U-17 World Cup: Nigeria And FIFA's Yellow Card
By Reuben Abati
The following is from the website of the Federation Internationale de Football Association, better known as FIFA:
"After concluding an inspection visit of the facilities for the FIFA U-17 World Cup Nigeria 2009, FIFA has noted a significant delay in the preparations for the tournament, scheduled to take place between 24 October and 15 November 2009. According to FIFA Vice-President and Chairman of the Organising Committee for the FIFA U-17 World Cup, Jack A. Warner, who led the FIFA delegation, out of nine candidates, only two stadiums are close to being ready.
"Frankly, from an objective point of view, Nigeria is not ready to host the tournament," Chairman Warner said at a press conference today in Lagos. "But I am a man who has always believed in Nigeria and there have been some signs of hope and commitment. Based on those signs of hope I will propose to the FIFA Executive Committee when they meet on 30-31 May in Nassau that we give Nigeria a one month 'grace period' for six venues to build on the signs of hope and commitment we have seen on this trip and fulfil all the necessary requirements."
According to Vice-President Warner's proposal, the stadiums in Calabar, Enugu, Ijebu-Ode and Kano will be given the opportunity to achieve readiness by the end of the "grace period" and host the competition together with Abuja's National Stadium and Lagos' Teslim Balogun Stadium.
"When the 'grace period' expires, FIFA will return to visit the venues and if each and every one of them does not reach the 100% readiness level that we expect, then FIFA will withdraw the tournament hosting rights from Nigeria and go to another country," Warner announced at the press conference and referred to the upcoming FIFA Executive Committee meeting where the issue will be further discussed.
With regards to the stadiums in Bauchi and Kaduna, Warner expressed FIFA's gratitude: "We thank them for their efforts and have no doubt that once they do finally complete their venues, it will provide a wonderful legacy for the sporting infrastructure of their communities. However, everyone has always known that not all nine would be selected."
The venue of Warri could not be inspected over the past days due to security concerns in the vicinity of the city and the Delta State region in general. With the cooperation of international and Nigerian security agencies, FIFA will continue to closely monitor the situation in the nearby environs of Warri and decide if it can still be considered a candidate venue. Should the Executive Committee approve the "grace period" proposal and the situation makes it possible for FIFA to once again visit Warri when it returns in July, it will do so to evaluate the facilities and possibly utilise Warri as a seventh venue - assuming that all the other six have made the grade following the "grace period".
Read the foregoing again and the only possible conclusion is that this is truly a very sad moment for Nigeria. Our country has been given the equivalent of a yellow card by Jack Warner, the FIFA Vice President, and Jack Warner is known to be a friend of Nigeria. He says so himself: "I am a man who has always believed in Nigeria". But we have disappointed him. When this same Jack Warner led a team to Nigeria in February to inspect available facilities for the country's proposed hosting of the Under-17 World Cup, October 24 - Nov.15, the local press advised that Nigeria should throw in the towel, apologise to FIFA for wasting everyone's time and move on. But Warner believed in us. He joined the Presidency in expressing the hope that by the next assessment visit, Nigeria would be ready.
Three months later, this week, Jack Warner has returned to meet a country that finds it difficult to move forward, he and his team have met us exactly where they left us in February. At the time, two stadiums were considered good enough: the Abuja stadium and the Teslim Balogun stadium in Lagos. FIFA needs only six stadiums for the hosting of the U-17 event. In February, the Warner team reported that the stadiums in Enugu and Kano needed considerable upgrading and that Lagos and Warri needed to be adapted to meet FIFA guidelines. In February, Warner said: "There is a lot of work to be done but I am sure Nigeria will pull it off and be ready". Well, Nigeria has not pulled off anything, no work has been done, and we are obviously not ready to host the world.
To worsen matters, the FIFA inspection team arrived in the country to meet the equivalent of a blow-out in the Niger Delta. They wanted to inspect the stadium in Warri, but they couldn't. The whole thing is so embarrassing; every patriot should feel like breaking down in tears. The one-month "grace period" that Nigeria has been granted smacks of diplomatese. It may not be possible to get four stadiums ready within a month. This yellow card is actually a red card. FIFA, I believe, is already looking beyond Nigeria. Shouldn't Nigeria just eat the humble pie and admit its failure? And if we fail to host the U-17 tournament, this should always be cited as a major minus for the Yar'Adua administration. This, at the end of the day, is about President Yar'Adua and his government. How?
We had a two-year notice. The decision to assign the hosting rights of the U-17 2009 FIFA tournament to Nigeria was taken at a meeting of the FIFA Executive Committee on March 22-23, 2007. At that meeting, approval was also granted for Egypt to host the U-20 tournament, 10- 31 July 2009, and South Africa, the FIFA Confederations Cup, 14 - 28 June 2009. Egypt is more than prepared. It is ready and waiting. South Africa is ready also and next year, it will host the 2010 World Cup and remarkably, all necessary facilities are in place a year ahead of schedule. It is only Nigeria that is giving the world soccer body, nightmares. Even Mexico, the next assigned host of the U-17 in 2011, has better facilities at this moment than Nigeria. What is wrong with us?
In 1999, Nigeria successfully hosted the FIFA U-20 World Cup. Our failure to repeat the same feat ten years later is an obvious comment on the travails of governance and democracy in the country. It is even most ironic because Nigeria is the most successful African country, and along with Brazil, the most successful country in the world, in the U-17 FIFA tournament. We share with Brazil the distinction of having won the U-17 trophy thrice. At the maiden edition of the tournament in China in 1985, we trounced West Germany, 2-0 in the finals, in 1993, in Japan, we beat Ghana, 2-1 to take the trophy, and in 2007 in South Korea, we defeated Spain in a penalty shoot-out that ended 3-0.
Twenty four countries are scheduled to take part in the U-17 soccer fiesta. They include Brazil, Argentina, Colombia, Uruguay, Germany, Costa Rica, United States, Honduras, Mexico, New Zealand, Gambia, Algeria, Niger, Cameroon, Burkina Faso, Iran, Japan, Korea Republic, UAE... These countries have already made preparations for a trip to Nigeria, the mind of their players have been conditioned, so much research would have been conducted about Nigeria and our environment. Our failure to host the tournament will be carefully noted not only by FIFA but the whole world!
We would most painfully have lost an opportunity to be part of history. Most future football stars are discovered at youth tournaments. Ronaldinho was a star of the Brazilian team at the U-17 tournament in Egypt in 1997. He, Xavi, Rafael Marquez, and Cambriasso also shone like a million stars at the U-20 FIFA tournament in Nigeria in 1999. The FIFA youth tournament is about "education, development and emerging new talents." We stand to lose an opportunity to be part of all that. The official emblem of the U-17 World Cup was launched in January 2009. The emblem contains two-tinted green colours and a stylized Eagle. For a country that is talking about re-branding, the U-17 World Cup should provide an opportunity to stand tall on the world stage.
But we are telling the world, very simply, that we are not a serious country. We are a nation of last minute planners. We also do not know how to maintain facilities. We are victims of a leadership crisis, really. Our leaders can't keep their promises. Where are all the facilities used for the hosting of the FIFA U-20 World Cup in 1999? How come ten years later Nigeria is searching for six standard stadiums like pins in a haystack? Serious countries do not wait for the last minute such as this to develop, upgrade or maintain sports infrastructure. Sports development should be part of the ecology of national development. Nigeria has arrived at this embarrassing moment because of government's failure to link sports policy to human development, economic growth, and foreign relations.
There was once a time in this country when governments at all levels took sports seriously, and infrastructure was provided for athletic expression in all directions. The last National Sports Festival held in Kaduna further advertised the well-known fact that Nigeria is full of talents. Those talents are unable to blossom because governments have failed to provide sporting centres and basic opportunities. Even the private sector is relatively non-challant. Sports administration in the country is in the hands of pot-bellied speculators. Their only interest is the opportunity to award contracts and receive estacodes for foreign travel. Government officials see sports development as a money-making opportunity. Government throws money at the sector, gluttonous officials mismanage the funds or they steal it. It will be recalled that the hosting of the U-17 World Cup began on a note of disagreement over funds. The Federal Government had rejected the huge budget that was thrown at it, but the Local Organising Committee soon found cause to scale down the budget to compel government to accept its proposals. Should we ask then, whether there is some degree of blackmail built into Nigeria's present circumstances with regard to the U-17 World Cup?
President Yar'Adua obviously understands the issues at stake. After all he has set up a 12-man Presidential committee whose mandate is to make sure that Nigeria qualifies for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. The President says the World Cup is one "event that Nigeria cannot afford not to qualify for." He adds that it will be "a major tragedy" if we are not part of the 2010 World Cup. The same can be said for FIFA's planned attempt to issue Nigeria a red card within a month. What the Presidential committee is supposed to do is not so clear. Are the members going to take over the coaching of the national team? It is a 12-man committee, is this some kind of alternate national team, whose members could suddenly don the national jersey should the Super Eagles appear disorganized? What is required is not a committee. What is required is a complete rethinking of Nigeria's sports policy and sports administration.
FIFA says the Local Organising Committee will be held responsible, but in the final analysis, Nigeria's hosting or non-hosting of the U-17 World Cup now rests on President Yar'Adua's shoulders. The politics of it is about national image and national pride. If President Yar'Adua so wishes, he can declare a national emergency on the country's stadiums and order that the additional four that FIFA wants should be made ready within a month. But there will still be other issues. Who wants to play football in a country where there is so much violence and foreigners are sitting targets for kidnap gangs? Nonetheless, Nigerians love football. Hosting the world, having future football stars showcase their talents on Nigerian soil, should bring so much joy and excitement to the football-loving Nigerian public. To deny that crowd that pleasure, and pride, would be the greatest disservice of all. If there is anything that President Yar'Adua and his team can do before the FIFA deadline expires, let them begin to do it now, but if they fail in doing so, I guess we already know why.