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Nigeria; Where Football Is Life

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Xavi has just got the ball from Sergio Busquets; Casillas makes the run to the edge of the penalty area as he receives the ball, dribbles past one opponent before playing a through-ball for Zidane, who lays it on for Iniesta on the left wing. Iniesta curls in a cross; Christiano Ronaldo rises at the far post to meet it with a powerful header –goal! The stadium erupts in thunderous cheer with cameras synchronizing in a blinding daze of flashes.

Unfortunately, this is not the commentary for a charity match with legendary players from the upper strata of football. There are no cameras in sight and instead of pristine, beautifully landscaped Astro Turf, we have sandy and rocky grounds.

Representing their icons are Obinna ‘Xavi’, Balo ‘Sergio Busquets’, Tola ‘Casillas’, Dayo ‘Zidane’ and Kola ‘Ronaldo’. We are in Lagos, Nigeria, watching the final game between two under-17 teams in the local league cup. The winner gets bragging rights as well as some products from a local FCMG brand.

Football is an overwhelming moment of beauty, spirit and pride and in the most populous country in Africa, that passion is palpable. Gianni Infantino, FIFA President, who was in Lagos at the maiden edition of the AITEO-Nigerian Football Federation (NFF) Awards this year, summed up this love perfectly.

“I was told that in Nigeria, football is passion, but it is a lie because it is more than that. In Nigeria, I was told that football is love, but it is a lie it is more than that. In Nigeria, I was told that football is a religion, but it is a lie. It is more than that. In Nigeria, football is life,” he says in his opening address to a room full of corporate executives, the upper echelons of power in government as well as the hall of fame of Nigerian football.

“Football is also business; when we can harness it properly, a lot of money can be made for the country through the game.”

The country’s love affair with the sport has blossomed over the years into an obsessive relationship. At a buka (local restaurant) in Surulere, a waiter is nearly slapped by an angry fan when he mistakenly changes the channel from a game between Chelsea and Man U to Soundcity, the indigenous 24-hour music channel that is a favorite of most of its diners.

After a heated exchange, the manager apologizes for the interruption and the game is back on. Commonsense is restored. Although this is a repeat match, the men watch intensely with the same passion and vigor of a live game.

“We found that football is the main pull for customers to our restaurant. They are passionate about football. It has turned into a family. Our customers come from all over Lagos to watch the games and once they are here, they have to eat and drink so it’s a win-win for us,” says Nnamdi Mayowa, owner of the restaurant.

As he speaks, a cheer rings out from outside the restaurant. Hordes of football fans have gathered to also catch a glimpse of the action and as any good football story goes, it all began with the kick of the ball in 1945.

That year, the Nigerian Football Federation was introduced as the governing body for the sport. Nigeria subsequently began participating in Africa’s Challenge Cup in the 1960s. Since then, the national team known affectionately as ‘The Super Eagles’, have had a fair number of successes. They won bronze medals in the 1978 and 1979 African Cup of Nations (AFCON) and in 1980, they won the championship in Lagos.

In 1984 and 1988, Nigeria subsequently captured silver medals in the tournament. Football had come to stay and with it a number of international stars were born and shipped to some of the world’s most successful football clubs with lucrative deals.

Then came the dark years. In 2010, Nigeria finished bottom of their group in South Africa with just one point from three matches after losing to Argentina and Greece and drawing with South Korea. In response, the then President Goodluck Jonathan banned the team from competing in the sport for two years. Then followed their exit at the 2014 World Cup where they lost to France, and a subsequent failure to qualify for the 2015 and 2017 editions of the AFCON. Nigerian football morale was at an all-time low.

Finally, a shimmer of light emerged at the end of the tunnel. The Super Eagles breezed through their group stage of the FIFA World Cup Qualifiers to earn a spot as one of only five African countries to make it to Russia 2018.

They were unbeaten in six matches with four wins and two draws, scoring 12 goals and only conceding four times, an incredible feat that took the team, led by German tactician, Gernot Rohr, to their sixth FIFA World Cup.

For Nigerians of this era, there is no sporting moment more significant than this triumph, especially as it is achieved against a backdrop of a sputtering economy that has gripped the country since the fall in crude oil prices and the Foreign Exchange (FX) fiasco of 2016 and 2017. The 2019 elections are also on the horizon and with it, greater economic uncertainty for Nigerians. The country has been increasingly marred by public dissent reflecting the mounting anger over an absentee president. To make matters worse, Nigeria has more than 300 tribes, making a consensus of any kind at the best of times, almost impossible to reach.

“We call football the unifying factor. When Nigeria is playing everyone comes together, we forget our tribes, we forget our differences, we even forget our religion. We all hug together when we do well and we all sulk together when we lose. Football is also business; when we can harness it properly, a lot of money can be made for the country through the game,” says Akin Alabi, founder of NairaBET, a leader in a wide range of betting opportunities on all sports.

Having attended two World Cups, South Africa in 2010 and Brazil in 2014, Alabi firmly has his eyes set on Russia.

“I want them to get to a quarter appearance. That will be the best-case scenario for me because I do not think we have gotten further than that,” he says.

However, he is quick to point out that this is not Nigeria’s strongest team.

“I think our 1994 team was fantastic. We do not have the caliber of players we had then, but no one has the perfect team out there. This is a national team and not like pro football where you can take money and buy whichever player you want. You have to make do with those that are available from the country you are from. So we are hoping it goes well,” says Alabi.

He believes the prospects of an African country actually bringing back the cup is far-fetched. Countries like Germany for example have a well-oiled football development machine, which helps them churn out a lot of quality players, which any African team cannot match right now.

“The German team is called a German machine for a reason, they have a well-oiled team and continuity. Their manager has been there for years on various World Cups so everything is run professionally. In Nigeria and Africa, when it is time for a match, we just invite players to run and play so that cannot work. We need better development in terms of processes,” says Alabi.

However, Brian Okonkwo is adamant Nigeria will go all the way to the finals. But then again, he would be. As a member of the Nigeria Football Supporters Club, he has dedicated his life to the advancement of the sport that saved his life as a troubled youth.

“When I was younger I used to be in an armed robbery gang and we did a lot of bad things to innocent people. I was on a fast track to jail or death but luckily, someone from my family was able to help me turn over a new leaf by introducing me to football,” says Okonkwo.

He has been present in all Nigeria’s five World Cup appearances in the past.

READ MORE: African, Football, Cup Up Aces’ Sleeve

“I think we have everything it takes to bring this home for our people, the team simply needs the support of the country behind them and that is our job. We are with them all the way and we need the resources to enable us to do our job,” says Okonkwo.

According to the Club’s National Chairman, Samuel Ikpea, the club will take 1,000 people to Russia to cheer and support the Super Eagles. This means 1,000 visa applications, 1,000 hotel rooms and 1,000 mouths to feed for the duration of the Russia 2018 tournament.

“Football is a passion of the nation and we do this job out of love for the sport. We have been in this business for a long time and we are already sourcing for funds to ensure that we get to Russia. Unfortunately, it is difficult because we have not been able to receive any funds from the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) or the ministry of sports since this new government came,” says Ikpea.

According to Ikpea, this differs to the previous government who invested $140,000 to help them cover expenses to support the Super Eagles in the last World Cup.

“Teams like Nigeria come into the World Cup and historically something happens. They look great in the qualifiers then everything falls apart, something happens with the federation, somebody doesn’t get paid and now all of a sudden this team is in disarray going into the competition,” says Marcus Dawson, a sports commentator for Metro TV.

In the absence of adequate infrastructure, and in spite of the paucity of training facilities, football is played on streets, paths or fields. The potential of the sport has not been realized in the country due to the lack of support from corporate organizations that only see football as a CSR initiative instead of a lucrative business venture.

As a result, the NFF is fighting to ensure the team has adequate resources to efficiently compete in Russia. According to Amaju Pinnick, President of the NFF, the organization is working on generating $2.8 million for the Super Eagles’ participation in the games.

“Failure is not an option in the FIFA World Cup and we need to come together to ensure we provide the team with everything they need to make it through,” says Pinnick.

The organization receives support from private organizaitons like Aiteo who have a focus on developing the quality of football in Nigeria. So far, Aiteo has paid the sum of $600,000 and $890,000 to cover its contractual obligation of providing support to the technical crew of the Super Eagles for the whole of 2018, well beyond the World Cup, according to Deputy Managing Director, Francis Peters.

READ MORE: Wounded Swallows Roast In Football Hell

This however pales in comparison to investment in sports by their European counterparts. In a little more than a decade, Germany has invested nearly $1 billion in its youth soccer programs, with academies run by professional teams and training centers overseen by the national soccer association, the Deutscher Fussball Bund, according to a report in The New York Times.

Also of grave concern was the issue of the selection process for the team, which sparked widespread debates across the country. Like the case of Sone Aluko, a professional football player, who is a striker for Fulham FC but could not make it on the coveted team shortlist.

“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 are just focused on getting the team ready for Russia 2018,” says Pinnick.

Colin Udoh, a leading journalist and sports presenter, shares his insights on the team selection methodology used by the coach.

“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 division,” he says.

Secondly, Udoh claims that most European coaches like Rohr will not admit this is what they do. An additional criteria, which Rohr has also added to this team’s selection process evident in the team representing the Super Eagles, is the attempt to lower the average age of the players to 23 years except for John Mikel Obi, Leon Balogun and the goalkeeper where he is trying to integrate a bit of experience into team. So on these two key criteria, most players like Aluko unfortunately will fall out of contention.

“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. If you look at the way the team have qualified for the World Cup, you cannot argue with the results. Apart from that one loss against South Africa, Rohr has masterminded the success of the team to qualify for the World Cup and it is going to be hard to argue with that result,” adds Udoh.

It has been a long road to get here. Nigeria could qualify through the group stages by having the best balance of exciting promise and solidity. In every nook and cranny, and from every social stratum and walk of life, one thing is undeniable, and that is the game of football permeates every aspect of Nigerian culture, and Russia 2018 is another opportunity for the country to put away the differences and unite for this all-important goal.

After all, football in Nigeria is life.

Nigeria’s supporters celebrate after their team scored the opening goal against Burkina Faso during the 2013 African Cup of Nations. Photo Getty Images.

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More Olympians In South Africa’s Pools

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Chad le Clos recently returned from the Commonwealth Games on Australia’s Gold Coast, where he grew his legend further with three gold medals, a silver and a bronze.

He has now set his sights on the World Swimming Championships in Hangzhou, China, in December, as well as the next Olympics in Tokyo in two years’ time, where he expects to face greater challengers as a new group of young swimmers emerge.

The 26-year-old’s favorite medal from the Commonwealth Games did not come from his individual haul of golds, but was rather the bronze he collected in the 4 x 100-meter medley race, which gives an insight into his psyche. Swimming is mostly an individual sport, but Le Clos is clearly a team player.

“Truthfully, the best race for me was the relay on the final day when we got the bronze,” Le Clos tells FORBES AFRICA.

 Chad le Clos is thinking of life outside of the pool and hoping to launch swimming academies across South Africa. Photo Provided.

“We had guys that weren’t meant to be swimming in those events, they were specialists in other disciplines.

“Earlier, we had finished sixth or seventh [in the heats], so to touch in third ahead of Scotland in the final was amazing and it felt like a gold medal to me.

“It was really tough, but the guys put it together when it mattered and that makes it really special.”

Le Clos confirmed his status as South Africa’s premier athlete in the pool with golds in the 50-, 100- and 200-meter butterfly events, as well as a silver in the 100-meter freestyle.

“The butterfly treble was great because nobody has done that before and it was a big goal of mine. To win my third consecutive 200-meter butterfly gold was also very special as it means I have now been Commonwealth Games champion for eight years, which is a big achievement.

“So from a personal point of view I was happy with my individual achievements, though I also believe that we should have medalled in the 100-meter freestyle relay.

“But it was maybe not the team that should have gone, none were specialist 100-meter freestyle swimmers and although everybody did great times, it wasn’t enough, which was a big disappointment for me.”

Le Clos is already South Africa’s most decorated Olympian with a gold and three silver medals, a haul he is looking to add to in Tokyo, something he says will be increasingly difficult with a new generation of swimmers coming through.

“You can see them emerging and wonder how good they will be in two years,” Le Clos says.

“There is an 18-year-old Hungarian boy [Kristóf Milák] who is already just one second off the world record in the 200-meter butterfly. I think I will have to swim pretty close to the world record to get gold.

“But it is also exciting for world swimming and the sport. You need new stars and as an individual that pushes you to work even harder. It is a major source of motivation.”

Le Clos is no veteran, but he has already been in the South African swimming team for close to 10 years and is thinking of life outside of the pool with the recent launch of the Chad Le Clos Academy in his adopted hometown of Cape Town.

READ MORE: Swimming Against The Tide

His dream is to have academies all over South Africa, as well as internationally, with five more planned to open before the end of the year.

“It has been a passion project of mine for the last five years and finally we have managed to get it off the ground,” he says.

“We want to start with kids as young as five years old, initially showing them how fun swimming can be before later on developing individual programs that will help them achieve their swimming goals.

“And those goals don’t have to be to make it to the Olympics. It might just be to swim for their school, or make it to the national finals. But obviously it is a dream of mine to develop boys and girls to swim for South Africa at the Olympics, that would just be unbelievable and something I would cherish for the rest of my life.”

Le Clos has helped develop the swimming program for the Academy, the first of which is based in Claremont in the Mother City, which he says is very different to how kids are traditionally trained in South Africa.

“I have always been of the opinion that we push kids too hard in their early years. So by the age of 17 or 18 they are burned out in the pool, or they have left the sport before then because it is all too much.

“The example I always use is if you have two boys, both aged 11, one is a swimmer and the other a rugby player.

“Traditionally, that swimmer would be in the pool doing 65 kilometers a week, the same training schedule as myself, Cameron van der Burgh or Tatjana Schoenmaker would do when we train for the Olympics.

READ MORE: How Far Would You Swim To Conquer Your Fear?

“But you would not ask that 11-year-old rugby player to train against The Beast [Springbok Tendai Mtawarira], it would be madness.

“So it is all about pacing the training correctly to ensure that our swimmers peak at the right age and continue to have the love for swimming. They must want to get into that pool, not see it as a chore and something they dread.

“We also teach the kids respect for the sport and respect for their coaches, no matter what background they come from or how talented they are. That is very important to me.”

The ongoing drought in Cape Town has scuppered plans for a purpose-built facility for the first academy, but that will come, according to Le Clos.

“There has been an amazing response so far and it is the program that we will franchise out. Hopefully we will have another five opening in the next six months all over South Africa.

“We will be training the coaches according to our program, and the hope is to take it international, but for now we just want to have it running smoothly in South Africa first.”

Le Clos believes he has another “six or eight” years left to compete in the pool and hopes one day to perhaps have one of his pupils as a national teammate.

“I said to my Dad [Bert] the other day how it would be a dream of mine to walk a kid to the Olympics. It would mean so much to me. Maybe that will happen while I am still on the national team, and we swim together, wouldn’t that be something?”

– Nick Said

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Nigeria’s John Mikel Obi Counts Himself Lucky

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By the time the next World Cup rolls around, Nigeria captain John Mikel Obi will be 34.

Considering coach Gernot Rohr’s deliberate moves to lower the average age of the Super Eagles (Nigeria’s national football team), it’s doubtful if the silky midfielder will still be suiting up in green-white-green by then.

It would appear that Russia 2018 will mark one final top-level hurrah in Mikel’s illustrious career, one that has seen him win everything in European club football and represent his country at all levels and in every major competition.

Like many former Super Eagles’ captains before him ahead of a major championship, Mikel, who now plays in the Chinese Super League with Tianjin Teda, is coy about his post World Cup plans.

“I don’t know what I will do after the World Cup,” he tells FORBES AFRICA.

“I think we have to focus on doing well first and making the country proud.”

Despite all he has achieved, there is still some debate as to whether the former teenage prodigy has fulfilled his potential, but Russia presents him with an opportunity to forge a legacy and grow his legend further.

It’s a sign of how highly he was thought of when he first burst on the scene that this is even a debate after he has racked up an impressive collection of trophies, including multiple Premier League titles with Chelsea, the FA Cup, UEFA Champions League, Europa League, and the Africa Cup of Nations titles.

READ MORE: Big Money, Big Dreams: Africa’s Chances At The World Cup

At Mikel’s first international game, an African Under-17 World Cup qualifier against South Africa in Kaduna, visiting coach Serame Letsoaka said of the emerging starlet:

“Your number 10 is a special player, he has the potential to be a great player.”

Letsoaka was not alone. By the time the country returned from an ultimately unsuccessful
FIFA Under-17 World Cup Finals in 2003, Mikel was already marked down for greatness in Nigeria.

Less than two years later, that attention went global when he became the subject of a three-way transfer controversy involving Chelsea, Manchester United and Norwegian club Lyn Oslo.

By the time the dust settled, Mikel ended up at Chelsea, where many Nigerians still believe his creative juices were squeezed and stifled by manager José Mourinho.

For Mikel himself, the argument is moot and he seems satisfied with his achievements, though leading Nigeria past the quarter-finals of the World Cup would perhaps even be the highlight.

“I think I have been lucky. I have had a good career, played for one of the best football clubs in the world, with some great players and won a lot of titles. I think that is a great honor for me.”

And he has gone from budding starlet to senior player in a captaincy role that always comes with great expectation and responsibility.

It is something that he has taken on and he knows that leadership on and off the pitch will be as important as anything else in Russia.

“I remember when I came into the national team as a young player, a lot of the older players helped me. Now, we have a young team, time has gone so fast and I have to help these guys too.”

Promoted from the Under-20 squad after helping Nigeria to a silver medal and winning the Silver Ball behind Lionel Messi at the FIFA World Youth Championship in 2005, Mikel was named in Nigeria’s squad for the 2006 Africa Cup of Nations and announced himself with a goal and assist after coming on as a substitute.

Already heightened expectations went into overdrive. With midfield legend Austin Okocha (Nigerian former professional footballer) on his last legs, Mikel was immediately installed as the next Jay-Jay.

Mikel, with a more direct, technical skill-set, is the direct opposite of Okocha’s more flair-oriented toolbox, which not only made that characterization unfair, but also spawned that unending debate about (un)fulfilled potential.

And it is. Since being named captain two years ago, Mikel has shown a level of leadership and drive that few believed he had.

Those qualities, both on and off the pitch, contributed in large parts to Nigeria’s uncharacteristically drama-free World Cup qualification campaign.

On the pitch, and unshackled with the freedom to roam handed to him by Rohr, Mikel drove the team forward almost by sheer force of will, with his goals against Algeria and then Cameroon major turning points in Nigeria’s qualification run.

READ MORE: The Grounded Super Eagle Who Wants To Fly To The Next World Cup

Off the pitch, Mikel’s quiet diplomatic approach with officialdom to resolve team issues contrasted with the confrontational methods of the past and helped forge harmony within the squad.

“He is our captain and he is very important for us,” Rohr never tires of saying at every opportunity, clearly delighted to be working with a personality he feels is similar to his own.

Such is the respect Mikel commands within the squad that he is almost like a centrifugal force whenever he is present. And even when he is not, his aura still hovers around the team.

In two recent friendlies against Poland and Serbia in March, there seemed to be a general consensus that the team lacked cohesion without the captain.

In his absence, the Super Eagles struggled to maintain any semblance of fluidity or create opportunities.

Which may be why he almost feels a heavy responsibility to guide this young side, who will have one of the lowest squad average ages, to a good tournament.

But it hasn’t just been words. He has done it already, dipping into his own pocket to pay the team costs as they prepared for the Olympic Games in 2016.

Not many expect Nigeria to go beyond their best previous World Cup outing of the Round of 16. But if there is one thing that Mikel’s career has shown, it is that collecting trophies have become second nature.

His first World Cup tournament ended in a first-round exit, albeit by a drawing of lots. What odds that his last, where Nigeria faced Argentina, Iceland and Croatia, would finish at the other end of the spectrum?

– By Colin Udoh

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Big Money, Big Dreams: Africa’s Chances At The World Cup

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Not only is the Football World Cup the most watched sporting event in the world, it is also among the most lucrative. It makes more money than any other sporting spectacle apart from the Olympic Games and attracts more eyeballs than anything else on the small screen.

The 2014 World Cup reached almost half the global population of 7 billion people, according to a report released by FIFA and Kantar Media. In-home television audiences were reported at 3.2 billion people, with the final viewed by a billion people – and everything about the World Cup just keeps super-sizing.

In 2026, 48 teams will compete at the World Cup, 16 more than the current field of 32; 80 matches will be played, 18 more than the current 64; and revenue will skyrocket with FIFA’s early calculations suggesting a more than $700 million hike in profits.

While those eye-popping numbers can be ogled at and analyzed over the next nine years, for this year’s tournament FIFA have continued the trend of increasing the prize money for the World Cup, which has happened for the last five editions. In 2018, rewards have increased by 40%.

A total of $400 million will be shared among the 32 participating teams, with each team set to finish with a minimum of $9.5 million ($1.5 million in preparation fee and $8 million for a group stage exit). The winners will take home $38 million.

That’s a lot of many to dish out for an organization that spent a significant time between May 2015 and February 2016 muddling through a massive corruption scandal, which resulted in 18 people and two corporations being indicted and a complete change of the guard.

Sepp Blatter’s 17-year reign at FIFA was ended when he was slapped with an eight-year ban (since reduced to six years) for an unethical offering of a cash gift and conflicts of interest. He was replaced in an interim capacity by Cameroon’s Issa Hayatou, who served president of the Confederation of African Football for 29 years and was initially accused of accepting a bribe, a charge he denied. In fact, no-one involved in the scandal was African, though a payment of $10 million from Danny Jordaan – president of the South African Football Association – to FIFA, which was then sent on to Jack Warner, head of the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association, apparently intended as developmental support, was key in Warner’s downfall. Jordaan escaped unscathed.

Hayatou was never intended to be a long-term appointment and handed over to Gianni Infantino in 2016. At 46 years old, Infantino became the youngest FIFA president since the Second World War, but has yet to properly win the hearts or minds of the football-following public.

A survey endorsed by Transparency International in March last year, 12 months after Infantino took over, revealed that 53% of the 25,000 fans who responded to the questionnaire do not have confidence in FIFA as an organization, while 98% of people claimed to still be concerned about corruption. More tellingly, for the purposes of this story and the tournament that will take place in June, 43% of people disapproved of Russia as hosts for the World Cup.

Some of that sentiment stems from the process of allocating World Cup hosts, which was investigated and shown to be questionable, some of had come from Russia’s involvement in the Ukraine and the third group of nay-sayers would have been those appalled by the history of racism in the Russian game, something that remains of particular concern for African players. Feelings aside, on June 14 the first whistle will blow and the tournament will kick off.

FIFA will hope the flagship event will take some of the focus off a turbulent last few years and pave the way for a more transparent and inclusive future. Here is a complete guide to what the organization is hoping can be forgotten, how the World Cup will be funded and what the African continent can hope to achieve from sport’s greatest showpiece.

Financial Losses and Forecasts

The effects of the scandal that dogged FIFA through most of 2015 were largely financial. An article published by The Economist in June 2017, revealed that FIFA lost three times more money in 2016 than in 2015 – $369 million – and were forecasting an even greater deficit in 2017, of $489 million. But in March 2018, FIFA’s annual report revealed losses of only $191.5 million in 2017, leading to the organization declaring itself as having had a “successful year for all key financial parameters”.  Still, FIFA’s reserves, which had been above $1 billion since 2008, dipped.

READ MORE: The FBI Tackles Fifa

Not all of the loss was due to the scandal; it was also attributed to more funding for members and changes to the accounting system. Legal bills more than doubled, from $20 million in 2015 to $50 million in 2016, and FIFA invested in a museum which cost $190 million, which added to their total costs.

FIFA anticipates a smoother financial road in its next four-year cycle and expects to earn $6.65 billion between 2019 and 2022 inclusive. It also plans to raise payouts to member associations in that time, with each to receive $1.5 million, an increase of $250,000 and FIFA hopes to end the 2022 World Cup with reserves of $1.9 billion.

“I am very pleased to see that Fifa is able to deliver on its promises,” Infantino said. “We had committed to restoring trust in the organization and boosting investments for the development of football worldwide. This is now a reality.”

Sponsorship

A major consequence of the corruption scandal was the loss of sponsors, which make up a significant portion of World Cup revenue. Big name companies such as Sony, Emirates, Castrol and Johnson & Johnson opted not to renew their contracts. By June last year, FIFA had only secured 12 sponsors out of 34 for the World Cup and only one of them was Russian, Moscow’s Alfa-Bank. “With one year to go, this situation is unheard of,” Michael Payne, a former marketing chief for the International Olympic Committee told The Economist at the time.

Since then, FIFA have lined up several more firms, many of them Chinese. Wanda, a private-property developer, electronics company HiSense, smartphone maker Vivo, dairy company Mengniu, and electric vehicle firm Yadea, were all signed on by February as Chinese interest in FIFA grows.

“Mengniu is one of the biggest dairy producers in the world and is a strong brand in the Chinese market. Growing the game worldwide is one of our key priorities, and we now have another strong official sponsor in such an important region,” FIFA’s commercial manager Philippe Le Floc’h said when the dairy company signed off.

China’s interest in FIFA is particularly intriguing because of the country’s interest in hosting the World Cup. Chinese president Xi Jinping met with Infantino last June and a statement released by FIFA said Jinping had “expressed his hope, and the dream of many Chinese people, that the country would have the opportunity to host a FIFA Men’s World Cup at some stage in the future.”

Though China has not made any official statements about bidding for a tournament, speculation is high that they are interested in either the 2030 or 2034 edition.

Meanwhile, Qatar Airways have replaced Emirates until 2022, the year in which the World Cup will be held in Qatar.

Africa’s Big Five

This year, the continent will be represented by three North African and two West African teams, but current Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) champions Cameroon are not among them. Neither are any teams from the east or south of the continent, which largely stems from the professional experience of players from these regions. North and West African players often gain experience in European leagues, especially France, while players in the east and south are less likely to find deals abroad.

Big things will be expected from the five nations, especially as no African team has progressed beyond the quarterfinals of a World Cup. A final four finish will be considered a major triumph as the continent continues to dream of its first world champions.

READ MORE: ‘For 111 Years Fifa Has Not Had An African’

On paper, Tunisia enter the tournament as the best hope. They are the highest-ranked side of the continent, 23rd overall, and have not been at the World Cup since 2006. They have never got past the group stage but with players like Youssef Msakni, who scored a hat-trick against Guinea during qualification and has netted 14 times in 51 international appearances, that could change. The challenge begins early, with their opening match to be played against England, something coach Nabil Maâloul believes will be a true test of character against players from what he calls “the best league in the world.”

For nostalgic reasons, Senegal may be the team considered most likely to break into the semi-finals. They are still regarded as darlings of Africa after they stole hearts with their surge to the 2002 quarterfinals, in their maiden World Cup. They have not been to the tournament since and may not have made it to this one but for a case of match-fixing in the qualifiers, which allowed them to replay a match against South Africa. Their coach, Aliou Cissé, was the captain in 2002, so he will be coming full circle for this event. Their hopes will rest on Sadio Mane, who was the most expensive African transfer when he was bought by Liverpool for $48.2 million on a five-year deal in 2016.

Morocco are Africa’s third-side, ranked 42nd, and have not been to the World Cup since 1998. Their coach Hervé Renard has overseen two successful AFCON campaigns, with Zambia in 2012 and Ivory Coast in 2015. Morocco’s strength is their defence, after they finished unbeaten during the qualifiers without conceding a single goal. Their captain, Medhi Benatia, is regarded as the most accomplished member of their squad. He plays for Italian giants Juventus and Morocco will need his experience in a tough group that includes Spain and Portugal.

Egypt have been away from the global game longest, having last played in a World Cup in 1990. Since then, everything about Egypt has changed, with the Arab Spring having profound effects on society and sport. The football league was cancelled for two seasons between 2011 and 2013 and the game suffered tremendously. Despite being seven-time AFCON champions, Egypt failed to qualify for the 2012, 2013 and 2015 editions of the tournament and have also never won a World Cup game. Now, they can change that. In their squad is the veteran goalkeeper Essam El-Hadary, who is 44 years old and will play in his first World Cup, and 25-year-old Liverpool forward Mohamed Salah, who has been compared to Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo recently. He has scored 32 goals in 56 internationals, including five during World Cup qualifying, the joint-highest in the campaign.

Lowest ranked among the African sides at 52nd overall, but perhaps with the highest expectation, is Nigeria, who are making their third successive World Cup appearance and seventh overall. They were the first African team to qualify for the World Cup, a surprise considering they missed out on the last two AFCONs. They have a strong squad which includes John Obi Mikel, a Chelsea stalwart who has since moved to China, Chelsea’s Victor Moses and 21-year-old striker Kelechi Iheanacho, who played for Manchester City before moving to Leicester City. Nigeria have been drawn with Argentina for the fifth time at a World Cup and that will be their key clash on the field. Off the field, Nigeria have long had problems between the players and the football federation surrounding bonuses around World Cups. An agreement on a pay structure was reached late last year.

Racism

There is a danger, however, that the performances of Africa’s teams will be affected by the reception they receive in the tournament’s host nation. Russia is the country in which African footballers have faced the most brazen forms of racism. In 2015, anti-discrimination group Fare revealed research of over 100 incidents of racist behavior in Russian football over two seasons and high-profile players, including Ivorian superstar Yaya Touré and Cameroon’s Samuel Eto’o, have complained about being on the receiving end of monkey chants. Touré has even offered his assistance to World Cup organizers to prevent the abuse continuing.

“I have been abused by racism and because those things happened to me, I try to be involved and I want to help those people who don’t have a voice to control this situation,” Toure said. “For me to defend an African boy in this situation is a blessing. What we are looking to do is to try and stop those idiotic people doing that. We have to be focused and have fair play everywhere.”

Touré’s help has not been taken up but Russia has appointed an anti-racism official Alexei Tolkachev, who admitted to The New York Times in 2015 that as young man, he participated in monkey chants, like many compatriots of the same age. “They do it because it was done before and because they don’t know any better,” he said. While Tolkachev advocated for greater education, he also shrugged off the problem, even though FIFA have indicated they will take it seriously.

Infantino has given referees the power to stop or even abandon matches if discriminatory incidents take place and recent evidence suggest that could well be the case. In January this year, Russian club Spartak Moscow posted a video on Twitter of three of its own Brazilian players, Luiz Adriano, Pedro Rocha and Fernando in training in the United Arab Emirates with the words, “See how chocolates melt in the sun.” The tweet was deleted but not before anti-discrimination group Fare condemned the club for showing, “a shocking level of ignorance.” The players involved, who are all black, later denied that any racism existed in Russian football.

Kick off

Despite myriad concerns facing the World Cup, it will go ahead and though there is much to discuss and debate, there is also much to look forward to.

For the first time, video assistant referees will be used at a World Cup, showing a move to embrace technology in decision making. In total, 100,000 jobs have been created and 30,000 volunteers will be used. Russia expects over a million visitors as fans from around the world make their way to the tournament, three million to fill the stadiums and more than three billion to watch on television. The numbers are staggering and only confirm that no matter what happens behind the scenes, the World Cup remains an all-encompassing global spectacle.

Let’s hope Egypt, Morocco, Nigeria, Senegal and Tunisia make Africa proud.

– By Firdose Moonda

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