Every now and then, a certain gentleman called Rafiu Mabinuori wanders into my thoughts. You’ve probably never heard about him, unless you attended Federal Government College, Idoani in the mid 80s. Falcao. Keshi. Libero. Adulating students constantly came up with comparisons to established footballers for him. That’s simply how good he was. I remember when, as captain of the school football team, he was also made a school prefect: a testimony to this guy’s impeccable attitude off the pitch as well. But he was soon asked to step down as a prefect, as he couldn’t quite combine both duties. His future as a footballer was not in doubt to those of us that witnessed first hand, his exquisite abilities.
What happened to him? As far as I know, he never played higher than for Central Bank of Nigeria’s now defunct football team, who plied their trade in Lagos state’s domestic league back in the early 90s.
Welcome to the ugly reality- the dark side of football.
Remember Victor Igbinoba? Yes, you guessed right, the scorer of that wonderful second goal in Nigeria’s victory against (then) West Germany in the FIFA/Kodak U-17 World Cup final in 1885?
Kayode Keshinro? I remember seeing Kayode play for the first time in a match between Igbobi College (his school) and St. Finbarrs’ College at Onikan Stadium in 1987 or ’88. I was simply blown away. A member of the U-17 Golden Eaglets squad to Scotland ’89, he was last seen playing for a team called Tabantia Borgerhout in the regional league of Antwerp, Belgium.
Momodu Mutairu? This guy was on some serious fire in the local league in the mid-90s. After playing a couple of games for the Super Eagles in 1995, he was last heard of playing for some backwater team in the lower leagues of Japan in the late 90s.
And, oh, Adeolu Adekola! (Look, I will skip a recount of that disaster of a Flying Eagles team that he was a part of to the Chile 1987 U-20 World Cup; no point causing you guys any unnecessary pain). After claiming he had played top-flight football in France and Belgium (which were later found to be untrue), Adeolu joined Bury FC in 1993. He also played for Exeter, Halifax Town, Bath City and Billericay Town amongst others; not exactly teams you’ve heard of, or see their replica jerseys outside their provinces in England.
I could go on, but these are just a few of the players who started their careers with so much promise, but at the end, they had huffed and puffed and not come close to blowing any houses down.
So where am I leading to with all this? Well, it’s so easy for us all to get carried away with the glamorized, unreal world of the biggest stars in world football: the ones who, if we try to calculate how much they earn per year in naira, we will probably get “error” readings on our calculators!
But beneath all that glitz, glamour, incredible wages, private jets, yachts and gorgeous, mermaid-like models, only a tiny percentage ever makes it to the big stage and become megastars.
Those that don’t make it quickly drop out of our immediate consciousness and some even end up with psychological and mental health challenges. Indeed, footballers suffering from depression and suicidal thoughts have become more and more prominent in the past decade.
Let me share the story of a group of active and retired footballers in Spain who are trying to make a difference in a unique way, in the lives of their less fortunate colleagues.
Rodolfo Bodipo is a former top-flight striker in Spain and an ex-international with Equatorial Guinea. He is currently the Manager of Equatorial Guinea’s home-based team, but before that, he was a football manager with a difference: always trying to get rid of all his players! Every single one of them, and as quick as he can. What Rodolfo loved the most was to have no players at all, to be standing there on the touchline with no one left to manage.
Bodipo managed the AFE (Association of Spanish Footballers) team, put together by the players’ union. The players he worked with in the winter break of 2017 were all determined that they had not had their last playing job. There were 27 players- all unemployed. Their situations were bad — in some cases very bad — but there was hope. Talent was undoubtedly here and, in the summer before this, 36 players came together and all of them found teams.
The AFE put together a team every summer and every winter, selecting footballers from all over Spain who haven’t got contracts and try to help them back into work. They find a coach, too: this was as much an opportunity for Bodipo as well. Having earned his coaching badges, he had been working with Barcelona and Sevilla and spent time in Australia “teaching… and learning especially.”
He had good players to choose from, but the truth is that you’d probably never heard of them. But then, that’s football. As the Osasuna striker Oriol Riera, a man who made his debut on the same day and in the same team as a certain Lionel Mess (you may have heard of Messi, I think), puts it: “Kids see Barcelona, Madrid and Atlético, but the reality is very different. What you see on television isn’t the reality, what people see on Twitter or Instagram. This is a world full of a lot of crap and you have to know how to live with that.” And yet Riera hasn’t been through anything quite like this. If it can be hard for a top-flight player, imagine what it is like for these men.
Many of the players in the AFE team started in the academies of big clubs but didn’t make it to the first team. Eduardo Valle was with Spain at the U-12, U-15 and U-17 level but never reached higher than the third division. Most of them have played the immense majority of their careers at similar levels, in the country’s regionalised Second Division B (made up of four divisions) or the third division, comprising over 350 teams spread across 20 groups down where salaries are very rarely over €1,000 a month and often a lot less.
Bodipo calls them “labourers.” This is their job, their livelihood. They will go wherever they can to work. And wherever means wherever.
For these players, it’s simple. It is survival; there are players who can’t pay their mortgage, players in debt, players struggling to make ends meet. “Society sees footballers, but they’re not all Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi,” Bodipo says. “They’re workers without work, like lots of people in the country. They’re trying to be bread-winners, take something home. You have to feed your family.”
So there you have it guys; the harsh reality of this beautiful game that we love so much. Yes, I know it’s difficult to feel sorry for the billionaire footballers, the ones that seem so disconnected from normal people and their daily struggles, that the portion of their brain that contains the capacity for empathy has atrophied.
But the vast majority of them are human. They feel pain. They have regrets. They suffer disappointment, and are subject to the vagaries of life. Just like you and I.