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Jul 15, 2014

Nigeria's FIFA ban hurting footballers the most

Think about not seeing eagles again. Think of the falcons and the little falconets. Think of how the wasps could be the biggest beneficiaries.

Yes, this is still a football story.

FIFA's suspension of Nigeria from all international football last week because of alleged government interference could have immediate effects on the Nigerian women's team, the Falcons, their under-20 counterparts, the Falconets, and if the Rwandan press and public have any say in it, their football team, Amavubi -- the Wasps.

The plight of the Falconets is most pressing. The Women's Under-20 World Cup starts in three weeks' time and if the ban is still in place, they will not be able to participate. Having reached the final of the competition when it was last played in 2010, Nigeria have high hopes for their team this time around and the team has similarly lofty ambitions.

Aisha Falode, the coordinator of the Nigerian women's teams, explained it like this: "The Falconets engaged in one of the toughest qualifiers, scored the highest number of goals and as we speak I'm certain they're prepared to showcase their skills and bring honour to the country," she said. "This nation owes the team the privilege and no effort should be spared to deny it to them."

The NFF has until Thursday to confirm the status and availability of their Under-20 women's team for the tournament, and it is unlikely to be a positive unless they reinstate the board that was deposed because of a court ruling 10 days ago. FIFA perceived this as government interference, but it is worth taking a look behind the curtain to establish from which source the grievance came from. Ironically, it is another woman.

Ebiakpo Baribote, an owner of premiership club Nembe City, is the person behind the lawsuit which caused the court to take power away from the NFF. She filed a case accusing the now former NFF chief, Aminu Maigari, and his board of "financial secrecy and manipulation of NFF statutes to suit their selfish interests."

The court's ruling to appoint a sole administrator in place of the board was made as an interlocutory injunction. That means that the board has been suspended until the outcome of Baribote's case against the NFF is known.

All that sounds very noble until Baribote offered to withdraw the charges based on one condition. According to Kick Off Nigeria, Baribote wanted the life ban slapped on her husband, Victor Rumson Baribote, who was chairman of the Nigerian Premier League, lifted and for him to be reinstated.

Nigeria finished fourth at the 2012 Under-20 Women's World Cup.
Nigeria finished fourth at the 2012 Under-20 Women's World Cup.

It is politics that is at play here, not football, and the people who will suffer the most from it are the players. Nigeria's Under-20 women's team could be the first but there will be others. The national women's team are due to play in the African Women's Championship in October and the men's team are supposed to start their qualifying campaign for the 2015 African Nations Cup (ANC) in September.

That is where Rwanda have eyed an opportunity for themselves. They are also in the running to play in the continental cup and one of the teams in their way is Nigeria. This weekend Rwanda will play Congo in the first leg of their second-round qualifier and it is widely expected Rwanda will win. If they do, they will be pooled with Nigeria, South Africa and Sudan in the group stage.

The New Times ran a story identifying Nigeria's ban as a key factor to their chances of qualifying. They quoted fans such as university student Theonesto Murego who said "I wish they are kept banned," and ex-pat Bienvenue Mvugonziza who mused, "Normally, celebrating a neighbour's funeral is not good but I do agree that Amavubi stars would rise if Nigeria is kept sanctioned."

Given that Rwanda have not qualified for an ANC in a decade, the joy at a possible easing of their difficulty to get there this time is understandable, but there is something else Nigeria's ban tells the average football fan: FIFA's decision to act against government interference is a policy applied in blanket-like fashion, across all cases, sometimes indiscriminately. Maybe sometimes a little discernment would not go amiss.