Four years ago in Germany, while covering the FIFA Women’s World Cup, a story suddenly emerged in the media about Eucharia Uche, the then Super Falcons coach. It was about an interview she allegedly granted the New York Times in Austria prior to the tournament in Germany concerning lesbianism.
In the interview, Uche was quoted to have described lesbianism as a “dirty issue,” and “spiritually, morally very wrong” conduct that would not be condoned in her team. Coming from a top Nigerian official and in Europe where many are known to be openly gay, the opinion attracted media attention and left some players in opposing camps feeling insulted. Unconfirmed reports at the time, suggested that not only did some lesbian players across the participating teams flay Uche’s comments, they expressed reservations about playing against a team whose coach considered their lifestyle irritating.
To some commentators who expressed worry over Uche’s views, her comments merely captured the feelings of many Nigerians about lesbianism or homosexuality. In an article titled: In African Women’s Soccer, Homophobia Remains an Obstacle, Jere Longman, of the New York Times, harping on Uche’s words, stated that “the story of Nigeria’s Super Falcons illustrates the cultural obstacles that remain for many African women who play soccer decades after more assertive efforts at inclusivity occurred in places like the United States, Germany, Norway, Sweden and more recently in Brazil.”
With such views, and the pressure mounted by gay rights across Europe, Tatjana Haenni, the head of FIFA Women’s Competition, reminded the competing teams in Germany that “FIFA is against all forms of discrimination”.
Two years after that championship in Germany, another Nigerian female administrator, Dilichukwu Onyedinma, sometime in 2013, was reported in the media as saying that lesbianism would not be tolerated in Nigerian women’s national team. Perhaps, wanting to now clampdown and show its zero tolerance for gender discrimination, FIFA reportedly issued the Nigeria Football Federation, NFF, a query but Ademola Olajire, the federation’s spokesman, denied that any such thing happened.
With such controversies and denials, you would think that lessons have been learnt and that the matter would not come up again. How wrong. The issue of gay right concerning Nigeria surfaced in Canada as the FIFA Women’s World Cup was playing out, except that it had nothing to do with any Falcons or female administrator this time but with the Nigerian same-sex prohibition bill passed into law in January 2014 by then President Goodluck Jonathan.
Since passing the bill into law, the Nigerian government had come under attack by many people around the world who consider its action discriminatory. In fact, opposition to the Nigerian law started long before the FIFA Women’s World Cup commenced in Canada. In an article which appeared online seven months ago titled Nigerian Law at Odds with FIFA Values, the writer, Lindsay England, citing the Nigerian same-sex prohibition bill, argued that “the introduction of this law also means that Nigeria’s players who engage in nothing more than conversation, share a visit to watch a game or who participate (in) duties alongside fellow competitors in the Women’s World Cup (many of whom are publically open about their sexual orientation) or engage with fans who are from an LGBT community will be breaking the said law.”
As the championship unfolded in Canada, some journalists were clearly curious about the gay matter as it concerns Nigeria and wanted it clarified. During one of the Super Falcons press conferences in Winnipeg Stadium, Grant Wahl of Sports Illustrated wanted to know how Edwin Okon, the Super Falcons’ coach deals with gay players in light of Nigeria’s gay laws.
Okon, famous among journalists here in Canada for parrying questions, replied that he knew nothing about the subject. “I don’t deal with personal lives. I think of the game proper. I don’t think of my players’ life. I only think of what they do on the pitch. That is what concerns me.” Okon’s response may have disappointed some people as Jeff Kassouf, another journalist points out in his article titled Nigeria Discusses Faith, But Not Sexual Preference, that Nigerian “players and coaches, often guarded about on-and-off field manners, won’t discuss the topic.”
In his article, Nigeria’s Harsh Homosexuality Policy Comes to Light Prior to Clash with US, Wahl quotes Abby Wamback, the US striker and an openly gay athlete as saying, in reaction to a question on the Nigerian team, “It makes me sad, really sad, because I’m afforded all these rights that other people in the world aren’t. I’m sad that there are other women in the world who feel the exact same way as me, and they can’t be or are scared to be themselves and feel confident and comfortable in their skin.”
As if to punish Nigerian leaders for discriminating against gays, Wamback delivered the killer punch that knocked Nigeria out of the competition. Her 45th minute strike in the match played on June 16 in BC Place Stadium, Vancouver, made all the difference and led to the Super Falcons returning home empty handed.
Barely two weeks after that encounter with Nigeria, the US Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples are free to marry anywhere within the country.
Following the excitement generated by the US Supreme Court’s resolution, one Canadian told me that his country boasts of even greater number of gays than America. For a country of approximately 35 million people compared to US’ 320 million, that struck me. However, eager to know what some Canadians themselves feel about the Nigerian team as regards the same-sex law, I asked Keph Senett, a Canadian freelance journalist whether the same sex law in Nigeria matters to the point that it could have affected people’s attitude to the Super Falcons. Four years ago in Germany, when Uche’s view on lesbianism made the rounds, Senett was one of those critical of the Nigerian coach. Now, I sought to know whether she still remembers that controversy and whether the issue and the same-sex law in Nigeria could have coloured Canadian fan’s perception of the team. She replied, “Yes, absolutely. I think it influences opinion about the country’s leadership. But football is a great ambassador. It’s a way for people from very different circumstances to learn about each other. Nigeria’s government may be criticised for it’s homophobic laws while we cheer the Nigerian women’s national team.”
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