Taribo West was a tough defender who faced the best Serie A strikers in Italy, with his trademark brightly coloured braids.
The former AC Milan and Inter Milan player is one of the former players of Nigeria’s national team and officials in a crusade to end the corruption that has eroded the game in his native West Africa.
“Nigerian football is sinking, it’s almost dead,” said Taribo West, as he took the radio waves from a popular radio station in Abuja.
“There is almost nowhere you can speak against those who run football because they have paid everyone.”
Football in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, has long been plagued by insults between officials who have seen players go unpaid and drain money away from the game’s development.
Nigeria’s current Football Federation leadership, led by controversial President Amaju Pinnick, is facing a string of corruption cases, including allegations that it has embezzled millions of dollars paid by FIFA to boost the sport in the country.
Nigeria has a broader problem with corruption – it ranked 146th out of 180 in the 2019 Transparency International ranking.
In November, a court filed a series of charges against Pinnick and his deputies for technical reasons. Everyone remains in their jobs and denies the charges against them.
– “Corruption just killing” –
Since ending his career in the mid-2000s, Taribo West has lost his braids and changed his football shirt for church clothes to become a Christian preacher in his hometown of Lagos.
Known as outspoken, even during his game days, he is using his profile to keep up the force in hope that this time something will finally be done on the graft he believes is ruining the game.
“Corruption is just killing,” he said.
Other former players are also speaking alongside him.
“Many things that are not acceptable around the world now are the norm in Nigeria’s football,” said Emeka Ezeugo, who participated in the Nigerian team at the 1994 World Cup in the United States.
He regretted that the zero-tolerance statements by President Muhammadu Buhari’s authorities appeared to have little impact.
“I am extremely disappointed in the federal government because it has accepted everything that is happening in our football, despite its position against corruption.”
Emmanuel Babayaro, who was one of the heroes when Nigeria made history to become the first African team to win Olympic gold at the 1996 Atlanta Games.
But since then, he has been irritated by the diminishing opportunities for young aspirants to pursue careers in sports.
“Football must be a big employer of labour and big business, but because of blatant corruption, many young and aspiring footballers are so frustrated,” he said.
Nigeria’s footballers’ union, which represents current and former players, in February filed a lawsuit aimed at convincing the government to force officials accused of corruption to resign.
“They are public officials and that is what happens in such a situation,” said the union president Harrison Jalla.
– Whistleblowers –
It is not just the ex-players who take a stand.
Some former and current members of the national federation have come forward as whistleblowers and their complaints have formed the basis of many of the legal cases.
“The players saw the truth and also felt sorry for the football they gave everything, including the best of their youth, as growth is dying in the country,” explained Tunde Aderibigbe, director who asked for anti-corruption agencies to start analyzes.
“Local league, that produced many of them, is now a big joke without sponsors, and this year, teams representing Nigeria have failed internationally.”
The former technical director James Peters also gave his own part that the lack of infrastructure and development programs due to corruption.
“Both the technical committee and the technical department, which has not participated in more than a year, do not fulfil their responsibilities because the money allocated to them has reached the private pocket,” he said.
“I am saddened by the fact that, despite huge investments … we still cannot be proud of the basic infrastructure to grow football in Nigeria.”