A dispute between Goodluck Jonathan and Fifa, the international football federation, over the Nigerian president’s two-year ban on his national football team resembles the gunboat diplomacy of feuding countries before war.
World football’s governing body has sent his government a warning letter of the consequences of his decision to dismantle the Nigerian Football Federation, made after the team’s poor World Cup performance. It has issued the Nigerian government with a 48-hour deadline to comply, at the same time dispatching an emissary for last-minute mediation talks.
The deadline expires on Monday afternoon. At stake is Nigeria’s participation at all levels of international football, plus Fifa funding and support.
For Fifa to act and sound like a belligerent nation state is perhaps ironic given how seriously it takes the interference of governments in the affairs of the 208 ostensibly independent football federations that are Fifa members.
Fifa, based in Switzerland, has already upbraided Paris after the government of Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, began an investigation into Les Bleus’ catastrophic campaign in South Africa.
The governing body says it is crucial to defend the autonomy of sport and the independence of the sporting bodies.
“What we have to avoid is the use and abuse of football and sport for political purposes, for campaigns, or to place someone from a given party in control of a national association,” says Fifa.
That France and Nigeria’s presidents should choose to act upon their national teams’ World Cup failure is a new riff on the time-honoured practice of politicians exploiting sport for popularity. Usually they do so when the national team triumphs, particularly in countries where football generates religious-like fervour.
Cristina Fernández, Argentina’s president, and Néstor Kirchner, husband and likely 2011 presidential candidate, had hoped to ride on the back of a successful World Cup campaign by Diego Maradona and his team – until Argentina’s humiliating 4-0 defeat on Saturday.
Similarly, Dilma Rousseff and José Serra, frontrunners in Brazil’s presidential election in October, must rethink whether to use football in their campaigns after Friday’s demise of the World Cup favourites.
Mr Jonathan’s ban is especially harsh, says Mark Gleeson, a Cape Town-based football writer who has followed African football for 25 years. Isolating the team from international competition, he says, is no answer to the president’s aim of improving its performance.
At the same time, Mr Gleeson adds, the relationship between governments and football is a pretty direct one, and not just in Africa. “There are very few football countries that aren’t reliant on sports ministries helping them with funding, and that is encouraged by Fifa,” he says.
“If you were a sports minister, you might feel you had a right to poke your nose in.”
In the struggle to stop politics interfering in sport, there are grey areas, says Play The Game, a Danish-based independent group promoting democracy and transparency in sport. The actions of football federations cross into government territory when cases arise of financial irregularities, corruption and doping.
Mr Gleeson says Fifa should be investigating more thoroughly those member federations that are not run correctly. “They don’t seem to have a willingness to go and investigate where there are allegations of financial corruption,” he says.
“There are a lot of African associations with an unsavoury reputation but Fifa doesn’t seem to want to rock the boat in their constituency.”
The added problem for Fifa is how widespread the issue of political involvement risks becoming. Iraq and Ethiopia were suspended in 2008 and Greece briefly in 2006, for political interference.
But governments are looking into the affairs of national sports agencies with growing frequency. An inquiry by the Northern Ireland government is expected to criticise the Irish Football Association, while the UK government presses the dysfunctional England FA to get its house in order.
Fifa says: “If there is a problem of mismanagement, it is the football family in the country that has the task of changing the situation, with the help of Fifa if required.” The politics of football looks likely to continue well into extra time.
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