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OPINION: Emeteole and the Tragedy of the Nigeria Players' Union

Nigerians awoke on Wednesday to news of the death of former international player and coach Kelechi Emeteole.

The 66-year-old lost his long battle with throat cancer barely one year after the deaths of Stephen Keshi and Shuaibu Amodu, also former national team coaches.

Emeteole played 17 times for Nigeria over a two-year career between 1975 and 1977, scoring four goals and winning a bronze medal at the 1976 Africa Cup of Nations in Ethiopia.

Primarily a defender when he turned out for both Spartans (which metamorphosed to Iwuanyanwu Nationals and now Heartland FC) and Enugu Rangers, Emeteole's utility lay in his versatility.

Father Tiko, who was coach of the Green Eagles (as the Nigeria team were called at the time), had a penchant for throwing Emeteole into any position where he had a deficiency, whether through injury or suspension. This meant the defender ended up playing in defence, midfield, and as a forward during his brief but eventful international career.

It was this versatility, and his rugged, take-no-prisoners style, which earned him the nickname 'Caterpillar', a moniker he reinforced with his equally brusque but effective coaching style as he managed almost all of the biggest clubs in the country, including the two teams he played for.

Despite all of these achievements, Emeteole, like many players of his generation, died in near penury.

In March, with the cancer in his throat requiring surgery estimated to cost about N10 million ($31 000), Emeteole was forced to appeal publicly to three of his former employers - Rangers, El Kanemi Warriors and Heartland - to pay him outstanding wages. When the clubs failed to meet those obligations, the domestic league organisers took up the responsibility.

The coach also received donations from serving players who played under him, including Nigeria defender Kenneth Omeruo.

Rashidi Yekini died a poor man
Rashidi Yekini died a poor man

Usually, when news of former players having financial or medical issues breaks, the path of least resistance from both fans and media is to blame the football federation for 'abandoning' past heroes.

But here is the thing... it is not the responsibility of the football federation, or even the government for that matter, to give handouts to former internationals, irrespective of their status. The federation's remit stops at making sure that they pay whatever wages and allowances they are contractually obliged to pay. Finished.

The football federation's responsibility is to develop, organise, and regulate football within its territory, not to be a soup kitchen for former players. That responsibility lies with the players themselves. They must get together as a proper organised unit, form a proper, unified players' union, and affiliate themselves to the world players' union.

For way too long, the two groups (National Association of Nigerian Footballers and Association of Professional Footballers of Nigeria) laying claim to be the authentic players' union have spent more time in the trenches than actually looking out for players' interests and welfare.

The battle-wounds from this long-standing war has left them weakened and unable to fight their own corner, let alone that of the players and ex-players they claim to represent.

Thankfully, both parties recently held a long overdue peace meeting to reconcile their differences and harmonise their positions. But, since that meeting, there has been no further movement.

It is time the leaders of these two organisations put their egos and differences aside and put the needs of their colleagues front and centre. We can mourn passed-on players all we want, eulogise them all we want, but if those deaths cannot be prevented, at least let their final days be lived in somewhat comfortable, pain-free peace.

It is not too much to ask for former comrades.

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