Vox in the Box: Colin Udoh

Colin Udoh is one of the most influential voices in African football. A writer for a range of publications including ESPN and the Blizzard, and a broadcaster with Super Sport, he also worked as a media officer for the Nigerian national side between 2011 and 2013. And when better to speak to him than in the wake of the African Cup of Nations tournament in Equatorial Guinea?

What did you think of the coverage this year, Colin?

I think it’s been great. There are so many African players playing all over the world these days, the tournament gets a lot of coverage. You can see why the fans of European teams would take so much more of an interest. Most of Africa’s top players are in Europe and you can see how critical some of them are. Look at how much Manchester City have missed Yaya Toure.

Issa Hayatou, the president of the Confederation of African Football, criticised Western media for focusing on the problems at the semi-final stage and claimed that journalists were, “perpetuating colonialism.” Was that how you saw it?

I think Hayatou is senile. He needs to go and sit down. The bottom line is that if something happens, it happens. People need to know about things. We saw it, it was all on TV. If they didn’t want it to be covered then what they should have shut down the TV cameras. Unfortunately, there’s only so much you can do in this social media era. There’s instant news reporting now so there wasn’t really much they could do anyway. But to come out and say it’s western media perpetuating colonialism, well that’s just plain disingenuous by Hayatou. But I’m not a very big fan of his.

You’ve had problems with Hayatou in the past?

Oh yeah. He’s not a very approachable person. African football could have achieved a lot more with someone more forward thinking in charge. Hayatou has had his moments, but as far as I am concerned it’s time for him to step down, we need fresh ideas and unfortunately I don’t think he’s the man who will take us there.

What does need to be done to improve African football?

Well, we need more games on TV. Up until the latter qualifiers for the African Nations, the qualifying games were like some kind of fetish thing; you never saw them on television. The rights were given away to a company that didn’t have the resources to put them across the continent. It was easier to see two European nations playing a friendly than it was to see two African nations in a qualifier. We also need to get better facilities and to get that we need more money coming in. We can’t get that if we don’t clean up the game.

Is there a trend of Africans supporting English clubs and not their local teams?

Well, unfortunately that’s the nature of the beast here. It’s something we’ve got to live with. But who is to blame? You look at South Africa and in spite of the dominance of Western football, the league is still as strong as ever. You go up to Egypt and the game is still strong there. So the question has to be: What are they doing right? How are they still flourishing? We need to learn from them.

In Nigeria, I think the problem is that almost all the clubs are owned by the government. There needs to be change, the football needs to go back to the community, with the community owning the clubs and participating in them.

There’s certainly no shortage of quality players.

Yes, but the thing is that they are not being properly remunerated and when that happens, it’s simple supply and demand. If players aren’t getting paid enough, or at all, then they tend to move to where they will get paid. For instance last season, the top two goal scorers in Nigeria, they moved abroad. They’re getting paid big bucks compared to what they were getting here.

I had a meeting with the league sponsors and I told them, “Look, you can afford to pay these guys, lets keep them here, lets say that we’ve got some of the best players on the continent and they’re playing here.” That sort of thing will generate interest, people want to go out and see them. I’m hopeful that in the future the best players will not be let go so easily.

Is it that the money isn’t there, or is it that the money is there but it gets… sidetracked?

I would say that it’s a bit of both. The money is there, but the people who run football are not really people who think of football in terms of business. They depend on the government to give them money. Secondly, what they do get, it doesn’t get to the players. People make these budgets, hundreds of millions of naira and they still don’t say where it’s going to go. You see club officials buying fantastic cars and building houses and the players who are supposed to get this money just don’t get it.

That must be frustrating?

It is, it is. You look at it and you wonder all the time, how is this going to change? It’s got to the point now when I’ve been thinking that perhaps I should go into club management myself and show these people how it is to run a proper club. The trouble is that it’s not as simple as that. It’s not as easy as running a club and trying to change attitudes, it won’t happen with one club, it has to happen with three, four clubs to set the ball rolling. When that starts happening you can build some kind of structure. But the first thing is to convince the government to step back from the clubs and let other people invest in them and run them properly.

The bonus rows between African players and their associations, which we saw again in the World Cup, must be just as frustrating. You can understand why the players get so angry when they don’t receive what they’ve been promised, but why does it keep happening? And is it reported fairly in the West?

You can’t hide the truth. As much as you might want to say, “Oh this is the Western press always trying to look for something negative about Africa,” if we didn’t give them that opportunity then it wouldn’t be there. You can’t say Ghana didn’t fight over bonuses. You can’t say that Nigeria didn’t do the same thing. The bottom line is that if you give people fodder, they’ll feed on it.

Fortunately, FIFA have come out to say that they want to see signed agreements between federations and players now before all major tournaments. I think that’s a fantastic idea. A lot of the time the federations agree things with the players that they can’t do, but sometimes you can’t blame them because they agree these things in expectation of getting money from the government. Because of bureaucracy and all sorts of things, the money doesn’t come on time and it ends up becoming a problem, like in the Nigeria case at the World Cup.

They had agreed the payments, but the players wanted the money before the World Cup was over. The FA said, “Look, this money is supposed to come from FIFA, that’s what we agreed on.”

But the players said, “You know what? Source the money somehow because we don’t trust you and if we leave here and you get the money, we won’t get it. So source it from somewhere, borrow it from somewhere, do whatever you have to do, but give us our money up front.”

Sometimes I think we are responsible for digging our own graves.

You worked as a media officer for the Nigerian team between 2011 and 2013, didn’t you? Did you enjoy that side of things?

I don’t know if it was enjoyable, but it was equal parts fun and frustration. (laughs) Doing it was an eye opener in some ways. I got to see the inner workings. Sometimes I was able to give a few ideas on how to improve things. I think it was a great learning experience and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

Did you ever find yourself with a conflict of interests, as a journalist working in this position?

Well, it’s a bit difficult. I wouldn’t call it a conflict of interests. While it may look like that from the outside, I think I did my best to walk that line fairly. I didn’t have to diffuse too many things, apart from Peter Odemwingie going all crazy on Twitter…But yeah, it was a bit tough when you try to balance it. A lot of the time I had information from the team and I was bursting to bring exclusive stories, but I knew that it was information that had to be shared fairly. There were also things I couldn’t put out there because you don’t want to betray trust.

Did the players trust you?

Oh yes, they did. I think that was one thing I had going for me. I knew a lot of them already, a lot of them were friends, so it was a little easier for me to get them to do things. Me and the captain Vincent Enyeama go way back, the same with Joseph Yobo. I think generally I had a very good working relationship with them. Even Jon Obi Mikel, and I had my moments with him!

Was Mikel difficult to work with?

Yeah. The thing is, he doesn’t like to talk a lot of the time. It takes a lot to get him to come out and do interviews and talk to people. He’d rather be on his own. Sometimes you can’t blame him. He comes out and everyone is all over him. It’s easier for him to stay inside and not open himself up to all of that. He hardly does any interviews when he’s on international duty and only does a few with his clubs. That’s the kind of person he is.

And you’re very close to one other Nigerian superstar, aren’t you? Mercy Akide, your wife. Does football ever cause problems in your relationship, does she complain about the tone of your reporting?

(laughs) No, not really! We handle it very well. As a media officer though, she was my most difficult client! She speaks her mind when she wants, so sometimes I have to tell her to be careful. She just doesn’t care. She’s a reporter’s delight, but it’s not very good for me when she goes off on one of those. She shoots straight from the hip, she doesn’t mince her words. Even when she was still playing, she didn’t know how to be diplomatic. But otherwise we get on fine. It’s perfect.

You can follow Colin Udoh on Twitter (@colinudoh)

Vox in the Box: Colin Udoh
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