayiuwana. She has also reportedly blocked him on Twitter. Asisat Oshoala must realize that the distinction that she has enjoyed and the accolades she has received both come with responsibilities: the biggest responsibility is for her to conduct herself in a disciplined, humble and mature manner. She does not need to create unnecessary enemies for herself. Osasu Obayiuwana has been in this game long before she kicked her first ball. She should UNBLOCK him. He is not on the CAF Technical Committee as her publicist.
He is there to serve Africa and he or any other person can discharge that responsibility only to the extent of their own understanding. Didn’t Nigerian representatives vote for Ms. Oshoala during the three previous occasions when she emerged as African Female Footballer of the Year? Those who have their palm kernels cracked for them by benevolent gods must learn to cultivate a sense of proportion. So, Asisat Oshoala, no more twitter tantrums. It is bad PR for you. It is better to stick to your initial response which is: “For me, I don’t think that anyone should be obligated to vote for anyone… The only thing in my head right now is how to help my team to win a lot of laurels as much as we can this year…I also have the African Women’s Cup of Nations…” Stick to these lines and shun needless drama.
But why are other Nigerians accusing the five Nigerian judges of “betrayal”? This is for a couple of reasons. One, many Nigerians believe and considerably correctly so, that our country is governed by a “Pull Him or Her Down (Ph.D) Syndrome”: the more successful you are, the more you are the target of envy, intrigue and mischief in Nigeria. People think your success is a reflection of their own failure and so they opt for a “crab mentality.” They will do whatever it takes to drag you down, if only to show that you are not as special as you imagine. Human beings generally have dark sides whoever they may be, but pulling the other person down or working hard to sabotage the other person is a very dark side of the Nigerian character. Envy is not always the cause; it could be differences in ethnicity or religion or some totally irrational primordial sentiment. In sports, there are hundreds of tales about lack of support for those who excel, and even those who fall sick, or who become destitute for one reason or the other, and those who die after years of service. The House of Sports in Nigeria is a House of Horror.
Rashidi Yekini, the first Nigerian footballer to score a goal for Nigeria at the World Cup (1994) ended up as an invalid and died unsung. The legendary Chairman Chukwu of Enugu Rangers and former Captain of the Super Eagles took ill. It had to take the intervention of billionaire philanthropist, Femi Otedola, before those who should have helped suddenly realized he still existed. Isaac Promise, Nigeria’s representative at the U-17, U-20 and U-23 levels, and captain at every turn, including captain of an AFCON gold-winning team in 2005 and an Olympics silver winning team at Beijing 2008, died in October in the United States. His family duly informed the Nigeria Football Federation. Even with that three-months’ notice, no NFF official showed up at his funeral.
The NFF has offered an unconvincing explanation. The NFF should shut up. Bash Ali, the Nigerian who made history in 1985 as the first WBF African cruiserweight boxing champion wants to be the oldest man (at 63) to seek a world title. Nigeria is not supporting him. Grace Aluko, former Rivers Angels and U-20 goalkeeper needed help. She didn’t get it. In 2016, some Nigerian athletes who were to represent Nigeria at the Olympics had to resort to the internet Go-Fund-Me platform to plead for financial support when they couldn’t get help from the Nigerian Government. Many of our athletes, male and female, have had to acquire other nationalities because Nigeria does not care enough. Asisat Oshoala and many others in other sports owe their achievement not to any support – financial or emotional – from Nigeria but to the benevolence of outsiders and foreign institutions.
And now, two, you have Asisat Oshoala, standing out at CAF Awards 2020, only to hear that not even one Nigerian gave her the vote. Two out of the five Nigerians that rejected her are women! Nigeria as a country, didn’t even show up well at this year’s CAF awards. No Nigerian male footballer could make the list of best XI in Africa. How are the mighty fallen? Nigerians ended up celebrating Sadio Mane, of Liverpool and Senegal, as Best Male Footballer in Africa. We spent time talking about Mohammed Saleh of Egypt and Liverpool, and Riyadh Mahrez of Man City and Algeria. The Women’s National Team of Cameroon took the trophy making the Super Falcons team of Nigeria, easily the most accomplished female team in the continent, staring at empty hands. The argument that the Francophone bloc has hijacked CAF and that the awards are political is unacceptable to me.
The truth is this: In four years, Nigeria has not won any major male football tournament or championship. We have a national coach, Gernot Rohr, who stays in Europe, and makes his contribution by remote control. He collects Nigerian salary but he doesn’t think Nigeria is good enough for him. Someone should remind Rohr that one foreign coach like him once came to work here for the Eagles, and he ended up marrying a Nigerian lady from Akwa Ibom. Long after the man’s contract ended, I understand he is still in Nigeria enjoying great hospitality.
Rohr must be ready to do the job if his contract is renewed. Absent minded stakeholders in the sports arena create problems, they don’t solve them. However, what I am trying to say is that the biggest news in Nigerian football, male or female, in 2019, is Asisat Oshoala’s victory in female football at the CAF Awards in Egypt. Forget about the choice made by the five Nigerians, Oshoala got 351 votes, 30 more than Cameroon’s Ajara Nchout and 103 votes more than Thembi Kgatlana of South Africa and Beijing BG Phoenix F. C. Five Nigerian votes would not have made any difference! In Nigerian-speak, the stone that was rejected at home is the pillar that holds the building. Oshoala was our only claim to glory at the CAF awards.
She is certainly most deserving of the award and it is not true that she did not distinguish herself in the year 2019.
Asisat Oshoala’s career has been driven in more than one decade by sheer talent, passion and extra-ordinariness on the field of play and single-minded consistency. She is a multiple winner of Golden Ball, Golden Boot, and Youth Player of the Year awards. In 2014, she won FIFA’s U-20 Women’s World Cup Golden Boot, FIFA’s Women Golden Ball and the African Women’s Football Golden Ball. In 2015, she was BBC Women’s Footballer of the Year. In 2017, she was Top Scorer in the Chinese Women’s Super League. This was when she played for Dalian Quanjian F. C. Oshoala is African Women’s Footballer of the Year – 2014, 2016, 2017 and 2019. She has played for Liverpool, Arsenal Ladies and currently she is with the Spanish Club, FC Barcelona Femeni, to which she was loaned in 2019, and where she distinguished herself most impressively, resulting in the announcement of her full transfer to the club until 2022. She was a key player at France 2019 and a nominee for the goal of the tournament award. She also helped Barcelona to a runner-up position in the Primera division. In 2019, she was Africa’s highest female goal scorer. Before and since she won the 2019 African Women’s Footballer of the Year award, Oshoala, on her return to FC Barcelona has performed feats that have shown her mastery and dominance. To borrow a typical Nigerian cliché, “she has been on song and on fire!”. Two days before the award ceremony in Egypt she scored two goals, a brace, and her 10th goal for Barca in 13 games this season. Barca won 3-0 against Athletic Club. On January 11, 2020, four days after she won the award as best female footballer, she scored four goals in a Barcelona Femeni 6-0 win against CD Tacon. Oshoala is a true Queen of the pitch. She stands ready and certain to beat her own record.
Three lessons from all of this: (i) don’t ever rely on the support of kinsmen but don’t betray yourself either, (ii) work on your talent, it is the only asset that won’t fail you; … “always remember that this world is so hard and so stony…” (iii) and also remember that we live in a mysterious world where we are all pawns in the hands of the Master Builder… Here, then, is to your good health in a song!… Congratulations, Asi-STAR!, winner of “the three jewels” and one more. Keep shooting…