VANCOUVER, B.C. — On Tuesday, the U.S. will meet a Nigeria team in the Women’s World Cup that has won new fans with its entertaining play in this tournament. But the Super Falcons have also been affected off the field by their country’s increasingly harsh stance against homosexuality.
Last year, Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan signed a new law that made it a criminal act to be involved in homosexual behavior or be a member of a gay club. Gay marriage is also outlawed. Those who break the law face a jail term of up to 14 years. Several countries and their diplomats have publicly criticized the Nigerian law, including U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.
“Nigeria is a society that’s very conservative and deeply religious,” a Nigerian who’s connected to the women’s soccer team told SI.com this week, requesting anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the topic. “The north is deeply Muslim. The southeast is deeply Christian, and the southwest is split Muslim and Christian. So you have this very religious country with strong cultural ties and beliefs.”
The Nigerian source named two players in his/her opinion who would be on Nigeria’s current World Cup team if they were not thought to be publicly gay. What’s more, the source estimated that over the years 30 to 40 percent of the Nigerian women’s team has been gay or bisexual—mostly on the down-low—adding that it’s not possible for a player to be publicly gay to the media and wider world in today’s climate.
“Here’s what might happen to a [Nigerian] player who comes out and says, ‘I’m gay’: You barely can go home anymore,” the Nigerian said. “Even if you have a couple people in your family who say, ‘Don’t worry, we like you and trust you,’ we are still communal at heart. So now your parents, your brothers and sisters are going to go back to the village, and people are going to point at them and make snide stories and talk. Your family gets put into songs. That’s the kind of stigma attached to being gay in Nigeria.
“If a player comes out and says, ‘I’m gay,’ then the trouble doesn’t just start and end with the player. It goes all the way back to the family: parents, sisters, brothers, cousins, everything. One person just sparks off a chain reaction. That’s why it’s so tough.
“You probably also saw the legislation banning homosexuality. If any [legislator] takes something about [passing laws against] homosexuality to the assembly it gets passed almost unanimously. You probably get one or two voices opposing it, but generally it gets overwhelming support. That’s the kind of society we live in. It’s a crime to be gay. It’s a 14-year jail term. That’s national. If you see someone say ‘I love this guy’ on Twitter and someone hashtags it #14Years, that’s what they’re talking about.”
When I asked Nigeria coach Edwin Okon on Monday how he handles Nigeria’s anti-gay laws with his gay players, he said this: “I don’t know what you mean by ‘homosexual.’ 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.”
Nigerian federation officials deny that any players have been kept off the national team due to their sexual orientation. But in 2013, as the Nigerian government began cracking down on homosexuality with anti-gay legislation, a revealing statement came from Dilichukwu Onyedinma, who’s currently the head of the Nigerian women’s soccer league and an official in the Nigerian soccer federation.
“We don’t tolerate lesbianism, and we always discuss it whenever we meet,” Onyedinma told a Nigerian paper. “We always warn clubs and club chairmen to please tell their players to desist from it, because any player that we pick for national competitions, and we hear a little story that is involved in that, we disqualify the player.”
When her quote was first publicized, Onyedinma denied that she had said it. But the Nigerian paper then posted a recording of her saying it on YouTube.
Just before the 2011 Women’s World Cup, then-Nigeria coach Eucharia Uche told The New York Times: “The issue of lesbianism is common. I came to realize it is not a physical battle. We need divine intervention in order to control it and curb it. I tell you it worked for us. This is a thing of the past. It is never mentioned.”
Before the World Cup, I brought up the homophobia that the Nigerian team faces with U.S. forward Abby Wambach, who’s gay. “It makes me sad, really sad,” she said, “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.”
The Nigerian source said any investigation by FIFA into the Nigerian federation’s treatment of gay players would be hard-pressed to produce results. “How would you investigate something like that?” the source said. “Players won’t come out and say, ‘I’m gay.’ And the coach won’t say, ‘I dropped so-and-so because they were gay.’ So it’s hard to investigate.”