Nigeria’s under-23 Olympic football team made international headlines a few days ago for the wrong reasons after stories emerged of how the team was ‘stranded’ in Atlanta and had to be ‘rescued’ by Delta Airlines. Little did many know that the real hero was Yemi Idowu, a Nigerian businessman, sports philanthropist and enthusiast, who spent $300,000 from his personal pockets to provide an aircraft to fly the Dream Team from Atlanta long before Delta Airlines provided an alternate flight plan.
The Nigerian Football Federation (NFF) was well aware that the National U-23 was an Olympic Team and the Olympics takes place every four years. They were also aware that a tradition exists where Team Nigeria departs for major international sports competitions together.
It is also a norm that the Federal Government through the Ministry of Sports hands over officially all the contingent from all sports federations that qualified for the Olympics, including NFF, to the Nigerian Olympic Committee.
Around early July, about a month to the beginning of the Olympic games, the NFF under Amaju Pinnick informed the sports minister that they will be taking the U-23 Team to Atlanta in the US for Pre-Olympic camping and from there they will proceed to Rio in Brazil.
The Sports Minister Solomon Dalong made it clear that there was no money for the Atlanta trip, and advised them to camp in Nigeria before flying to the Olympic games in Rio. The NFF however stated that they had full sponsorship for the Atlanta camping, and thus they didn’t need any money from the Federal Government.
The Ill-Fated Atlanta Trip
At the time the NFF dispatched the under-23 Team to Atlanta, USA, the sports minister was not informed.
While in Atlanta, there were reports that the Nigerian U-23 was about to be thrown out of their Camp in Atlanta. Meanwhile the media officer of the team who was left behind in Nigeria insisted that the U-23 received an invitation by the city of Atlanta to play in a competition.
Is it not curious that a team which had full sponsorship to travel to Atlanta, and also allegedly had been invited by the city of Atlanta will get thrown out of an hotel due to unpaid bills?
Subsequently, the news about the ejection of the under-23 team from their Atlanta hotel spread like wild fire.
Suddenly the supposed sponsors were nowhere to be found and the U-23 team coach Samson Siasia started the outcry about their ejection. However this failed to extract money from the Federal Government as they wished, but somehow the team managed to survive several weeks in the hotel in Atlanta.
The Messy Ticketing Saga
The consultant to the Ministry of Sports, Angie Taylor was responsible for arranging tickets for Team Nigeria members residing outside the country, especially those in the US. She arranged tickets for the D’Tigers, our National Male Basketball Team who were incidentally in Atlanta also and left for Rio four days before the Olympics’ opening ceremony.
She also arranged for several other athletes outside the US.
However NFF’s U-23 team rejected the ticketing agent provided by the sports Ministry stating that they had their own ticketing agent.
The NFF thus insisted that the sports Ministry gave them the funds to pay their agent for the tickets.
The Sports Minister, Solomon Dalong requested for the name of their ticketing agent and his account details so that the money would be paid to him. The NFF however refused to give him the agent’s account details, stating that they wanted the funds instead.
In a bid to avoid a stalemate following the NFF’s insistence on buying tickets through their ticketing agent, the sports ministry approved the release of $174,000 Dollars (About N80 million) through the Nigerian Olympic Committee which remitted the sum to the account of the NFF agent.
After the payment was made, in a surprise move, the agent again asked for more money claiming that he would not allow the team to leave for Rio if the team’s hotel bills were not paid.
The Sports Minister then asked the NFF to talk to their agent and allow the team leave for Rio, since the Olympics was starting in two days. He also stated that whatever the bill was he would settle it in the interest of the country. However the agent, Jairo Pashion, a close associate of Coach Samson Siasia insisted that he would not allow the team to leave for the Olympics.
Coach Samson Siasia was then called upon to talk to the agent, but Siasia said ‘it is not my business’.
Yemi Idowu To The Rescue
At this point a Nigerian philanthropist, Yemi Idowu who was following the saga which was already on local and foreign media sought to save Nigeria from international embarrassment by making a new arrangement to charter another plane for the Under-23 Olympic football team.
Yemi Idowu is the son of the Late Nathaniel Idowu, the extraordinary sports administrator and philanthropist who started the professional football league in Nigeria.
Yemi, after contacting the sports ministry, decided to spend $300,000 from his personal pocket to provide an Embraer EMB135ER aircraft to fly the 18-man Dream Team and officials from Atlanta to Brazil, but Coach Samson Siasia rejected the plane without stating any reason initially.
After rejecting the plane, the Sports minister, Solomon Dalong put several phone calls through to Siasia, but the coach of the U-23 team refused to speak to the minister.
The minister then called team captain, Mikel Obi and asked about Siasia’s whereabouts, but Mikel said the coach was not around. The minister then told Mikel to let Siasia know that he called and would like to speak to him. He also told Mikel that if there is any problem he should let him know about it.
It was at this point that stories were twisted that the minister said Mikel should be in charge of the team and not Siasia.
After all efforts by the minister to speak to Siasia failed, Siasia then called Vice President Yemi Osinbajo and said to him that the team was stranded in Atlanta due to the non payment of hotel bills and flight to Brazil.
The vice president immediately called Dalung but could not reach him, then called Information minister, Lai Mohammed and instructed him to reach Dalung on the matter.
Meanwhile the vice president also instructed the Accountant General of the Federation and directed him to arrange $474,000 immediately for the Team.
Lai Mohammed later conveyed the Vice President’s message to Dalung, and the Sports minister explained how Siasia avoided his calls and refused to speak to him.
Lai Mohammed then called Siasia and told him that his minister was trying to speak to him. Dalung then called Mikel again and asked him to take his phone to Siasia so he could speak to him.
According to eyewitness reports, Dalong was placed on hold for several minutes before Siasia spoke to him. Dalong then asked Siasia why he refused to use the Chartered plane Yemi Idowu paid for, and Siasia said “the plane was too small and it had no space and the boys were complaining.” Dalong then said to him “You are the coach, I have goggled the plane and I think it is good enough why can’t they use it?”
Investigations however revealed that the real reason why Siasia rejected Yemi Idowu’s chartered plane was that the number of the contingent were more than the capacity of the aircraft. The Aircraft had a capacity to cater for 25 people but the total numbers of 32 people were waiting in Atlanta.
The minster then stated that the NOC informed him that the official contingent for the football team plus officials to Rio was 25, which was why Yemi Idowu chartered a 25-seater aircraft.
Unknown to all, the extra seven people were Siasia’s family members.
The minister then called the vice president and explained everything to him and the VP was very shocked and disappointed. The VP was also informed by Dalong that there was a plane ready for the team’s official contingent that was paid for, therefore it is not true that they were stranded.
The vice president then instructed the Accountant General not to release more money and asked the sports ministry to handle the situation. When all these were going on NFF president, Amaju Pinnick remained quiet and he was not even talking to Solomon Dalong.
The Sports minster then called Mikel Obi again and the captain said that the agent has provided them an accommodation and booked a flight for them to travel to Rio.
The story of Delta Airline coming to the rescue of a ‘stranded’ Under-23 team is very false, and it is important for Nigerians to know this.
Noteworthy, Delta Airlines was a co-sponsor of the tournament which the U-23 attended in Atlanta as part of the 20th Anniversary of the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games, so flying the team out of the camp was not so much a favour as widely publicised.
If there is anyone who truly deserves commendation, it’s that great man Yemi Idowu who like his late father has left his footprints on the sands of time.
Oluwole Isaac writes from Abuja, Nigeria.