The Nigeria men’s U23s had a tumultuous run in the Olympics. But it looks like they’re getting a happy ending.
First, they found themselves stranded at the airport in Atlanta after the Nigerian government and the Nigerian Football Federation didn’t pay up for their charter flight. They ended up spending several days in Atlanta, and only made it to Brazil mere hours before their first group stage match in the Olympic tournament against Japan.
They won that game and ended up topping the group. But their run in the tournament was threatened again when they threatened to boycott their quarterfinal match against Denmark unless they were paid what they were promised, mostly performance bonuses and per diems. (This isn’t the first time this has happened.) With all these financial and logistical issues, there was serious doubt that the Olympic Eagles would be able to finish their run at the 2016 Games.
Enter Katsuya Takasu.
Mr. Takasu is a successful plastic surgeon based in Tokyo. He has something of a reputation for stepping in as a benefactor for beleaguered sports teams and “other notable causes,” as he says. When the Nigerians’ plight became international headlines, he hopped on a plane bound for Rio.
Once there, he linked up with the team and offered $200,000 to cover the outstanding pay from the NFF. He also offered bonuses on top of that depending on how well they do in the tournament.
Nigeria progressed to the semifinals, where they lost to Germany 2-0. They did, however, beat Honduras 3-2 in the subsequent third place game and earned the Bronze medal for the men’s soccer tournament. As it happened, this would be the only Medal-winning performance from the Nigerian delegation at the 2016 Olympics.
Those Bronze medals won them about $10,000 per player on the 18-man roster from Mr. Takasu.
As he told the BBC: “I had travelled [sic] from Tokyo prepared to reward them anyway, and to watch them win the bronze inside the stadium was very fulfilling.”
There was some late controversy when rumblings emerged that the NFF would “hijack” the process and demand Mr. Takasu hand the checks over to them. Given the NFF's ongoing corruption scandals and their difficulty paying players and coaches, there was legitimate fear that this generous donation would fall down the well and the players would be left empty-handed. But the NFF ultimately relented, and Mr. Takasu personally delivered checks to head coach Samson Siasia and team captain (and Chelsea midfielder) John Obi Mikel.
It’s still unfortunate that it took an outside benefactor to pay the players, and this is only the latest episode in the basic cable drama that is Nigerian football. If anything, Mr. Takasu’s involvement only highlights the need for meaningful reform at the NFF. But still, it’s a heartwarming story and a happy ending for a team that badly needed it.