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Real reason NFF sacked me — Okpala

Former Super Eagles assistant coach, Sylvanus Okpala

Former Super Eagles assistant coach, Sylvanus Okpala, was dismissed by the Nigeria Football Federation last year after helping the team win the 2013 AFCON. Okpala, who has taken the NFF to the Court of Arbitration for Sports for a peaceful resolution of the issue, tells ’TANA AIYEJINA about his problems with the football body

How was the national team when you got there as a coach?

We came and corrected so many things in the national team and I supported Keshi 100 per cent and we won the African cup. Is winning the AFCON trophy a sin? After we won the cup, there was trouble everywhere and the trouble is still on. Even after I have left, have they given Keshi a free hand?

What was the relationship between you and the Nigeria Football Federation before the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations?

Before the 2013 AFCON, NFF had been paying my full entitlements­— match bonuses and salaries—as at when due and in accordance with my contract. They didn’t default. I have a contract with NFF where it is written that I will take 150 per cent of whatever the players get as my bonus. And they had paid me this for a year before the AFCON. But suddenly when we got to South Africa for the AFCON, they slashed my match bonuses by 50 per cent. They paid Stephen Keshi and the other assistant coaches, Ike Shorunmu and Daniel Amokachi in full but slashed mine by 50 per cent without any formal or prior information as regards to that. They didn’t contact me or the head coach, Keshi.

 Did you take your case to the NFF to find out why your bonuses were slashed by 50 per cent?

I called Mike Umeh, Emeka Inyama, Aminu Maigari and other members of the NFF board to know why. Maigari said he was told that my bonuses were slashed because the money was not enough. I said  if the money was not enough, then they should have slashed the bonuses across board. Why was mine alone slashed? So, I called (Patrick) Ekeji and told him what was going on. I asked him to help me beg Maigari. I never knew  Ekeji later called Maigari. When I called him (Maigari), he said I reported him to Ekeji and the government. He said he told Ekeji that he was not going to pay me and he didn’t.  And he said, “If you like, you can report me to the President of Nigeria. If he tells me to pay, I will not pay, after all, I am not under Nigeria, I am under FIFA.” He told me never to call his line again before he cut the conversation abruptly. Since then, I have not called him.

Which other means did you employ for your slashed bonuses to be remitted to you?

My complaint was laid before the sports minister but he didn’t do anything. They still continued to slash my match bonuses. What I did was to ask somebody to plead on my behalf so that my remaining 50 per cent bonus would be paid. So I approached Ekeji to help me out. After we defeated Cote d’Ivoire, we were to play Mali in the semi-final and suddenly, two days before the match, they came to my door at 6am and gave me a query. I showed my boss, Keshi, the query. I answered the query under 24 hours as was stipulated and I gave Keshi a copy. They said in the query that what I did was an act of insubordination; that Ekeji is an outsider. How can you say Ekeji, a former national team player, is an outsider? He was even assistant captain of the national team at a time. As NSC DG, he was in a position to liaise with several sports federations including football. Ekeji once held a meeting with the minister, Maigari, Chris Green, Musa Amadu and all the coaches before the AFCON. So, if Ekeji was an outsider, why did we hold a meeting with him discussing how to move the national team forward? Ekeji was detailed to monitor our training and he came thrice to watch us in South Africa. Maigari or the NFF officials didn’t complain that Ekeji was an outsider all these while but when it got to my bonus, they labeled him an outsider. The point is that they never wanted me.

Didn’t such a sensitive issue cause problems for the team at the tournament?

When Keshi said there was a problem, there was. The truth of the matter is that they never supported us during the AFCON. In the middle of the tournament, they decided to slash a coach’s money by 50 per cent. That automatically means that they didn’t want the team to win. I called Keshi and told him not to bother about what was happening. I told him the only way we could remain relevant was by winning the AFCON. And Keshi said, “I believe, let’s work towards that.”

Were there other issues in the Nigerian camp during the AFCON?

They caused a lot of confusion in South Africa. They had even penciled down a coach who would take over after Keshi. I was also supposed to leave the team while Amokachi and Shorunmu would assist the man. They peddled a lot of stories all in anticipation that we would not qualify for the knockout stages. They said I slapped Efe Ambrose and Vincent Enyeama. They made up the story because they wanted to bring in a new coach. It was everywhere in the news in South Africa that they had already arranged for a new coach to take over. There was nothing they didn’t do for us not to win the AFCON. Keshi is a great guy; he was able to absolve all the pressure and I backed him. They intended sacking Keshi and me so that Shorunmu and Amokachi would stay to work with the new coach.

Is it true they didn’t pay you for the last month you worked with the team?

They said they had to wait for Ekeji to leave before they sacked me in April. This means if you don’t have somebody somewhere in Nigeria, you are finished. I was part of the team in March 2013 when we played Kenya in a World Cup qualifier in Calabar but they did not pay me for that month. They paid others. Green and Maigari must make a public statement on why they are treating me like this. They have to because they have not said anything. In South Africa, Green said, “Don’t worry, when we get to Nigeria, we will pay you.” But they didnt pay me. They thought we wouldn’t win the trophy, which would have led to our sack.

Many say your problems started with the NFF when you allegedly complained of poor treatment by the federation after the team was left stranded at the airport in Abuja on their way for a World Cup qualifier against Rwanda in 2012…

When did we go to Rwanda? That was almost a year before the AFCON. So, I don’t understand what they mean. On that issue, we didn’t travel that day. We were at the airport from 5pm to 1am and they said the flight was rescheduled; that we had to travel a few hours later. It was a chartered flight. We went back to the hotel around 2am then got up again for the airport by 4am. They gave a query, because I complained over my slashed match bonuses to Ekeji. So the trip to Rwanda is not the issue. The question now is, why did they pay others and didn’t pay me? Did government give them 50 per cent of my money? They praised me in my letter of disengagement but at the end of it, they said they don’t have money and asked me to go. They said they would reduce the backroom staff of all the national teams but did they touch any other person after me?

 Not too long after the termination of your contract, your mother died…

After they sacked me, my mother called me and asked, “Why did they sack you?”I told her they said they didn’t have money to pay me. She said, “Nigeria doesn’t have money to pay my son? How can they sack you after serving Nigeria from junior to senior national teams? Why must they treat my son like this?” She developed a stroke immediately and died from it in August. So, indirectly, my mother died as a result of my sack. Let the NFF come and tell Nigerians what I did to deserve this treatment.

 How do you feel with the way Nigerian coaches are treated?

They (NFF) have every right to hire and fire. If the NFF says they want to sack about 200 coaches and employ 200 in one year, no problem. But they have one obligation; when you sack, you pay the coach off his contract. If he stays for one month and he has a three-year contract, you pay him his three years salary or you sit down and negotiate how the money will be paid. We need to go to the next level for us to improve.

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