By Akinyemi Akinrujomu, Correspondent, Lagos
Several weeks after his appointment as Nigeria’s football technical director, Belgian tactician, Tom Saintfiet, was yet to report for duty until a new twist to the saga of his appointment came midweek when ‘newly-crowned’ Minister of Sports, Bolaji Abdullahi, decided to give him the boot.
The move elicited different responses from Nigerians across the world. To some, the development came as a surprise, while to others, it was a laudable move. But to the more analytical minds, the question being asked is ‘Why now?’
While Abdullahi has never hidden his disapproval for the appointment of the Belgian because it was arranged outside the due process required for such, it is surprising to many football analysts that the minister decided to fire him at this point.
The questions being asked are: why did Bolaji Abdullahi wait till he was confirmed as minister before shutting the door on Saintfiet? Why did he choose to let Saintfiet wait in vain on the appointment? Is there really any local coach that can do what Saintfiet was supposed to do? Does this move not amount to government interference in football once more and thus, earn Nigeria yet another FIFA wrath?
Many feel that Abdullahi waited until he was fully appointed minister as against his former acting role in order to flex his muscles on the Nigerian Football Federation (NFF), the activities of which he has been concerned about. It is believed that he probably waited until this moment also because he can exercise the necessary authority required to bring perhaps the much-hoped-for change even though there is uncertainty over which local coach can really do the job.
The accolades that have trailed the termination of Saintfiet’s appointment process give clear indications that the minister might be playing to the gallery. He might have been all along trying to please Nigerians who have complained about the appointment from the outset.
Among those that have praised him are two former national coaches, Adegboye Onigbinde, and Joe Erico. The duo told the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) that the decision of the minister was a step in the right direction. They berated the conception of the idea of hiring a foreign technical director, saying it was a slap on the face of several competent Nigerian coaches.
“The initiators of the idea are selfish because they are aware that several competent Nigerians coaches can do the job better,’ the coaches said.
“What experience exactly does the foreign technical director have that Nigerian coaches do not have?” Onigbinde queried. “It is an insult at this time that our country still believes very strongly in outsiders to do things for the country than the citizens.
“With the calibre of coaches we have now in the country, I think nobody is needed to come and develop our football for us. If it is competence and knowledge, I personally do not have any problem to do the job just as many other coaches.
“If there is a need to employ a foreign technical director, it should be somebody with vast knowledge about our dynamism, and cultural background,” he said.
Also in support of the move is Sani Toro, a former secretary of the then Nigerian Football Association (NFA). He agrees with Erico and Onigbinde that Nigeria needs a citizen who understands the technicality of its football.
“We need an indigenous technical director to restructure football from the grassroots, and I think the decision by the minister of sports is a step in the right direction. We have people who are credible and can do the job effectively and have been recognised by the football governing bodies, such as CAF and FIFA,’’ he said.
“If we are talking of a foreign technical adviser for the Super Eagles, it is possible but not for the position of a technical director.
“Whoever will be a technical director must understand the technicality of football in Nigeria,’’ he said.
Football analyst, Fabio Lanipekun, also concurred. He noted Nigeria had capable men who could do the job better, adding that it was not right to allow an expatriate to handle something that could be better done by Nigerians.
“The law says that you cannot give a foreigner a job that a Nigerian can do; it is a very good decision because we have capable hands in Nigeria. And I am glad that we won’t have to give a foreigner a work permit to come and run our football without a clear understanding of our game.
“Every country has its own pattern of football and it is only a member of that country that can create a vision of the country’s football,’’ he said.
Former Super Eagles’ Coach, Paul Hamilton, argued that there are indeed Nigerians that are capable of doing the job.
“If the football association feels that a foreign expatriate can do it, so be it; but personally I feel that there are qualified Nigerians who can do the job. I don’t need to mention names, but we have people who understand the technicality of the game in the country at all levels,’’ he said.
Clearly, Nigerians are happy with the decision, especially those who feel that the job should have been given to a Nigerian even though the right person for the job is not clear.
Time will tell whether the decision, as popular as it has become, was the right step for the minister to take. But one thing is sure; Saintfiet was a sacrificial lamb that will bring many parties their hearts’ desires.