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Living As A Professional Athlete In Nigeria

Sports is undeniably one of the most lucrative professions in the world; athletes are some of the highest earners in the world with outrageous wages, salaries and bonuses. But what about here in Nigeria? What do our athletes earn?

It is far from utopian to believe a large section of a society or country should be allowed to live – or at the very least chase – their dreams and aspirations in some form or way. In a well-functioning country, a large percentage of the population has the resources for basic needs and essentials for survival. With the necessities out of the way, people are afforded the freedom to pursue their passion or chase their dreams, knowing fully well that if things go south, the relatively well-run society they live in will absorb them somehow. They are likely to still have a roof over their heads and food on their table. These countries also have proper, laid-down structures making it relatively more accessible for people to attain their dreams. However, Nigeria – as most people would know – is far from functional. A sweeping number of the population do not possess the means to afford basic necessities, living precariously, from hand-to-mouth. In a report by The Guardian in 2017, statistics on housing show that over 108 million Nigerians are technically homeless. Another report by Aljazeera shows that 40 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. There is a plethora of disheartening statistics about the country. However, despite all the odds, Nigerians still find a way to follow their passion, excelling in various fields like arts, music, film, and sports.

A good number of Nigerians are interested ーwhether it is watching, playing or both ーin some form of sports. Football and basketball largely tickle our fancy as a country. Our growing interest in boxing and mixed martial arts can also be credited to fellow countrymen like Anthony Joshua, Israel Adesanya and Kamaru Usman and their achievements. However, I have always wondered about our sportspeople here in Nigeria. What’s it like for them? Nigeria is obviously blessed with talented and highly gifted athletes. Footballers like Odion Ighalo, Ahmed Musa, Emmanuel Emenike played in the local league before moving on to play for some of the best clubs in world football. But what about those who don’t make it out? How do they navigate life here? How do they follow their passion and live in this Hogwarts of hard knocks called Nigeria?

Anyone remotely knowledgeable about sports would know how lucrative it can be, especially in foreign countries. Athletes are some of the highest earners in the world with outrageous wages, salaries and bonuses. But what about here in Nigeria? What do our athletes earn?

“It depends,” Eric, an ex-left full-back for City Of David United, tells me. “Players in the Nigerian Professional Football League (NPFL) earn between 150 thousand Naira to 180 thousand Naira monthly. While some other players earn about 100 thousand Naira monthly. But it generally depends on your negotiating power. There’s a lot of cherry-picking in Nigerian football. Sometimes a Governor of a state can handpick a player he takes an interest in to transfer to his club. Such a player would definitely earn more than most of the other players on the team. Some of these players can earn about 200 thousand Naira monthly. It just depends.” City of David United, Eric’s former team, does not play in the Nigerian Professional Football league; they currently compete in the Nigerian National League, the second tier of club football in Nigeria. “Players that play in the Nigerian National League and Nigeria Nationwide League [the third tier of club football in Nigeria] earn about 28 thousand Naira monthly. While some others could earn upwards of thirty thousand Naira monthly. It really depends,” he continues.

Unsurprisingly, the suits behind these clubs are always behind on salaries, bonuses, sign-on fees and allowances. There have been several cries from various teams regarding the non-payment of salaries. What’s slightly shocking is that back in 2013, the then defunct Minister of Sports approved a minimum salary of 150 thousand Naira for players of the NPFL. But not only do teams blatantly ignore the minimum salary, they are also in arrears of several months. These players, however, find it hard to dabble into other endeavours to make ends meet. “If you play football professionally in this country, it’s almost impossible to combine it with another job,” Eric tells me. “Whether you play in the pro league or the amateur league, it’s difficult to combine playing the sport with other jobs. The training schedule is tedious and tight, so there’s little or no time to work other jobs. Except you’re doing “yahoo” (Fraud).”

Peter, a point guard for Dodan Warriors, tells me the situation in basketball is slightly different: “We get paid according to the teams we play for. There are certain teams owned by individuals, while some are owned by the government. Basketball players that play for these teams owned by the government get paid about 100 thousand naira to 120 thousand naira monthly. Some players even earn more. However, players that play for privately owned clubs get paid an average of 30 thousand naira monthly.” When I ask him about the nature of the league in general, he cuts in quickly, saying: “Sadly, the league has not been running for some time now. It seems there are two boards currently at loggerheads. One claims the other has overstayed their welcome while the other claims otherwise. It’s a bit of a mess. That’s why the league is currently on hold.”

These basketballers have had to organize private competitions just to keep in shape and earn some money. He tells me they also do this so they can showcase themselves. “Basically, that’s the reason most players play in the league in the first place. It’s just an avenue to showcase yourself to the world. The pay for most basketballers in the country is terrible. They’re just looking for a way to leave the country,” he says, slightly exasperated.

Speaking to Eric and Peter, it is clear they are still very much in love with their respective sports; however, not very much with the Nigerian structure. I hear the optimism in their voices during our little chat, hoping one day they’ll also make it out. As we round up our conversation, Eric narrates his experience about almost getting signed by FC Metalist, a Ukrainian football club. However, it didn’t work like he would have liked – something numerous local athletes are all too familiar with. “If you don’t have a godfather in this league, they are not going to recognize you. If you want to go far, you need a godfather. Except you see the glory of God! The mercies of God!”

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