Football at it’s root is an inclusive sport, players working together as a team to achieve a common goal. At it’s purest it can and should be a force for good – fostering unity, fair-play and positive change on a social level.
Anyone who has witnessed initiatives such as the Homeless World Cup, the One World Futbol project or football at the recent London Paralympics will have observed that the sport can have a positive impact on individuals and society as a whole.
In Europe, while many challenges remain (notably with regards to racism in the game), football has made some progress towards wider equality thanks to campaigns from national associations, the UEFA Respect campaign, the media and changing attitudes in wider society. However, in some countries there is unfortunately less societal progress, and it is here that governing bodies need to take a stronger stance to ensure that football can be a driver for positive change and stand against racial, LGBT and other discrimination.
LGBT rights in Nigerian football
Homosexuality is outlawed in many African countries. In 2008, the International Gay and Lesbian Association estimated that homosexuality was illegal in as many as 38 African countries, with penalties including fines, imprisonment and the death penalty.
In Nigeria, there is no legal protection from discrimination and LGBT people face frequent and fierce discrimination. The country as a whole is strongly conservative by nature, and the penal framework is split between a largely Christian south and the predominately Muslim northern states.
In the south, the maximum penalty for homosexuality is 14 years imprisonment. In the 12 northern states where Shari’a law has been adopted, the maximum penalty is death, by stoning.
Before the 2011 Women’s World Cup, Eucharia Uche – the coach of the Nigerian women’s football team at the time, caused international furor when she branded homosexuality as “dirty” :
“Homosexuality is a dirty thing, spiritually and morally it is very, very wrong”
Uche went on to say that rumours of homosexuality in the Nigeria team had caused her to seek the help of pentecostal priests :
“When rumours are strong, you are bound to believe it is happening. Homosexuality is an everyday thing and I came to realise that there is not a physical cause. We need divine intervention to control it and fight.”
Speaking after Nigeria’s first game in the Women’s World Cup, Uche added to her remarks, saying :
“Yes, the lesbians in our team were really a big problem, but since I’m coach of the Super Falcons, that has been cleared up. There are no more lesbian players on my team. I can not tolerate this dirty life.”
FIFA condemned Uche’s comments at the time, with the head of women’s competitions, Tatjana Haenni saying :
“We have read the comments as well, I think FIFA has a different point of view and clearly one is against any sort of discrimination, I think that says it all. We will talk to her about exactly what she said and when. We are here at a FIFA event and will point out that it would be best to express oneself neutrally.”
FIFA also declared that it would be launching an internal investigation. But, after the public controversy died down and Uche was removed from her post following Nigeria’s loss to Cameroon which meant they did not reach the 2012 Olympics, no investigation was made.
The discrimination of gay players in Nigerian football has not ended. Speaking after Annual General Assembly of the association which runs the Nigerian women’s league, the head of the association Dilichukwu Onyedinma declared that lesbian players are now banned from playing in the league :
“It (lesbianism) is happening but we have to talk to the clubs, and look inside the clubs and these things have to do with clubs. There are particular clubs that don’t even want to hear about it and once they heard it the players involved will be sacked. Any player that we heard is associated with it will be disqualified, we will call the club chairmen to control their players, such players will not be able to play for the national team.”
FIFA as an organisation declare a strong stand against discrimination. In provision 3 of the the FIFA statutes (non-discrimination and stance against racism), FIFA states :
“Discrimination of any kind against a country, private person or group of people on account of ethnic origin, gender, language, religion, politics or any other reason is strictly prohibited and punishable by suspension or expulsion.”
In practice however, the organisations stance has been less strong. FIFA president Sepp Blatter sparked controversy when speaking about the 2022 World Cup to be held in Qatar. Qatar is a country whose constitution establishes Islam as the official religion, and LGBT acts can lead to a prison sentence of a up to 5 years. When a reporter asked Blatter if he saw any potential cultural problems with LGBT supporters travelling to Qatar for the World Cup, Blatter said :
“I’d say they [gay fans] should refrain from any sexual activities.”
Blatter was later forced to apologise for his comments. Furthermore, Blatter has no made no public comment on discrimination against homosexuality in Nigerian football, and in 2012 praised Nigeria for it’s “strength and direction in the women’s game” :
“Nigeria has not only shown great potential and ability in the men’s game, she has continued to exert strength and direction in the women’s game. Thanks to Nigeria, women football in Africa is becoming stronger in strength and enterprise and we are happier for it as a world body.”
The last word
The time has come for FIFA to stop standing idle in these cases of severe discrimination within national football associations. FIFA must take strong punitive action against these associations and send a message that these abuses will not be tolerated within the game. Without strong action in such cases, how can FIFA declare itself to be a force for social good?
The Nigerian national association should be made to reverse these rulings, and, if it refuses to do so, Nigerian national teams need to be excluded from FIFA sanctioned matches and competitions.
Without strong action from FIFA, they as a global governing body are complicit in this discrimination.