Nigeria need better PR
Two seemingly unrelated but comparative incidents happened, one day apart, last week in Jacksonville.
On Friday, the day before a friendly match with Nigeria, the U.S. national team held an open training session to allow their fans to see the World Cup-bound players.
Hundreds turned up. Most sat high up in the stands enjoying the exertions below them, while the more hardy stood behind the advertising boards behind one goal.
They were close enough to chant players' names, and even a serenade for Julian Green, whose birthday was Friday. The players took it in stride, and took time to flash a wave or two to the fans, drawing even bigger acclamation.
Prior to that, goalkeeper Tim Howard came pitchside to do a full-length interview with ESPN.
Fast-forward a day later, and Gideon Adeleke sent out some bitter tweets about how shabbily the Nigeria players treated fans who had turned out to cheer them. Postgame, the fans lined up outside waiting for the players, despite their loss.
According to Adeleke, Osaze Odemwingie was the only one who bothered to give a wave to the posse.
Adeleke's complaint found support among other users, who related similar prior infractions by the Nigeria squad.
None is exaggerated. I used to be press officer for Nigeria and would notice how fans would line up on the streets to wave at the team bus and belt out players' names. Most of the stars did not bother to so much as wave, and it would usually fall to mortified team officials to wave back.
This is just not on. These players, and their officials, both technical and administrative, must realize that they represent those fans on the streets.
That young boy who will scream himself hoarse when Nigeria play. The young man whose chest will burst with pride as he preens before his Ghanaian or Cameroonian rival when they win and who will snigger at his South African friend when the Super Eagles defeat Bafana Bafana.
Let's not forget the woman whose roadside business sales spike up when Nigeria win, and plummet when they lose. Or the one who has the task of consoling her teary husband or boyfriend in the aftermath of another gut-wrenching elimination.
That is who they play for, whom they must defer to and show respect for. Because without the fans, the team are nothing.
Hiding behind huge headphones to avoid looking at fans is the ultimate disrespect. In Jacksonville, Ogenyi Onazi was the only one who spent time in the hotel lobby taking photographs, signing autographs and generally just messing about with fans. He still ran more than the majority on match day, as Nigeria slipped to a 2-1 defeat vs. the USA.
However, there is plenty of blame to go around, and fans are also partly responsible. Having covered this team for years, I have seen firsthand some major justification for players keeping well clear of fans.
There are folks who invade team training and the hotel to make all sorts of outlandish, even outrageous, demands on players. They crash the team hotel back home, set up stall in the lobby, and demand all manner of charities, gifts, money, favours.
There are those who will say they traveled by night bus and have no transport fare home. They will stand by that story for every player they meet, no matter how much they get. One morning, Obafemi Martins was left with barely $400 from a match bonus of $5,000 paid the night before
In Calabar recently, I posted a video in which Ogenyi Onazi was throwing down money from his hotel window to scrambling fans one floor underneath.
I have seen letters soliciting players to assist with paying house rent and children's school fees, but nothing tops my personal favourite, in which Joseph Yobo was asked for N2 million to pay the dowry of a man's wife!
It is time for the federation to take its share of responsibility. They must find a way to organize events where the team connects with fans. Huge multi-celebrity events have been held in Nigeria with strictly regulated and well-policed red carpets. There are security outfits that have proven capable at crowd control.
Things are even easier abroad, especially in places like Europe and the United States, where people want their kids to get a chance to meet their heroes. Ahead of the recent friendlies in London, Philadelphia and Jacksonville, for instance, open training sessions and autograph signing events would have hurt no one and, most certainly, would not have led to much worse than the draws and loss the team suffered despite (or maybe because) of their sequestration.
They can also prove a viable commercial opportunity for the NFF and marketing exposure for sponsors. Beyond sterile, official ceremonies, the players would have to put on a human face. We don't need the experience of a lady trying to force her way past security just to get Mikel to acknowledge her and her kid, as Adeleke recounted.
After all, who does the team play for but the fans?