By Sonala Olumhense

As Nigeria prepares to win the AFCON tournament this evening in Cote d’Ivoire against Cote d’Ivoire, let us take a moment to acknowledge Godwin Izilien, a former Super Falcons and Golden Eaglets coach who died last week.

In 1978, as Nigeria’s Challenge Cup soccer competition entered the final, the two teams standing could have been no more different.  On one side was Enugu Rangers, the nation’s most decorated team and an intimidating assemblage of football icons such as Christian Chukwu, Patrick Ekeji and Emmanuel Okala.

On the other was Bendel Insurance, a team of upstarts, some of them just out of secondary school.  They were expected to be overrun by Rangers.

The only problem was that nobody remembered to tell the Insurance coach, Alabi Aisien.  He told his boys that that final would be their “easiest” match in the competition.

That forecast came true: the younger, hungrier team smacked Rangers by three goals to lift the trophy.

Nearly 30 years later, Godwin Izilien, another Edo coach, seemed to pay tribute to Coach Aisien in the final match of the African women’s Championship in Johannesburg.

Mr. Izilien, leading the Nigerian team against its West African neighbor, Cameroon, told the BBC ahead of the match, “We’re out to teach the Cameroonians what it is to play good football and after Sunday they might be forced to come back and learn from us.”

It was a high stakes promise, given that in the first round of the competition, the teams played to a 2-2 draw.  Izilien said he planned a completely different mode scheme of attack for the final, indexed on mobility, space, and pace.

“We’re going to play good football. Cameroon are highly physical and robust but we’re not going to give them time to do that. We’re going to make them run and chase the ball.”

The Nigerian coach was immaculate: Nigeria defeated Cameroon 5-0, with Perpetua Nkwocha scoring four times, to win the championship for the fourth time.

It was a wonderful moment for Nigeria on the continent.  The following day, however, the team began a public protest, right there in South Africa, refusing to return home until they were paid their entitlements.

That protest lasted four days and would be repeated in 2016 after Nigeria again won the trophy, as well as in 2018 and 2019.

Nigeria has now won 11 of the 14 editions of the tournament, an impressive profile of success.  The decades-long failure of the Nigerian football authorities to resolve the issue of funds and protests is thought to be responsible, at least partly, for the decision of FIFA at the 2023 Women’s World Cup to pay the players directly rather than through football associations.

Reacting to the 2016 protest, Coach Izilien observed that it was the same experience as 2004.  “I had to plead with [the players] to do a rethink. We returned home after four days of protest in South Africa. Today as we speak, I have not been paid by the NFF. In fact, somebody [at the Football Federation] told me my file is “missing.”

He urged sports administrators and the government to invest more in sports and put the welfare of the players and coaches first, stressing how unifying sports is for Nigeria.

For himself, the coach repeatedly appealed to the NFF whenever he had an opportunity, including in a 2021 interview with NAN.  “I should be honoured…now by paying me the money and not cry and write glowing tributes when I am dead.”

He said what he had found most painful was that “the NFF president, Amaju Pinnick, in front of our governor Godwin Obaseki, admitted that they owed me and that he would see what he could do about it in the next two months. He made this statement in 2018, but to my greatest surprise, nothing has happened.”

In 2023, he revealed that he had decided not to speak about the matter of his outstanding entitlements any longer.  “It’s a pity that I may not get the money again. It’s over 19 years that the NFF are yet to pay me the $12,000 and the N2m promised me by former President Olusegun Obasanjo.”

He said he interpreted the injustice against him to be deliberate.  “If the girls I took to the war front and survived are paid, I, the General, ought to have been paid as well before anyone.”

In that 2021 interview with NAN, Coach Izilien forbade the federation from mourning him at his passing, whenever that was.  “The only honour I want from the NFF is to pay me what it owes me, not when I am dead,” he declared.

Following his passing on Wednesday, however, the NFF “mourned,” shamelessly decorating him with empty words in place of the action it denied him in life.

The NFF has had five presidents since 2004, with Amaju Pinnick in 2018 not only admitting Mr. Izilien’s labour of love but promising in the presence of the current Edo State Governor, to resolve it within two months.  He left that office in 2022 without fulfilling it, and without apologies.

It is not difficult to see why Nigeria does not work: there are far too many faces and phases of sycophancy and hypocrisy.  If you want another example, consider Pinnick’s successor, Ibrahim Gusau.  Following the Super Eagles’ AFCON quarter-final win, he rushed to the media to attribute it to President Bola Tinubu’s political agenda.

He promised that the team would win the trophy for Mr. Tinubu, reminding the team of Tinubu’s words.  “He said, ‘Boys go there, believe in me,’” Mr. Gusau said.  “‘You don’t have any problem and whatever issues you are facing, just believe in me. Go and do the job and you’ll see the result.’”

Those words sound just about right, especially if Tinubu said them.  The record shows that since his All Progressives Congress took power in 2015, Nigeria has known only deception and hope betrayed.  Nigerians are fed and poisoned with empty promises.

I hope the Super Eagles conquer Africa today, but that will have nothing to do with, be because of, or be for, Tinubu.   It would be because of the Nigerian people and for them, and for patriots such as Mr. Izilien, who are shamelessly exploited and ruthlessly denied by our kleptocratic political system.

If Tinubu wants any applause, he must earn his own, and the challenge is right in front of him in the immense suffering and poverty his government and party have inflicted.

In this column exactly one month ago, I said I believed that Tinubu can build the Nigerian dream, but only through “committing to integrity as a mechanism for rebuilding trust in government.”

“Can he summon the strength and wisdom to lead by example instead of merely preaching it?  Will Tinubu apologize for the political blindness and self-serving recklessness demonstrated by his supplementary budget, or merely continue to ask Nigerians to make sacrifices as an investment in the future while he basks in needless luxury?”

Coach Izilien is a reminder of how Nigeria mocks Nigerians.  May the country remember, and be forgiven by, his family.