Assistant Captain of Pelican Stars Football Club of Calabar, Nigeria’s most successful female team, Chinenye Okafor has quit football for hairdressing after playing for one year for the club without pay. She took the decision in July, 2020.
They have also staged several protests over the issue but the Cross River State government is yet to yield to the demands.
She said it is quite a contrast when she was pursuing her lifelong passion of playing football yet suffering deeply because of it, as club officials simply failed to pay women’s team.
Pelican Stars has won 8 leagues titles, two better than closest rivals and has produced two former African Players of the Year -Perpetua Nkwocha and Mercy Akide-Udoh.
|Chinenye and her Pelican Stars Teammates after winning promotion back to topflight women’s football.|
She joined Pelican Stars in 2018 and the club was relegated in her first season. She relished the experience and lifestyle.
“Everything was going fine and I was happy that this was my breakthrough.
They were as good as their word, bouncing back with an immediate promotion that was even celebrated at Cross River State’s Government House.
But the waters were muddying.
Midway through the season, a club that regularly paid salaries – which ranged from $78-182 – to its players by the end of every month started falling behind with payments.
The first time it happened was when February’s wages came in March. By June 2019, the payments simply stopped coming altogether.
Fall to earth
The Pelican Stars team have been forced to protest outside Cross River State’s Government House.
Even before Covid-19 struck earlier this year, the situation had been rapidly deteriorating for Okafor and her team-mates as they held out for their delayed payments.
“Our club vice-chairman brought bags of rice and beans for us to have at home before the pandemic started,” she recalled.
“It was so bad in camp that we shared food. We also got mocked by local traders because sometimes we had to buy things on credit.”
A state commissioner brought more rice once coronavirus made its unwelcome entrance but Okafor’s challenging existence grew intolerable after Cross River State officials continued to fund men’s teams while ignoring the Stars’ pleas.
“I feel that women are discriminated against. They paid the men’s team, Unicem Rovers, and even the junior team, without paying us – even though our salary had been outstanding since June 2019.
“That was when I got angry. It was too much. We needed to do something for the state governor to know that something is going on.”
In April this year, after ten months without pay, the Stars players held their first protest outside state headquarters.
“The security at Government House harassed us and even brought out guns, saying we should all leave the premises. They said that because of Covid, we were not supposed to be there.
“I felt embarrassed. We had a team-mate that was sick, because she hadn’t had food to eat. She got a chronic ulcer and even now, I don’t think she (is in a state to) play football again.
“They did not even say: ‘Because of her, let us release one-two months’ salaries’.”
A second protest followed shortly after, whereupon the club management said all arrears would be settled by the end of April.
None ever came.
In order to feed themselves, Okafor and some team-mates started looking for other ways to make money while also having to ask others for help.
“Some of us were doing hair for a living or sewing clothes. We also had help from our family and from some fellow female professional footballers,” she said.
Meanwhile, the head of Nigeria’s Women’s League barred Pelican Stars from playing in the league until the salaries are paid – a situation that still stands today.
From heady to head days
Chinenye Okafor dreams about being able to play football again
Ultimately, the lack of pay and regrettable living conditions eventually caused Okafor’s family to step in more forcefully.
“My dad began to call me to come back home, so I left the club in July. I’m now a hairdresser in Lagos,” she said.
“Nothing can be as fulfilling as playing football. to me, football makes me happy whenever I’m on the field of play
“I never saw myself hairdressing so I think I can say at the moment it is a chore.
“I am slowly getting to like it now and am even thinking of having my own salon sooner or later.”
Chinenye Okafor is managing to make a living by being a hairdresser rather than a footballer
But while she concentrates on styling her clients, the bounce Okafor is after is really that of a football – whose lure is irresistible for this fighter.
“If the 2021 season starts, I will for trials with another club,” she rallies. “I still do evening training after work to keep myself fit.”
Okafor’s former team-mates, meanwhile, have now gone 14 months without being paid, despite Cross River State’s Sport Commissioner promising to pay them last week.
“I will never give up on by career because of Pelican Stars,” says Okafor.
“My dream is to play for the Super Falcons of Nigeria and I know my dreams will come true one day. Football has been my joy, my life, my everything and I’ll keep fighting for it.”