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Nigeria players union renews call for insurance system after Christian Chukwu illness

Nigeria's football players union has called on the national federation once again to assist in implementing an insurance scheme to provide welfare coverage for players who have fallen on hard times.

ESPN has learned of the renewed desire to act in the wake of inaccurate reports that Nigeria's Super Eagles legend Christian Chukwu had been "abandoned" in ill-health.

Austin Popo, a retired player and current General Secretary of the Nigeria players union, the National Association of Nigeria Professional Footballers (NANPF) said the body's attempts to launch a health insurance scheme for players had been frustrated by the lukewarm attitude of the country's football leadership

"The union can barely do anything regarding pension and welfare for ex-players without the cooperation of the clubs, League Management Company and NFF [Nigeria Football Federation," he told ESPN.

"We designed and launched a scheme a few years ago but the NFF at the time failed to help and it died."

Chukwu's predicament has once again put the issue of a welfare scheme for ex-players on the front burner.

The reports of a GoFundMe campaign to raise $US50 000 to fly the former Enugu Rangers and Nigeria captain to the United States for treatment for a life-threatening condition, believed to be prostate cancer, prompted outrage in Nigeria, where Chukwu remains a national hero for his exploits on the football field.

A swashbuckling centre-back, he captained Enugu Rangers to victory in the African Cup Winners' Cup in 1977 and then skippered the Super Eagles to their first Africa Cup of Nations title, at home in Nigeria in 1980.

As a coach, he was on the staff as Nigeria won their first world title, the Under 17 World Cup, and then was an assistant to Clemens Westerhof as the Super Eagles claimed their second Afcon title in 1994. Such is the esteem in which he is held that his subsequent failure as national coach, his tenure marred by criticism of tactics and selections, does not detract from his legend.

The NFF and billionaire Femi Otedola each offered to pay for the reported necessary treatment before the Enugu State Government, which owns Rangers and employs Chukwu, released a statement to clarify the position.

Davidson Owumi, Enugu Rangers chief executive and chairman of the ex Rangers Players Association, told ESPN that news of Chukwu's health issues had been "blown out of proportion" and "the idea that he was abandoned is wrong".

"Yes, he had a medical issue but, as an employee of Rangers and, by extension, the Enugu State Government, he was immediately taken to one of the best hospitals in the state and given life-saving treatment," Owumi told ESPN.

"While we admit that treatment abroad may be better, it is also important that he was stabilized; that is what happened and he is now in stable condition and joking as usual.

"If there is any need to fly him abroad for treatment, his employers will do it. But the idea that he was abandoned is wrong."

Some players previously were not as fortunate as Chukwu.

Austin Ofuokwu, who represented Nigeria at the 1968 Olympic Games and played for the Green Eagles (as the country's national team was called until the 1990s) passed away when help did not come on time.

Thompson Oliha, who was in the 1994 World Cup squad, died of illness, aged just 45. Legendary striker Rashidi Yekini passed away in tragic circumstances, alone, while Paul 'Wonderboy' Hamilton also died after a long battle against reported heart- and kidney-related diseases.

Others such as Chukwu's team-mate Emmanuel Okala, who has been struggling with blindness for years, are living with various illnesses and barely surviving.

NFF is under no obligation to cover the medical costs of ex-players, even though numerous reports over the years have suggested that some were owed wages and allowances after working for clubs and country as coaches.

The players' union did not help, either, the body barely functioning as it spent years fractured and divided, fighting an atrocious war that eventually ended with a merger between the National Association of Nigerian Footballers (NANF) and the Association of Professional Footballers of Nigeria (APFON) to form NANPF.

For years, the in-fighting meant no player-focused programs were possible, but NANPF, under the presidency of former Ajax Amsterdam star Tijani Babangida, now is working to attend to its primary constituency.

"At the moment, we do not have a budget but we are doing the best we can to assist both current and former players in whatever way we can," Babangida told ESPN.

"However, we are working on plans to implement an insurance scheme for former players with donations and contributions from the players themselves and from well-meaning Nigerians like Femi Otedola and state governments so that we can avoid issues like this in future.

"There are many others [players in poor health] and some are even dying, but they are not Chukwu so nobody knows about them.

"But we need the support of the NFF and the League Management Company and even the clubs themselves."

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