If there’s a message for the national federations of Nigeria, Jamaica and South Africa, it’s this: don’t you dare try taking credit for their success.
This has been a World Cup defined by disputes between teams and the people who are supposed to be supporting them.
England’s disagreement over bonuses is ongoing, although they qualified for the knockouts with some ease. Canada are going home, at least in part because their preparation was virtually non-existent thanks to funding issues. Spain have a manager who, less than a year ago, 15 of their squad refused to play under. We’re really not that far removed from the USWNT’s long-running equal pay fight.
And then there’s Nigeria, Jamaica and South Africa.
The progression of those three teams to the round of 16 represents three extraordinary stories of glory over adversity; the sort of underdog tales that make international tournaments so thrilling and heartwarming.
Let’s start with Nigeria, whose players seem to have been involved in a constant, rolling dispute with the Nigerian Football Federation (NFF) for much of their existence. But this time it all came to a head in the weeks leading up to the tournament, when the NFF’s general secretary Mohammed Sanusi told the squad that, because FIFA had promised to give each individual player a bonus of at least $30,000 (£23,600) for participating in the tournament, the NFF would not be paying their own previously agreed bonuses to the players.
In the past, dissent has been sporadic and relied upon individual players speaking up — for which they were frequently punished. But this time, the whole squad rose up collectively and for a time there was the possibility that they would boycott their opening game against Canada. That boycott didn’t materialise, largely because the process is currently in the hands of FIFPRO, the international players’ union.
The good news, in theory, is that after making it past the first round, the bonus from FIFA will double to $60,000. That money will be distributed to the players by the NFF, under FIFA’s supervision; you just hope that the bonuses do actually make it to the players and that this extra money doesn’t strengthen the NFF’s resolve not to honour their own agreements.
You can also throw in a dispute between head coach Randy Waldrum and the NFF, over what he perceived to be inadequate backing from the federation for their pre-tournament preparation and an extraordinary situation in which his assistant, the hugely experienced American coach Lauren Gregg, was prevented from joining the team at the World Cup.
Waldrum spoke out against all of this, which led to a barely believable rebuke by the NFF’s communication director, Ademola Olajire, who called Waldrum an “incompetent loudmouth” and the “worst coach to have handled the Super Falcons of Nigeria by a country mile”, dismissing his claims as “bollocks”.
With that in mind, making it through the group stage ahead of Olympic gold medallists Canada without losing a game, only conceding twice (one of which was a late consolation) and defeating co-hosts Australia is simply phenomenal.
South Africa’s preparations were arguably even more chaotic, when a similar dispute over pay and a range of other issues led to their entire first-choice squad being banned from taking part in a tune-up game against Botswana, just over two weeks before the start of the tournament.
A scratch team was hastily cobbled together, which included a 13-year-old, to fulfil the fixture while the players that won last year’s Africa Cup of Nations in Morocco had to watch on, unsure about what was going to happen next.
In the event, the dispute was settled a few days after that fiasco, but only after what was described as a “humble donation” was made from the Motsepe Foundation, an organisation that helps vulnerable groups across Africa. The foundation’s CEO, Precious Moloi-Motsepe, said they felt “duty-bound” to help after being approached, although no credit should be awarded to a national federation that essentially has to guilt trip a charity in order to pay their players.
Nobody was shocked when they lost to Sweden in their first World Cup outing, but they followed a 2-2 draw with Argentina with that extraordinary late win against Italy, inspired by the brilliant former African Player of the Year Thembi Kgatlana.
Jamaica’s is perhaps the most incredible tale, given that the team simply didn’t exist in pretty recent memory and, at regular points of their relatively young history, the Jamaican Football Federation has drastically cut and, on a few occasions, completely suspended their funding.
So much so that they were not even able to take part in qualifying for the 2011 World Cup, and the team was essentially mothballed until 2014 when Cedella and Rita Marley, the daughter and widow of Bob Marley, stepped in to offer some funding so that they could play in the 2015 qualifiers.
For this World Cup, they had to rely on a couple of crowdfunding initiatives, plus support from the Jamaican government and their kit sponsors Adidas, to even make it to Australia and New Zealand.
So for them to make it into the knockouts undefeated, without conceding a goal, having held France and Brazil to draws and beaten Panama without their key player Bunny Shaw, suspended after being sent off against the French, is simply unbelievable.
The hope is that these three national federations, all of whom have failed to one extent or another in their purpose (which is to provide support to their players and coaching staff), learn from this. You hope that they don’t use twisted logic to justify themselves, deciding that these results prove players didn’t need money for planning and organising or bonuses, or even spin things to suggest that the disputes provided a weird form of motivation for the teams.
Make no mistake: Nigeria, South Africa and Jamaica are through to the last 16 of the World Cup in spite of their federations — not because of them.
These have been collective triumphs of skill, togetherness, coaching, human spirit and the will to overcome adversity. The players and staff should be applauded as loudly as those above them should be derided.
(Photo: Will Murray/Getty Images)
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