SPORTS: Football politics and the footballer

By SEGUN ODEGBAMI |

I have read several reports, mostly on social media, about Didier Drogba’s attempt to contest for the Presidency of the Cote D’Ivoire Football Federation.

A few years ago, following the success of George Opong Weah, the Liberian football player, who did great things for his country and countrymen, and went on, at the second attempt, to become current President of his country, Liberia, I looked into Drogba’s ‘future’ and predicted that, like Weah, with his huge popularity amongst the ordinary people, he would also contest elections in Cote d’Ivoire one day in the future, win it and become President.

My expectation was not unfounded. Didier Drogba was following closely in George Weah’s footsteps.

Aside from making a name for himself and making good personal money in the process, Didier has been one of Cote d’Ivoire’s greatest sports ambassadors. He was a two-time winner of the African Footballer of the Year award, captain of the national football team during epochal campaigns, highest goal scorer for the national team, finalist at the African Cup of Nations, and the most capped player in Ivorian football history.

Beyond football, he was a major contributor to social inclusion activities in his country – he built and donated a hospital to the government, offered scholarships to hundreds of under-privileged Ivorian children, and led the national team to appeal to the warring armies in the internecine crisis in the country to cease fighting sheath their swords and allow for national celebrations of their getting to the finals in the African Cup of Nations that year. That was the truce needed to start a true reconciliation in the country.

The main difference between George and Didier was that George went straight for the biggest political prize in his country, whereas Didier went for the smallest, the players’ endorsement of his nomination to contest for the office of the national football federation presidency.

George dove into the deep end of Liberian politics, was halted temporarily by wise counsel common sense, and after 10 years, or so, came back and is now President of Liberia.

Didier Drogba fell into the trap of believing that popularity on the international football space translates into votes in any level of politics, including that of a sub-unit of a national football federation. He may not have assumed that contesting for the Presidency of the Cote d’Ivoire Football Federation would be a piece of cake, but in his own mind, he must have been assured of the love he feels in millions of people across his beloved country.

The reality of what happened was that he did not need millions of votes from the general public to qualify to contest. All he needed were the endorsements by 14 or so of his colleagues in the domestic football fraternity of footballers.

He would have assumed that his own constituency would be the simplest hurdle to cross. It could almost be taken for granted. He would have assumed that a few phone calls would perform the magic.

He was shocked to the marrow, when, of the 14 ex-footballers or so, from the footballers’ union that needed to endorse his nomination to contest for the position of President of the national football federation, not a single one voted for him. It is simply unthinkable. It is very hard to explain. I do not know if he would ever get over the shock of his discovery.

Last week, he learnt a lesson that I learnt many decades before him, the hard way.

What Didier Drogba went through is close enough to what I experienced in my first serious attempt to contest for the Chairmanship of the Nigeria Football Association.

I was not that naïve in 1998, or so, to imagine that my popularity as a former football player would irrigate my ambition into the highest office of my country’s football association. They are two completely different worlds. I knew that those that usually became Chairmen were hardly ever from the football/player fraternity because they were appointed through the strong influence of the Ministers of Sports, and since the Ministers were never from the Sports fraternity, it was understandable that their nominees to the Presidency would also not be from the family of players.

I was one of the first few ex-footballers to be appointed into the board of the Nigeria Football Association in the days preceding the era of elections into the board. Before me, I don’t quite recall anyone else. Even Mr. Sunday Dankaro, the great Chairman of the 1970s and early 1980s rode on the back of his brother, David Dankaro’s reputation as a former international football player, a member of the famous 1949 UK Tourist team, to become the great and respected Chairman of the NFA that he was. Let me return to Didier and the hard lesson he must have learnt.

The first time I became a member of the NFA board 14, or so, of us were appointed by government. We were assembled and instructed to select a Chairman from amongst us. Of course, there was a message to the inner caucus of the group about who was the government’s preferred candidate.

This little story is about my second attempt

In 1998 or so, a very long and convoluted election process had been introduced and only the creator of the process, the most powerful Nigerian in the history of Nigerian sports at the time, understood what he created. He designed it in such a way that rendered everybody but his own choice of candidate impotent against the process. Anybody could fall victim to his complex rules that have needed the regular interventions and interpretation of the civil courts ever since. The entirety of the elections into all Nigerian Sports federations have been infected with that same virus to this day.

So, as an aspirant I needed to meet certain basic conditions and fulfil certain criteria. I needed to start the process from the State level and on to the zonal level, with unnecessary booby traps, long and torturous, totality unrelated to football administration, along the way.

Anyway, I go around the six states in the South West zone.

I pick up a few of my football colleagues that have been my friends from Lagos and Ibadan and we go on this ‘pleasure ride’ through the State capitals.

This is the South West, my territory. This is where I played all my football, and won everything national and international. They know me well and love me, from all visible indications. I never misbehaved in any way throughout my stay in the zone to cast any doubts on my integrity and commitment to doing good and what’s right. I owe everything I am to the zone.

We travel confidently, and the trip goes like a breeze. I am assured everywhere that I only need to show up on the day of the zonal election and the victory is mine.

The only other contestant is a woman. Very few people knew anything about female football not to talk of a female woman administrator, contesting an election against one of the most famous footballers to come from that region in the whole of Africa. I do not know who the lady is. It is hard for anyone to even explain her motivation, not to talk of her confidence.

So, on election day, I arrive the venue.

I know almost everybody there from the football fraternity – coaches, club representatives, referees, ex-players and some supporters. We are hugging and kissing as we await start of elections.

Those in charge of the elections are ministry of sports officials and some staff of the NFA secretariat. They are taking instructions LIVE via telephone. One of them is running the commentary of what is going on to a listening ear in Abuja and acting out a directed script.

Suddenly there is a change of rule – the election will not be done secretly anymore. Why? The rumour is rife. Some voters have been paid and may not deliver if the elections are held using secret ballots.

So, the option A4 system will be adopted.

My confidence is so high I am what the fuss is all about. I am contesting against a ‘ghost’ as far as I am concerned, an unknown female in a male dominated sport and world, in football, my bread and breakfast.

So, option 4? Let us go ahead.

They eventually call out the two contestants. We are standing in front of the large hall – the two of us.

They ask all the electorates to start lining up behind their choice of contestant, State by State.

Is there a mistake somehow? What’s going on. I look behind me. There were a few heads.

I look behind the ‘ghost,’ there is a growing long line of voters.

The world ends for a moment. I mean, my legs go wobbly for a few seconds.

I cannot believe my eyes. Some of those that have been campaigning with me are lined up too, not behind me, but behind the ‘ghost’!

Source: Sports 247

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About Cholo Brooks 13363 Articles
Joel Cholo Brooks is a Liberian journalist who previously worked for several international news outlets including the BBC African Service. He is the CEO of the Global News Network which publishes two local weeklies, The Star and The GNN-Liberia Newspapers. He is a member of the Press Union Of Liberia (PUL) since 1986, and several other international organizations of journalists, and is currently contributing to the South Africa Broadcasting Corporation as Liberia Correspondent.