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The Grounded Super Eagle Who Wants To Fly To The Next World Cup



It should have been the greatest day of his young life, instead it could have seen his last kick in international football and it hurts.

Nigeria was losing 2-0 at home to South Africa, with 33 minutes left, on November 19, 2014, in the Africa Cup of Nations at the Akwa Ibom Stadium. Off the bench came a young Sone Aluko, bristling with pace. In less than half an hour, he scored two goals; the second, deep into injury time, a rasping long range scorcher into the bottom corner.

Aluko was enjoying the best of times; he was a regular for his English Premier League club, Hull City, in the season it took its first crack at European football. Within six months of that performance Hull City went down, following a 0-0 draw against Manchester United; with them went Aluko’s World Cup hopes for Russia 2018.

The Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) wants all its internationals to play top-flight football. Overnight Aluko found himself in wilderness.

There was hope, in 2016, as Hull City went back up to the Premier League, but Aluko, a key player in the promotion drive, was released by the club days after sealing promotion. He moved, on a free transfer, to London club Fulham. Despite a dashing season on the wing for Fulham, in which he scored goals and racked up 10 assists, the club fell at the play-offs and remain rooted in England’s second tier – the Championship.

A move to Reading, also mired in the Championship, means, Aluko stays chained to the second tier. He believes many Nigerians want him in the squad and feels the coach and the Nigeria Football Federation should reconsider.

“They need to review that rule – you can play if you are in the top league in Greece or Belgium but if you play in the Championship, a better quality league, you can’t play. It doesn’t make any sense,” says Aluko, across the table of a London restaurant.

“If I get promoted with Reading it could make me an outside bet, but people in Nigeria are saying I should be in the squad. I have not ruled it out, I could go, and they could make an exception for me. I want to go to the World Cup, everyone does. It is all a player dreams about.”

Think again, says Amaju Pinnick the President of the NFF.

“The NFF is not responsible for making the selection of who joins the team. That is the decision of the coach. I know the story of Sone but unfortunately we have just qualified and we want to focus on the good news moving forward, so the coach will not be available for comment,” he says.

“It is the coach that selects, not the federation, even though they have some sway in the decision but ultimately it is the call of the coach. But, yes, Sunday Oliseh who was the previous coach said he likes to pick players from the top division and I think most coaches in Nigeria want players who are playing at the highest level and the very best in the world rather than those playing in the lower divisions. Most European coaches like Gernot Rohr will not admit it but I think that is the case. An additional criterion, which Rohr has also added which you can see by his selection, is that he is trying to lower the average age of the players to 23 years, except for the likes of John Mikel Obi, Leon Balogun and the goalkeeper… So on these two key criteria, Aluko unfortunately falls outside. He is not in the top division and he also happens to be 28 years. I would pick him in a heartbeat, but unfortunately I am not the coach,” says Colin Udoh, a sports journalist in Nigeria.

READ MORE: The Winner Who Defied Death Fights For The Holy Grail

Outrageous fortune has left this attacking winger facing every gifted athlete’s nightmare – the prospect of being a nearly man.

Aluko was born to Nigerian emigres Daniel and Sileola Aluko in Hounslow, near London. His father went back to Lagos after a year where he became a senator and ended up a director at energy company Chevron. His mother stuck it out in England, where she qualified as a nurse, before launching her own health services company near where the family eventually settled in Kings Norton, in Birmingham.

It appeared that everything the young Aluko touched – be it tennis ball or a football – turned to gold. At the age of eight he was scoring goals for fun for Kings Heath Concorde in the Birmingham South League. This drew scouts from Birmingham City who signed him up on the spot. By the time he was 11 he also had ambitions to be tennis pro as he played for Warwickshire along with future Wimbledon star Dan Evans.  He seemed an all-rounder born to shine.

But professional football proved a struggle for Aluko, for all his courage, control and pace, because of a string of setbacks and bizarre ill luck.

Aluko was living his dream as a bright young 16-year-old warming up on the touchline, in the colors of Birmingham City, before 37,000 fans at Arsenal’s Highbury home. He was about to go on as a substitute, against Kolo Touré, Cesc Fabregas and Robert Pirès, to become one of the youngest players in Premier League history.

“I was still warming up when Kenny Cunningham got sent off, so I never came on,” he says with a smile.

Aluko had to wait until he was 18 to make his debut for Birmingham City’s first team, in a 2-1 win over Hereford United; a week later he went on a loan to Aberdeen that proved a purple patch. Three happy years, a taste of European football and 100 first team games.

“I had my first flat in Aberdeen and heard the fans sing my name for the first time,” he says. He also made it into the England under -19 team alongside some talented players: Andy Carroll, Danny Welbeck and Theo Walcott. He had a spell at Glasgow Rangers, in Scotland, before finally making it into the Premier League with Hull City.

Again, cruel fate took a hand. Seven games into the Premier League he was jogging across the pitch in a warm-up, before a game against Sunderland, when his Achilles snapped. He was stuck on the treatment bed and in the gym until January.

“It was a frustrating first year,” he says.

By then, on the international front, he had long made the switch from England to the land of his African ancestors.

“We grew up on Nigerian food and in my house the music was always Michael Jackson and Fela Kuti,”says Aluko.

“It was like a build-up, newspaper articles asking would I play for Nigeria. They contacted me through an official at the NFF and he asked me if I would be interested. Then I spoke to my family about it; then I thought about Jay-Jay Okocha and [Nwankwo] Kanu in the World Cup in 1998. That generation was the golden generation; my dream as a kid was to play for the Super Eagles. When I was at Hull, I almost took the number 44 jersey because [Okocha] wore it, but I decided at the last minute to plough my own furrow.”

READ MORE: The Day Football Crossed To Business

The winger never looked back and was always cheered by supporters wherever the Super Eagles played.

“Everywhere, from Malawi to Congo-Brazzaville, there were always 500 Nigerians at the airport to greet us, even at one o’clock in the morning!” says Aluko.

Sonny Aluko takes a selfie with the players at the Ambassador’s Cup, which he sponsors. (Photo supplied)

The latter country also gave Aluko a taste of the ugly side of African football.

“After 85 minutes we scored our second goal to go 2-0 up. The crowd started throwing stones onto the pitch, the linesman ran across the pitch, police came in with tear gas that left our eyes and nose running. We played the last five minutes in an empty stadium.”

Aluko survived that day and is putting money into grassroots football in Africa. For the last three years he has sponsored the Ambassador’s Cup, in Nigeria, contested by under-16 sides. He hopes the Nigerian coach and the NFF will be equally magnanimous.


Staying Flexible: With The Postponement Of The Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, This Gymnast’s Goal Hasn’t Changed



The 19-year-old South African gymnast was all set for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games in July, for which she had qualified. With the event’s postponement, her goal hasn’t changed, she says, only the timeline has. 

At just 19 years old, Caitlin Rooskrantz is South Africa’s gold medal-winning international gymnast.

From Florida, a small suburb in Roodepoort in Johannesburg, and currently in lockdown in the country, if the Covid-19 pandemic hadn’t happened, Rooskrantz would have now been intensely training for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games in July, for which she had qualified.

 “I qualified for the 2020 Games being the first woman in South Africa’s gymnastics history to have achieved an outright qualification at the world championships,” she told an audience of female powerhouses at the 2020 FORBES WOMAN AFRICA Leading Women Summit in Durban on March 6.

Even as a child, when she first took to gymnastics, she had been set on making it to the Olympics one day.   

The news of the Games’ postponement has been quite upsetting, but says Rooskrantz: “It is in the best interest of all the athletes because our health comes first, always!” Her favorite quote, in particular, comforts her at this time: “The goal hasn’t changed, just the timeline has, keep going!”

Her training has continued through the lockdown and it has kept her afternoons busy.

“We have set programs to keep up our strength, fitness and flexibility. To try and keep up my mental game, I watch videos daily of any past successful competitions. I analyse my training videos and try to mentally put myself in the video,” she says.

2019 had been “a spectacular year” for her.

“I managed to pass matric well with two distinctions and university entrance while training for my childhood dream. Not only did I bag South Africa’s first-ever gold medal on uneven bars on an international stage, but at just 18 years old, I made history,” she said at the summit, to an applauding audience. 

In an interview with FORBES AFRICA, Rooskrantz reflects on the days when it all started, as a young child, when she was a bundle of energy and her parents knew early on that they had to redirect that energy to sport.

A teenager now, but if Rooskrantz has already seen much success, she has also experienced tragedy and hardship.

When she was just eight, her father, from whom she inherited her deep love for sport, passed away. He took his own life.

She had been training at a gymnastics center a few kilometers from home, but that had to stop because of the tragedy and transportation issues. But her former trainer took it upon herself to regularly drive her there.

“Everything started escalating and things took a turn. I dropped all my school sports because I didn’t have any time for them; I had to pick one, especially with the high demand of gym,” she says.

Rooskrantz was placed on a high-performance program and soon started traveling; training more than four hours a day six days a week at the age of 11. This was the intermediate level of her tumbling (a gymnastic feat including the execution of acrobatic feats) profession and the best was yet to come.

Her first overseas trip was to Australia for a training camp in 2012. A few months later, Rooskrantz competed in Serbia for her first international competition. It might have not been the best competition for her, but it was great exposure.

In 2014, South Africa hosted the African gymnastics championships with Rooskrantz the youngest member of the junior team.

“I did well, I don’t remember falling and I made it to the bar finals and that was the time I started to realize my potential on the asymmetric bar. I left that with a big boost to my confidence.” 

The young student was progressing quickly, reaching new heights.

On her last year as a junior in the 2016 Junior Commonwealth Games in Namibia, she made three apparatus finals; asymmetric bar, vault and the balancing beam.

An injury kept her away from the Commonwealth Games in Australia in 2018, when she went in for surgery and was off the apparatus for months.

“I was in bed after my operation but back at gym a week after, still on crutches, working on my upper body. In a sport like gymnastics, when you are that injured, it is critical to do something because you lose strength, flexibility and fitness. I was also working on my mental state,” she says of those hard days. Her coach told her the surgery was either going to make or break her career. She was determined to return stronger. She did, and how.

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All Home And No Play: Not Since World War II Has The Global Sports Industry Faced Such A Crippling Crisis



Not since World War II has the global sports industry faced such a crippling crisis, which is likely to cost billions of dollars in lost revenue and could yet see the permanent extinction of some teams and competitions.

The coronavirus pandemic that has spread across the world has the potential to change the face of sports forever, and Africa will not be spared, with one administrator suggesting the outbreak could set their game back 20 years.

The severity of the impact will be determined by how long it takes for society to live alongside the pandemic, but even if that were to happen in June, there has already been significant damage done.

Confederation of African Football (CAF) President Ahmad Ahmad has tried to provide a positive outlook, but knows the complexity of the situation on the continent is dire.

None of the 54 domestic leagues in Africa was still running in May, as Burundi was the last to close up shop the month before, but just when cross-border competitions such as the lucrative CAF Champions League, and qualifiers for the Africa Cup of Nations and World Cup, can resume, is anybody’s guess given travel restrictions are likely to be in place for some time, and vary from country to country.

“CAF is already focused on the conditions for relaunching our competitions and our events,” Ahmad said in comments supplied to FORBES AFRICA.

“Never has a crisis of such great magnitude crossed the world, never has world sport decreed so many postponements of its programs and never has such a tsunami struck the most basic sporting practice.

“We are now condemned to rebuild the basics, or at least to reinforce them, to energize them so that at the time of recovery, we will be the best structured and best disposed to conquer or re-conquer, the dry territories of sport and football.

It is Ahmad’s way of saying that any thought of returning to pre-coronavirus levels of engagement and sponsorship are fanciful in the short-term, or perhaps even medium-term.

His suggestion of having to “rebuild the basics” is a key admission and will be the same for many sports that face a sponsorship vacuum from some of the world’s leading brands.

When airlines, major sponsors of African sport, have been laying off staff and cut their schedules to next to nothing, can they justify pumping millions of dollars into sport?

The same for car manufactures, loss-making banks and oil companies hit by the drop in the price of crude.

The health conditions to allow play for many sports in Africa may return this year, but the question is whether there will be the financial support vital to being able to play the game.

Selwyn Nathan, commissioner of South Africa’s Sunshine Tour and a leading expert on global golf, suggests the pandemic may return the sport to the year 2000 in terms of financial capabilities.

“It could be like starting a business all over again, you can’t have an attitude that people [sponsors] will just come back,” Nathan says.

“It’s not something unique to Africa, or sport anywhere in the world, but we are going to have to change the way we do things.

“Players will have to accept that they are not going to be playing for the same money, and organizers must accept they will have to ask for less [money] and possibly do more just to retain sponsors.

“It is going to fundamentally change the way we operate and we have to adapt to that.”

Winners in some co-sanctioned Sunshine Tour and European Tour golf events can earn upwards of $1.5-million per tournament, but Nathan believes those numbers will be fanciful for the foreseeable future and it is likely to be a fraction of that.

The pandemic could be the death knell for ailing Super Rugby, the southern hemisphere club championship that has been hanging on for dear life, as it was, due to dwindling interest and its format that sees players criss-cross the globe between Argentina, Australia, South Africa, New Zealand and Japan.

In the case of world champion Springboks, that could actually work in their favor and see them looking north to Europe for club and country competitions, where the TV revenues are greater and load on players less, according to respected Stormers coach John Dobson.

“I believe there will be a restructuring of the game and that could be at Super Rugby’s expense,” Dobson says. “There could be stronger focus on domestic competitions with less travel and more tailored for television, because ultimately, that is where you get the revenue to run the game.

“It’s critical you have a product that is appealing to rugby fans, and after this period, maybe that will rather involve South African teams playing in the [European] Heineken Cup. I don’t know, but something has to change.”

Nicolas Pompigne-Mognard, who is chairman of the APO Group, a communication and business consultancy in Africa, says he has seen first-hand the toll the virus has taken on sports federations almost across the board.

“I think, unfortunately, it will have a devastating effect for many. First of all, athletes cannot train properly and when you are at the level of international competition, just a few percentage points off can compromise your body,” he says.

“Added to that, there is no competition and the longer this goes on, the longer it will take for athletes to return to peak performances, so in the near term, you will have a poorer product for television and sponsors.”

Pompigne-Mognard says cross-border competitions are vital in Africa and it is in these multi-national tournaments where many federations across different sports make most of their revenue.

“Each African nation is unlikely to return to full health at the same time, so, for example, the Basketball Africa League, which involves 12 teams from across the continent has to be put on hold until travel is possible.

“It will go ahead, but the question is when and what are the financial consequences of this? It is something that we cannot quantify now, so we live in this state of uncertainty and that is not good for anybody, sport or business.”

The postponement of the Tokyo Olympic Games to 2021 has brought much relief for many athletes, who had seen their training regimes brought to a halt, or at best conducted in the confines of their own home.

Olympic gold medalist swimmer Chad le Clos had had to make do with what he has at home while in lockdown in South Africa, one of thousands of elite athletes from across Africa in similar situations.

“It is what it is and I am happy with the decision (to move the Olympics) that has been made,” Le Clos says. “I have a small pool at home, so I attach a cord that allows me to stay stationary as I swim.”

 “We cannot afford to take a break, even in lockdown. You cannot let yourself lose the months and months of work that you have put into your body.

“I don’t know where or when I will compete again, but you have to stay positive. You have to hope for the best, that is all we can do.”

-Nick Said

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Ronaldo’s $105 Million Year Tops Messi And Crowns Him Soccer’s First Billion-Dollar Man




Add another zero to soccer’s most expensive rivalry.

Cristiano Ronaldo earned $105 million before taxes and fees in the past year, landing him at No. 4 on the 2020 Forbes Celebrity 100, one spot above his top rival in the sport, Lionel Messi, and making him the first soccer player in history to earn $1 billion.  

The 35-year-old striker is only the third athlete to hit mark while still playing following Tiger Woods, who did it in 2009 on the back of his long term endorsement deal with Nike NKE, and Floyd Mayweather in 2017, who’s made most of his income from a cut of pay-per-view sales for his boxing matches. 

Ronaldo, the first to do it in a team sport, has made $650 million during his 17 years on the pitch, and is expected to reach $765 million in career salary after his current contract ends in June 2022. Messi, who began playing at the senior level three years after Ronaldo, has earned a total of $605 million in salary since 2005. The only team athlete to even come within striking distance of those figures was former New York Yankees slugger Alex Rodriguez, who retired in 2016 after 22 years in MLB having earned $450 million in salary. Not even soccer legend David Beckham came close, ending his career with total earnings of $500 million, half of which came from off-pitch endorsements. 

“Cristiano Ronaldo is one of the greatest players of all time, in the world’s most popular sport, in an era when football has never been so rich,” said Sporting Intelligence’s Nick Harris, whose Global Sports Salaries Survey ranks teams worldwide based on total salary expense. “He’s box office.”

Ronaldo and Messi’s head-to-heads heated up in Spain’s La Liga in 2009, where Ronaldo played for Real Madrid and Messi for Barcelona. Their faceoffs on the pitch ignited a nine-year battle for bragging rights as the best — and top-paid — in the sport, a highly personal tit-for-tat that had them re-negotiating contracts in lockstep and monopolizing the game’s highlight reel. 

The rivalry was as entertaining as it was profitable, coming just as clubs around the world were seeing soaring attendance and an influx of television money. The two were perfectly matched for battle, on and off the pitch: Ronaldo perfected a shirtless, stylized showmanship while Messi played the quiet game, always a tad unkempt and as prolific a scorer as he was a wingman. Ronaldo strutted after every goal. Messi was a master at thanking his teammates. 

Both backed it up. Barcelona won the La Liga title six times and two Champions Leagues trophies with Messi on the squad. Real Madrid won the Spanish title twice and the Champions League four times with Ronaldo. During their years in the league, each player nabbed four Ballon d’Ors (soccer’s MVP) and their El Classicos, the nickname for their clubs fierce clashes, were record-setting television events worldwide. 

But when it came to leveraging celebrity, it has been no contest. Guided by Jorge Mendes of Gestifute, one of the world’s most powerful agents, Ronaldo has amassed an ever-growing following of fans and consumers drawn to his poster-boy good looks, trend-setting hair styles, impeccable fashion sense and, lately, his softer side as a family man whose toddlers pop up on his social media posts. In January he became the first person with 200 million followers on Instagram, part of a social media army of 427 million across Facebook, Instagram and Twitter that makes him the most popular athlete on the planet. 

Nike pays him upwards of $20 million annually and signed him to a lifetime deal in 2016, making him just the third athlete after Michael Jordan and LeBron James hitched to the Swoosh for eternity. In May, the footwear maker announced the release of a 10-year anniversary edition of his first signature Mercurial Superfly and a child’s version to celebrate his son’s 10th birthday, complete with his famous celebration stance, signature and logo. Pitches for Clear shampoo, Herbalife HLF, and pharmaceutical maker Abbott help raise his endorsement tally to $45 million.

Ronaldo, Inc. even has a trademark — CR7, a mix of his initials and jersey number — part of a lifestyle brand that Forbes estimates accounts for a quarter of his annual endorsement income, including branded underwear that debuted in 2013 that was followed by a line of shoes, fragrances and denim wear. He partnered with Pestana Hotel Group in 2015 to open his first property a year later in his hometown of Funchal, Madeira, right above Museu CR7, a shrine for his trophies and a retail outlet for his merchandise. He’s since added CR7 clubs with Crunch Fitness, posts workout routines on YouTube and has attached his name to a social media influencing degree offered by Italian online university eCampus.

And the rivalry is far from done.

Ronaldo’s 2020 earnings include a salary of $60 million, slightly less than last year due to a 30% pay cut he agreed to take this April as a result of the pandemic. Messi, who earned $104 million in the past year after taking a 70% pay cut while coronavirus sidelined play, is poised to surpass $1 billion in all-time earnings as soon as next year, before his current Barca contract ends.

Christina Settimi, Forbes Staff, SportsMoney

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