By Lolade Adewuji/Goal
Football’s biggest personality was in Abuja last week as part of moves to reposition Nigerian football in an era when its fortunes have tumbled faster than a deluge.
Gianni Infantino, the president of Fifa, visited Nigeria alongside secretary general Fatma Samoura as the administration of Amaju Pinnick got a shot in the arm.
Infantino met with President Muhammadu Buhari at Aso Villa and shared with him the changes that are taking place in the world of football.
Both men shared their common struggles, having to clean up the Augean stable after their predecessors and the massive work of forging a new image for their different constituencies.
While Infantino’s visit must have cost a fortune to put together in such a time of belt tightening both in public service and corporate practice, the gains it is hoped will outweigh the cost on the long run.
Apart from giving legitimacy to the Pinnick-led Nigeria Football Federation board in his battle against spoiler Chris Giwa, the visit has helped to lend a positive image to Nigerian football after almost two years of upheavals that have caused animosity for current and potential sponsors.
Nigerian football has never had things this bad. The Super Eagles have failed to qualify for two consecutive Africa Cup of Nations tournaments and have fallen to 70th place on the Fifa Rankings.
They have gone without a substantive coach for the last five months ahead of commencement of the 2018 World Cup qualifiers in October.
The U20 side failed to qualify for the Africa U20 Cup of Nations despite fielding a team comprised of the bulk of players from last year’s victorious Fifa U17 World Cup.
Coaches and back room staff have gone unpaid. Players’ bonuses have suffered as the country’s economy has nose-dived.
While the NFF was receiving around 150million Naira monthly from the federal government until two years ago, that sum is now a paltry 60million Naira that is expected to be shared around 11 national teams.
Meanwhile, a typical Super Eagles game costs at least 200million Naira just to pay flight tickets and bonuses.
Sponsors that haven’t cancelled their contracts due to the bad economy have cut down to less than half of what they used to do as they continue to feel the squeeze from all angles.
Infantino’s visit and affirmation of the NFF has brought a glimmer of hope that potential sponsors will come to put funds in the sponsorship of Nigerian football.
Meanwhile, the political impact of the Fifa president will be felt across African football with the not so subtle moves being made by the 17 federation chiefs that came to see him.
There was no mention of the Fifa supremo’s visit on the Caf website.
Called the G-17, a group of mainly Anglophone countries thought to have been convened by Pinnick during the Fifa Congress in Mexico, they are seeking for a change at the top of Caf where Cameroon’s Issa Hayatou has held sway for 28 years and will be seeking re-election in 2017 for another four-year term.
The group believes it is time that Hayatou is edged out of the office in order to find a younger football administrator is in tune with the times.
Infantino is 46-years-old, Asia football chief Salman Bin Ibrahim Al-Khalifa is 50, Prince Ali bin Al Hussein of Jordan who contested the last Fifa presidential elections is 40, so there’s a shift towards younger administrators all over the world.
While Pinnick has never hidden interest in seeing Nigeria play a bigger role in football politics, it is not hard to see why he is leading the assault on the top seat here accusations have trailed Hayatou of single-handedly masterminding the naming of new sponsors for the body’s major football tournaments.
The battle line seems to have been drawn already with key federation chiefs from Ghana, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Liberia having pitched their tents with Pinnick.
The G-17 is growing fast as it now has 22 committed members with interest growing in Francophone countries ahead of the next Caf elections. The magic number to make that change is 35.
With Infantino’s visit and the Court of Appeal judgment that recently threw out Giwa’s suit, Pinnick might just have cemented his leadership at home and now eyeing impact abroad with two years left in his reign.
However, the appointment of a credible coach for the Super Eagles ahead of the World Cup qualifiers and finding of alternative sources of funding for football would be quick wins that could help shore up his already waning popularity among local fans.