Sports can be a lucrative profession, with many professional athletes earning significant sums of money. It is even more so today, especially in sports such as football, where a player like Cristiano Ronaldo will be earning as much as $200m a year in the Saudi Arabia top division as elite stars in basketball, golf, tennis, American Football and hockey for instance. Having such money has had a significant impact on the lives of sports stars in a number of ways.
For one, it has allowed them to earn a living doing something they love, which is a rare and privileged position to be in. It has also given them the opportunity to travel the world, meet new people, and experience different cultures. Additionally, money has enabled sports stars to live a comfortable lifestyle and provided them with financial security. It has allowed them to purchase homes, cars, and other luxuries that they may not have been able to afford otherwise.
However, the excesses of these monies today were not always there, even if some athletes were very well compensated. Indeed, although they got enough to take care of themselves and more than that over, not all of these athletes are able to effectively plan for their future or handle their wealth, leading to financial struggles after they retire. This is especially true for sportsmen and women in Nigeria, who often face neglect and lack of support after their sports careers have ended. This can result in health issues, joblessness, and even premature death. The latter brings to mind the example of Rashidi Yekini, one of the most prolific and patriotic footballers ever to don the Green-White-Green of the Super Eagles who sadly passed on to glory in May 2012, aged just 48. After years of meritorious service to Nigerian football, the mercurial striker called it quits and hung his boots in 2005. But he suffered from depression brought about by a number of factors that included losing his life savings in a failed investment – apparently he had given his money in cash to a confidant who was then killed by armed robbers that made away with all the money.
Unfortunately, Yekini died unceremoniously in 2012 after having suffered ill-health for some time without the succour of welfare assistance or help from a country to which he gave everything. He is scarcely the only case. Former footballers in Nigeria, including Peter Fregene and George Omokaro, have faced health issues and financial struggles in their later years. Fregene’s case was recently in the news as it was in 2019, without remedy. A former international goalkeeper, Fregene has been bedridden for nearly 20 years due to a stroke and is currently consigned to a wheelchair. He is now reliant on his wife for basic care and is unable to move or change positions on his own.
Yet, Fregene was once a successful player, representing Nigeria at the 1968 Olympic Games and playing for the national team between 1968 and 1971. He also won the FA Cup with the ECN and Stationery Stores and later became a coach. Succour came his way in 2009, when he underwent an operation at Reddington Hospital in Lagos with the sponsorship of the then Governor of Lagos State, Babatunde Fashola, but has not been able to walk since.
Then, there is the case of Omokaro, a former midfielder, who had been bedridden for almost a decade due to complications from arthritis. More recently, the attention of the sports community was again drawn to the deteriorating health condition of the youngest member of Nigeria’s 1980 AFCON winning Green Eagles, Henry Nwosu, who was suffering from a stroke and desperately needed medical attention. The eccentric midfielder, who dedicated his playing days to championing Nigeria’s football reckoning on the continent with 11 years representing Nigeria’s senior national team, also competed for the Green Eagles at the AFCON in 1982, 1984, and 1988. In 1991, he retired from representing Nigeria internationally and started coaching. His worsening condition was occasioned by slurred speech and permanent confinement to his bed.
These athletes have struggled to get the medical attention they need due to a lack of financial resources and have been at the mercy of philanthropic Nigerians and charitable organisations. Other former sportsmen, such as Emmanuel Okala and Christian Chukwu, have had to become gainfully employed to secure post-retirement independence and provide for themselves. Okala has worked as a coach and commentator, while Chukwu has worked as a coach and television analyst. However, the opportunities for coaching jobs may be limited, especially at the highest levels of competition, making it difficult for all former athletes to secure employment in this field.
A retired footballer himself, Segun Odegbami has spoken out about the challenges faced by retired sportsmen in Nigeria. Odegbami explained that there is little provision in the system to accommodate them after their careers have ended, which can lead to neglect, sickness, joblessness, depression, and premature death. Many retired sportsmen also face physical challenges, with muscle deterioration and various health issues being common. Odegbami has repeatedly called for the appointment of a Minister of Sports who is knowledgeable of these issues and capable in order to address some of these challenges faced by retired sportsmen in Nigeria.
In 2019, the former President of the Nigeria Football Federation, Amaju Pinnick, announced plans to create a welfare foundation for former international players to provide financial support in the event of unexpected health challenges. It was a reactionary move that was evoked by the deteriorating condition of Christian Chukwu. Pinnick promised that the federation would provide a salary of N500,000 per month to Chukwu, who used to be a former Green Eagles captain, while he receives medical treatment in the UK. At the time, it was believed that these measures were going to help ensure that former players were not left in financial hardship due to unexpected health issues. What the case of Fregene immediately points to is that not much has been made in that direction.
In addition to a lack of support from the government, former athletes in Nigeria may also face a lack of support from their families and communities. This can be particularly challenging for athletes who are used to earning high salaries and living a lavish lifestyle. Without proper support, they may struggle to adapt to life after sports and may feel isolated and disconnected from society. In seeking to address these, the Harrison Jalla-led Professional Footballers Association of Nigeria (PFAN) has engaged in a relentless drive for the PFAN to get proper representations in NFF. It desires to get a Collective Bargaining agreement in place to run its welfare programmes for current and retired footballers as an independent organisation but the response from the Federation has not been welcoming of PFAN. It is hoped that this is a situation that the new leadership of Alhaji Ibrahim Musa Gusa will address quickly.
This way of addressing the neglect of former sports men and women in Nigeria is the most direct. The government has a role and responsibility to provide more support for them after their careers have ended. This could include a Welfare Policy of financial assistance for medical treatment, education and training opportunities, and access to employment. In addition, the government could work with sports organisations and private companies to create more opportunities for post-retirement employment for former athletes.
Another way to address the neglect of former sports men and women in Nigeria is for the community to come together and provide support for these individuals. This could include providing mentorship and guidance, as well as offering financial assistance and other forms of support. One example of this is the philanthropy of Femi Otedola, a Nigerian businessman and philanthropist who has provided financial assistance for the medical treatment of former Nigeria international and football coach Charles Bassey through his Femi Otedola Foundation. By working together and supporting one another, we can help former athletes to transition smoothly from their sports careers and continue to thrive after their time in the spotlight ends.
It will be remiss to leave out the most important step of all, which is for these sportsmen and women to take more responsibility for their own financial planning and career development. This could involve acquiring education and training in other fields, managing their finances responsibly, and seeking out opportunities for post-retirement employment. By planning for the future and considering their options beyond their sports careers, athletes can ensure that they are able to transition smoothly from their sports careers and continue to thrive after their time in the spotlight ends.
Overall, it is clear that there is a need for Nigeria to change its unfortunate neglect of former sports men and women. By providing support and opportunities for these individuals after their careers have ended, we can ensure that they are able to live fulfilling and successful lives. It is our responsibility as a society to take care of those who have given so much to our communities and our country through their sports careers. We must come together and work towards providing the support and resources that these individuals need in order to thrive after their time in the spotlight ends. Only then can we hope to see a change in the current scenario and a better future for our former sports men and women. And, we can encourage a new generation of patriotism and excellence in sports.