When it’s more than just a game

Marcos Rojo’s late, stinging half-volley shattered Nigerian hearts, eliminating them from the World Cup but for captain John Mikel Obi, it was not his biggest worry.

It’s hard to comprehend that a professional footballer in today’s big money sports world may be dealing with issues that make those on the pitch seem infantile.

Four hours before kick-off, the veteran received a call from a family member to tell him that his father had been kidnapped — abducted at gunpoint — in Enugu on June  26. Not wanting to cause a distraction before their vital game against Argentina, he kept it to himself, not telling any teammate or even the national football federation.

Remarkably, this was a not a novel experience for Mikel. Seven years ago he had to play for Chelsea knowing that Pa Michael Obi was being held captive in a potentially life-threatening situation.

Thankfully, as in 2011, Pa Michael was returned to his family safely (although it did take a police shootout). Nonetheless, the incident is an ugly reminder that, for some African players, even ascending to the pinnacle of footballing excellence is not sufficient to escape difficult realities back home.

Mikel is a Champions League winner, an Africa Cup of Nations champion, but he still has concerns we shouldn’t entertain as normal.

Constantly gazing through the tinted window of the European game, we forget, or ignore, the travails that may face the continent’s superstars and even national sides, the instability that can sometimes seep into their professional careers from a variety of quarters.

Although Mikel’s experience may be extreme, the legacy of insecurity in some regions has undoubtedly had a toll on football development and subsequent achievement. It serves to offer a partial explanation for why sport bodies continually succumb to maladministration or corruption. It might even begin to plot the way to understanding why talented players fail collectively.

Of course, no excuses can be made for the abject failure that was this World Cup for African teams. All five representatives swiftly tumbled out — quicker than usual but by no means an atypically bad performance. There are serious issues that need to be tackled by many sporting bodies if any ideas about standing among the world’s elite are to be even remotely entertained.

At the very least, however, Mikel’s ordeal gives an appreciation of the circumstances some are expected to endure while still operating at an inordinately high level.

The experience of the Togo football team is another enlightening example. The squad’s bus was shot at in northern Angola in 2010, leaving three people dead and several injured. The traumatised group were pulled out of the Africa Cup of Nations by their government and returned home. In response, the Confederation of African football thought it was appropriate to punish their late-notice withdrawal by banning them from the next two iterations of the competition.

Sport bodies and federations making peculiar decisions is an unfortunate theme we have witnessed throughout the years, and it was brought to the public eye again this week. Zimbabwe’s rugby team was forced to sleep on the streets of Tunis after a mix-up with accommodation arrangements. Both countries’ organisers are blaming each other but, either way, maladministration is undoubtedly responsible.

It’s the same level of mismanagement that forced the Ghanaian football federation to send $3-million to Brazil in 2014 to prevent their players from revolting. The same attitudes that led to Mikel reportedly paying for Nigeria’s hotel fees in 2016 so that the team could check out.

It would be reckless to roll all the incidents across nations into one narrative but all underline the unusual difficulties African sports men and women run into. A national representative shouldn’t have to worry if his or her hotel is booked accordingly. A hero shouldn’t have to play while fearing for the safety of his father.

Mikel did precisely that, however.

The kidnapping of Mikel’s father and the shooting of the Togo team are obviously extreme examples, but the usual stories of missing money, broken-down buses, immigration dramas and subpar training camps and accommodation should not escape our ire. Africa’s athletes deserve better.

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Luke Feltham

Luke Feltham runs the Mail & Guardian's sports desk. He was previously the online day editor.

Kiri Rupiah
Kiri Rupiah is the online editor at the Mail & Guardian.

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