Osasu Obayiuwana: What do footballers owe themselves?

Louis Paul Mfede, the influential, classy midfielder in the Cameroonian side that reached the quarterfinals of the 1990 World Cup, died last month, at the relatively young age of 52.

But as sad – and shocking – as his demise was, the cause of his passing is far more surprising. Mfede died of a lung infection, which he was unable to treat at a Yaoundé hospital, because he could no longer pay for his hospital treatment.

According to Frederick Mfede, the late player’s son, Roger Milla had to step in and pay some of his father’s bills, when things became desperate.

It is the recurring story that one often hears in the African game – great players dying from penury, after living a life of fame.

And the response of the country’s government – awarding Mfede a posthumous medal of national honour, with Adoum Garoua, the country’s sports minister, delivering platitudes about Mfede’s patriotism, at the burial, is a spin of the same old spiel.

In a few months, Mfede’s passing will end up being another historical foot note, while his wife and children pick up the pieces of their shattered lives and deal with the daily consequences of their loss.

Few people, beyond the expression of sympathy shown at the funeral, will bother about their problems, as they deal with their own worries.

When Marc-Vivien Foe, another Cameroonian midfielder, died on the pitch, at the 2003 Confederations Cup in France, promises of how the player would ‘never be forgotten’ were made by officials of Fecafoot, the country’s football federation.

And what has happened to them?

The training complex, for young footballers, that the former Manchester City and West Ham player had started building before his death, on the outskirts of Yaoundé, is derelict, even though the government had promised to complete the project.

A statue erected in his memory, in front of the building, is withering away and there is no major event to commemorate the fact that he died whilst serving his country.

Luckily for Foe’s wife, Marie-Louise, and their three children, a $750,000 fund was set up in 2003, by FIFA, for the education of their children, so one can only presume that they are in much better circumstances.

The obvious question to ask, in all of this, is why so many retired footballers in Africa are unable to cope with life, after hanging up their boots?

“It is true that we sacrifice our life to fight for the flag of the country, but at the end we become normal people. We have to face life after our career,” says Thomas Libiih, who was Mfede’s colleague in the 1990 World Cup team.

Tales of destitution are, perhaps, not as prevalent for the more successful players with long careers in European club football, who managed to invest their funds wisely, as they set themselves up for a life after the game.

But for players who retired between the late 1980s and the 1990s, with their club careers within the continent, it appears to be an endemic, persisting problem.

Adokiye Amiesimaka, who won the Africa Cup of Nations with Nigeria in 1980, whilst studying for a law degree at the University of Lagos, subsequently having a career as a Barrister, is one of the exceptions to the rule.

And he has a rather frank perspective on the problem.

“I am always sad when I hear that some of my old colleagues are struggling and end up dying in penury. But what plans did they actually make for their retirement?

“Footballers need to be more responsible and ensure that they plan for life after the game is over.

“You cannot expect one’s country to have a duty to look after you, just because you played for it. I just don’t agree with that.

“Whilst a player has an active career, they are entitled to decent treatment and the prompt payment of whatever they are entitled to. Nothing more. How you plan for your retirement is the player’s responsibility.”

I am inclined, largely, to agree with this view.

But there’s a caveat – the guardians of the sport must play a bigger role in ensuring that a proper education becomes part of the requirements for having a career.

Talent, more often than not, trumps everything else, even having a good character and a decent level of education, which is necessary for having a well-rounded person, capable of making intelligent decisions on the football pitch and in life.

Would a Diego Maradona have made better choices and avoided a premature and sad end to what ought have been a longer and even more successful career, if he had been equipped with the right life tools to make informed decisions? Perhaps.

People perish – and fall on very hard times – due to a lack of knowledge.

As Aristotle poignantly observed, “the educated differ from the uneducated as much as the living differ from the dead.”

Osasu Obayiuwana, a lawyer and BBC broadcaster, as well as the Associate Editor of NewAfrican magazine, is one of the world’s leading journalists on African football. His regular commentary on the state of the African game can also be read at footballisafrica.com. Contact him at moc.l1685780352labto1685780352ofdlr1685780352owedi1685780352sni@a1685780352nawui1685780352yabo.1685780352usaso1685780352

Osasu is also a member of FIFA’s newly convened anti-racism task force.