Nigerians are all over the world doing great exploits across all walks of life. Perhaps no other profession has them aplenty than the world of sports. Stakeholders are unanimous that as long as the best talents cannot find a home in Nigeria or the motivation to don the green-white-green jerseys in solidarity to country of birth, the ‘resource curse’ country will continue to play a second fiddle across sports it should dominate, ALEX MONYE reports.
Rasheedat Adeleke is one of the fastest young athletes that rocked the World Championships in Budapest, Hungary. Adeleke, a 400m and 200m race specialist, made her Diamond League debut over 400m in Monaco in 2022.
Adeleke, as her name suggests, is a Nigerian by heritage, but she has absolutely no connection with the country of her parents. Rather, she is an Irish idol leading the country of her birth’s ambitions in world athletics.
Born on August 29, 2002 to Prince Ade Adeleke, Rasheedat was the first Irish woman to break the 50-second barrier in the 400 metres. She holds six Irish national records (60 m indoors, 200 m indoors and out, 300m indoors, and 400 m indoors and out). And so, when the Paris Olympic Games start in 2024, Adeleke would be lining up against Nigerian stars also aspiring for podium finishes.
Adeleke is just one of so many athletes of Nigerian descent, who have chosen to represent other countries instead of Nigeria. Recently, teenage Bayern Munich sensation, Jamaal Musiala, was voted as Germany’s best hope of returning to the top of world football due to his prodigious talent.
Musiala, like Adeleke, has Nigerian parents, but he was born in Germany and grew up in England. When the three countries came calling for his service, he chose Germany, claiming that he feels more German than any other country.
At home abroad
Across the world, in every sports discipline, there are thousands of athletes of Nigerian descent, competing and winning laurels for other countries.
Some of these athletes chose to represent these other countries because they have either known no other nation as their own or they feel representing such countries would offer them better security in life.
These are children born overseas, where their parents went in search of the Golden Fleece. They grew up in those nations that they see Nigeria as a foreign culture quite different from their known lifestyle.
In recent years, thousands of Nigerians have been forced to flee to Europe and the Americas in search of better living. These emigrants, like those before them, now have children born in foreign lands, who have never known any lifestyle other than the one they were born into.
Apart from children born to Nigerian parents abroad, the country, over the years, has also lost many of its homebred talents to other countries, who, these athletes believe, would give them better livelihood.
A recent study revealed that there are more than 1,000 footballers of Nigerian descent plying their trade overseas. Of this number, 385 of them play in the top 20 leagues in Europe, while many others play in such obscure countries as Vietnam, Uzbekistan, Iran, Syria, Cambodia, Bangladesh and India.
Nigeria has the highest number of football players of African descent playing in Europe, but while such other nations as Algeria, Morocco, Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire, Cameroon and Mali have been able to leverage their large contingent of Europe-bred talents to excel in sports, Nigeria has failed to cash on this advantage to build teams that can challenge the rest of the world.
In the United States’ National Basketball Association (NBA) championship, which is the highest level of the game in the world, Nigeria, with 30, has the third highest number of foreign players in the competition. Only Canada (61) and France (42) have higher numbers of representatives in the competition.
Of Nigeria’s 30 players, 17 are overseas-born players, while the other 13 are players born and raised in the country, who migrated to the United States at different stages of their career.
Just before the recent madness over leadership in the country’s basketball administration started, Nigeria leveraged the vast number of its overseas-born talents to dominate the game in Africa.
In fact, the country has dominated the last four editions of the African women championships, including the latest triumph at the 2023 edition in Rwanda.
The men’s basketball team was regarded as the closest African side to challenge the world’s dominant teams. That was until most of the players turned their backs on the national team due to leadership crisis and mismanagement of the human resources available to the country.
Citing the country’s notorious shabby way of managing human and material resources, stakeholders believe it would take a remarkable change in attitude, and more importantly, image laundry to get top class talents of Nigerian descent to dump the countries of their birth for the nation.
The reasons for this belief, they say, range from the better welfare package available to these talents abroad, to top quality infrastructure at the disposal of the athletes overseas.
According to the stakeholders, most of the athletes that agree to represent Nigeria are usually those that failed to make the teams of the country of their birth. Although there are exceptional situations where top-quality athletes shun the better facilities, welfare, and other incentives to choose Nigeria, such instances are very rare.
Rather, the prevailing situation is that talented Nigerian born, and trained athletes change allegiance to European and North American countries that they feel will provide them with the best opportunity to reach the top of their careers.
Igali (Canada), Alozie (Spain) and Obikwelu (Portugal), Saka (England)…
In the 1990s up to early 2000s, Daniel Igali was a top Nigerian wrestler, who won several medals for the country in continental championships. Wrestling pundits tipped him to become the first Nigerian to win an Olympic Games wrestling gold medal for the country.
However, when Nigeria was looking up to him to lead its quest for success, Igali surprisingly dumped the country and changed allegiance to Canada, which offered him a scholarship and other incentives to fight for them.
The result was that at the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games, Igali won Canada’s first ever Olympic gold medal in wrestling, which remains Canada’s only male Olympic gold medalist in wrestling. He followed that up with a gold medal at the 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester. In 2007, he was inducted into Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame and later, the Canadian Olympics Hall of Fame in 2012.
On retirement from active competition, Igali returned to Nigeria to join politics. A two-term member of Bayelsa State House of Assembly, Igali is currently president of the Nigeria Wrestling Federation, as well as Bayelsa State’s sports commissioner.
One recurring theme in the story of athletes who dump Nigeria for other countries, is that at the end of their careers, they retrace their steps to work in the country.
Like Igali, Glory Alozie and Francis Obikwelu were Nigeria’s 110 metres women hurdles and 100 and 200 metres men’s champions respectively, But, at the height of their careers, they dumped Nigeria for overseas countries, where they won medals for their adopted nations.
While Obikwelu left Nigeria to compete and win a silver medal at the Athens 2004 Olympics for Portugal, Alozie, a 2000 Olympics silver medalist for Nigeria, jumped ship to become Spain’s European champion in 110 metres hurdles and World Championship silver medalist.
Arsenal star, Bukayo Saka’s case, just like Adeleke’s, is different from Igali’s situation as he had lived all his life in England and had no hesitation when the Three Lions called since he had already played for all of England’s junior teams.
Explaining his decision to play for England and not Nigeria, Saka said although he is incredibly proud of his Nigerian roots and a big fan of the Super Eagles, it was the right decision to snub Nigeria and commit his international future to England because Gareth Southgate’s side could be close to success at a major tournament.
Born in England to Nigerian parents, Saka came through the ranks at Arsenal and represented England at different youth levels.Before he played for England at senior level, he was still eligible to represent Nigeria’s senior team as he had not played for the senior English side in a competitive game. He said he made his decision because he was convinced playing for England is a reward for the efforts and sacrifices of his family.
In an interview by Skysports, Saka said: “I feel like I’m really, really proud of my Nigerian heritage. I still watch Nigeria’s games where I can, and I wish them all the best and support them all the way. But I’ve seen the process of how England is transforming, and I think in the future they’re going to do great stuff. I feel like it was right for me to choose England.
“My dad was born here, my mum was born in Nigeria, but they both grew up in Nigeria and met each other in Nigeria.
“They came over, and when they came to England, it wasn’t easy for them because obviously, it’s a new country. It’s really cold for them. But they adapted well, and as soon as they had me and my brother, they always left everything out the way and put us first.”
On his decision to choose England over Nigeria, he said: “Choosing Nigeria over England would have been a tough decision. My whole family has been in England forever, it would be very strange for me to adapt to an environment that I had never been in since growing up.
“When I grew up all my documents stated that I am English, hopefully Nigerian people will understand.”
Jordan Tornarigha’s situation is different from Saka’s as his father, a former player for IICC Shooting Stars of Ibadan, was born in Nigeria, played in Nigeria before relocating to Germany, where Jordan was born.
Jordan, a former German youth international, refused to play for Nigeria when former Super Eagles Manager, Gernot Rohr, invited him, saying he wanted to play for Germany.
But like so many others before him, the defender, who now plays for a Belgium club, is now open to playing for Nigeria, as it seems he would never get the chance to feature for Germany at senior level.
Explaining why Nigerian athletes find it convenient to compete for other countries instead of the country of their parents, Eboboritse Uwejamomere, who is currently a member of the Super Eagles technical crew, stated that most Nigerian athletes are not tutored properly on the positive side of representing the country.
“I was born in Nigeria and later moved to the UK with my parents from my childhood. I later became a British citizen. It is a great thing representing the country in international championships like the World Cup, Olympics etc. But so many athletes born overseas are not keen to represent the country in sports because there is no strong affiliation to Nigeria…they have strong affiliation to the countries of their birth.
“I believe if the leaders improve the welfare of athletes, it will attract both the ones born abroad and the ones who left the country for greener pastures.
“Improving the welfare system in sports is very important to attract athletes. Insurance plans and basic infrastructure should be made readily accessible to athletes.
“Nigeria has to step up its grassroots development programme to catch talents in their teen years. Exposing children to different sports at their tender age will unearth abundant talents that can be developed into great athletes. If these measures are taken, the nation will not have any need for talents developed overseas anymore.”
Nigeria’s loss, other countries’ gain
To former Super Eagles defender, Efe Sodje, athletes of Nigerian descent born overseas snub the country because of poor orientation and the inability of the government to sell the nation to its citizens.
He said: “The most important thing is to promote the country first. I was born in England, but while growing up I visited Nigeria on several occasions. These visits attracted me to the national team and I vowed to work hard to one day play in the team.
“Making Nigeria a brand in sports can attract athletes to the country. This is apart from establishing a good welfare regime for athletes. Nigeria can also put structures in place in collaboration with the private sector.
“If athletes see that there are good retirement plans in place for them, they will remain in the country. This is what I have studied over the years and planned for. If experienced people are not given the chance to handle the sports sector, poor welfare strategies will keep driving athletes away from Nigeria. There is no magic about it,
“When athletes know they will not be adequately taken care of during and after service, they will leave for the country ready to take care of them.” Sodje explained that most ‘better’ organised countries have set standards for athletes’ welfare, adding that every sportsman knows exactly what he stands to get for representing the country.
“In UK, there are structures for serving and retired athletes. Even while still active, there are ways athletes are given basic education such that on retirement, they are able to integrate into the society seamlessly,” he said.
General Manager of the Nigeria Rugby Football Federation, Aziz Ladipo, who is also a former captain of the national team, argues that Nigeria is not the only country affected by players’ defection for greener pastures.
According to Ladipo, other African countries suffer the same fate because they cannot compete with European and North American countries in the provision of welfare for athletes.
“The French national team is made up mostly of players of different African countries. People are looking for a better welfare package, which some countries like Nigeria have failed to put in place for their athletes.
“When athletes go overseas, they are exposed to first class facilities and such treatment that they tend to forget their country of origin. You don’t expect an athlete to come back to Nigeria when he is adequately rewarded by his adopted nation.”
Ex Super Falcons coach, Godwin Izilien, said that the poor welfare package for athletes has worked against Nigeria’s quest to get its best possible stars to represent the country.
He said: “The issue is like when an orphan gets a surrogate father, who gives him the best treatment, it would be difficult for him to get back to his real father with whom he knows he will suffer.
“Nigeria’s reputation precedes it and when athletes learn that Nigeria does not have the type of conditions they take for granted overseas, it would be difficult for them to choose to represent the country.
“They hear about doctors leaving the country every day and as humans, they will not pick to come to Nigeria knowing the poor welfare conditions their counterparts face in the country.”
Executive chairman, Kwara Sports Commission, Bola Magaji, said top overseas born athletes will continue to shun Nigeria until the country begins to see sports as big business.
“In my days as a squash player in the 60s and 70s, sports had a purely amateur orientation and money was not the key factor. But now, it has become big business and athletes know that they can make good money with their talents.
“What these athletes get overseas is far better than what Nigeria can offer them. Even within Nigeria, the same thing happens. Athletes flock to Delta States because they have the resources to offer better incentive than other states.
“When an athlete is offered five times what other states are paying, they will jump to the more rewarding state.”To ensure the country’s best athletes, whether home-based or overseas-bred, choose to represent the country, Magaji advised government to create a conducive environment for the private to invest in the sports sector, adding that the world sports in now being run by businessmen, who create wealth using athletes’ talents as building blocks for such riches.