For many African countries, national soccer teams provide an escape from enduring political, economic and social problems but, as it turns out, these teams are not exempt from those problems either.
Here’s how it typically plays out: just before a major soccer tournament, national team players threaten a strike after failing to agree on bonus payments or after demanding the bonuses to be paid beforehand.
That was the case with Cameroon before the African Cup of Nations (AFCON) currently underway in Egypt this month. Despite being the reigning continental champions, Cameroon’s soccer team flatly refused to fly to Egypt to defend their title after failing to agree on how much to be paid as bonuses. While Cameroon eventually settled the pay dispute and flew to Egypt, they landed late and now risk a penalty by Africa’s soccer governing body.
While Zimbabwe landed in Egypt on time, they also made the headlines by threatening to boycott the first game of the tournament because they had not yet been paid. The threat carried some weight with the opening game scheduled to happen right after the competition’s opening ceremony in front of an audience comprising not just local fans but also high-level soccer and political leaders. In some cases, the standoff happens after a tournament if the bonuses remain unpaid. Take Nigeria’s Super Falcons, who have just been eliminated from the Women’s World Cup. Rather than return home after a performance that saw them make the knockout stages of the competition for the first time in twenty years, the Falcons staged a sit-in protest, refusing to leave their hotel in France until outstanding bonuses—some from two years ago—were paid.
The Falcons also protested unpaid bonuses after winning the 2016 African Women’s Cup of Nations with demonstrations in Nigeria’s capital. Nigeria’s male national team also has a history of pay disputes and nearly missed the 2013 FIFA Confederations Cup after refusing to board their flight over unpaid bonuses.
The recurring disputes are a microcosm of the corruption and mismanagement that plagues high-level soccer across Africa. Despite being home to large swathes of soccer-mad fans and also some of the world’s best players, football federations (including the continental governing body) across the continent are beset by a lack of transparency forcing players to take extreme measures to get paid or compensated after paying out of their own pockets for flights and other expenses.
“It comes down to trust issues,” says Colin Udoh, former press officer for Nigeria’s men’s national team. “In the past, African players have found themselves in situations where they were told their entitlements would be paid later and that never happened. They have now found that the best way to get anything out of both the federations and the governments which fund them, is to push for their demands when they have a global spotlight on them and can put a spanner in the works of a tournament that affects others.”
The tactic often works with African governments often going the extra mile to resolve the disputes and avoid the high risk of embarrassment and possibly being blamed for sabotaging prestigious tournaments. “Governments, who are usually slow to process funding normally, tend to move at the speed of light under those circumstances,” says Udoh. That was certainly the case during the 2014 World Cup in Brazil when Ghana’s government flew in $3 million in cash to pay player bonuses after their soccer stars reportedly threatened to boycott training before their final group game.
The mismanagement problem is not limited to just bonus payments though. In 2016, Nigeria’s Olympic soccer team was stranded in Atlanta, USA for days and eventually landed in Rio only seven hours before its first game because the sports ministry had not paid for travel arrangements.
Sign up to the Quartz Africa Weekly Brief here for news and analysis on African business, tech and innovation in your inbox