He played against Argentina at the 2014 World Cup but now claims he has gone without pay since March and been forced to train alone
In June 2014 Michael Uchebo realised a dream. The striker, then playing for Cercle Brugge, was a surprise selection for Nigeria’s World Cup squad and his moment arrived 66 minutes into a Group F tie against Argentina. Lionel Messi had just been substituted but as Nigeria sought to overturn a 3-2 deficit and Uchebo contested late, desperate balls into the box with Ezequiel Garay, it seemed like the kind of company any footballer would be thrilled to keep.
These days Uchebo is, in his own words, “confused and scared”. That afternoon in Porto Alegre could hardly seem further away; Uchebo signed for Boavista three months later but alleges the Portuguese club have not paid him since March and he has been forced to train alone for the best part of a year. It is a troubling story, inevitably involving claim and counterclaim, and unless the player’s situation is resolved his case will be lodged with Fifa’s dispute resolution chamber – a last resort, given the likely duration of any hearing would extend his isolation indefinitely when he simply wants to be playing football.
“I’ve been dying in silence, with nobody to help me,” Uchebo said at a specially arranged press conference last week. “I remember going to have a shop and not having money to buy something; I came to [Boavista] and said I needed money for food. They haven’t paid my house rent, haven’t paid for my electricity – I remember two days when I didn’t have any electricity in my house. They didn’t care; they don’t give me any money and don’t care for me.”
Uchebo says his problems began when, last November, Boavista told him to stop reporting for training and advised he should find a new club in January. The team had begun their Primeira Liga season disastrously; Uchebo, 6ft 4in, had not scored and on the surface it may seem reasonable that a club afflicted with long-term financial difficulties would wish to consider the best use of resources. Uchebo says he was not paid in December or January and then, when two offers from other clubs materialised before the transfer deadline, was told Boavista had changed their minds.
“I told them: ‘You’ve stopped me training for two months, you’re not paying my salary and, now I have an option, I want to go; I don’t ask for the money, I just want to continue my career,’” he said. No agreement was reached but Uchebo’s lot temporarily improved. He won brief favour from Erwin Sánchez, the new coach, and made seven appearances – all bar one from the bench – earlier this year. He also received a salary payment in March.
According to Uchebo that is the last time Boavista – to whom he is contracted until 30 June 2017 – fulfilled their obligations. Fifa rules stipulate clubs must pay players within 90 days of the agreed date. He claims that after the season finished he was told to accept a new deal, with a salary revised significantly downwards, if he wanted to stay; no agreement was reached and on his return for pre-season he was frozen out from training once more.
“They said I couldn’t train, they wouldn’t give me anything to train, eat with the team or go where the team was eating,” he said. “At the end of August I told the club president [Álvaro Braga Júnior] that my family had problems because they still hadn’t paid me my salary. He told me: ‘I don’t pay you, I won’t pay you any money, just go.’ In September they asked me to take one month’s salary to leave but the transfer window had closed, so where did they want me to go?”
He says that since then he has been denied an individual training programme and at times even banned from the club gym when seeking to work out alone. Earlier this month a video emerged that purports to show Uchebo being threatened with force by security personnel when attempting to use the club’s facilities. “How can you treat me like a slave?” he is heard asking. Another video appears to show a furious Uchebo confronting an inscrutable Braga Júnior about the non-payment of his salary.
Uchebo’s exile continues. He is effectively trapped in a foreign country with few diversions other than fruitless daily visits to his employer. He is supported by the global players’ union Fifpro and the Portuguese Sindicato dos Jogadores Profissionais de Futebol [SJPF], who provide financial and legal backing.
“This case embarrasses the country and Portuguese football,” the SJPF president, Joaquim Evangelista, told the Guardian. “Like any other player Michael just wants to do his job. Every day he hopes the nightmare will end. He just wants to play again. The club is repeatedly violating the obligations established in his contract.”
Boavista have not responded to a list of questions sent by the Guardian regarding Uchebo’s treatment. A statement released by Braga Júnior via Facebook last week said the player “continues to say things that do not correspond to the truth” and claimed Uchebo had reneged on a settlement proposal he agreed in early September. Evangelista rejects that explanation, saying that “a negotiation is not an imposition of will” and no consensus was reached.
Whatever the outcome, Boavista may be gravely embarrassed it has come this far. The 113-year-old club, based in Porto, won the league in 2001 and counts players such as Raul Meireles, Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink and José Bosingwa among their alumni. The club stand accused of mistreating a player and Uchebo’s is not the only recent case.
Another Nigeria forward who played at the World Cup, Uche Nwofor, recently agreed a deal to terminate his Boavista contract and signed for the Slovakian club AS Trencin. Nwofor, who had claimed to be receiving similar treatment to Uchebo, has reportedly not received the €110,000 settlement made with Boavista and Fifpro is also working on his case.
The SJPF says negotiations with Boavista on Uchebo’s behalf are continuing and they await the club’s response to a counter-proposal. The situation has reached a head in the same week Fifpro released the results of a global survey that showed 41% of players have experienced late payments and more than 6% have been forced to train alone. The Portuguese union is still collating its responses and the country’s results are not included; however, Evangelista believes Uchebo’s plight is replicated elsewhere.
“Unfortunately it is not a unique situation,” he says. “Every year these cases arise, especially after the transfer windows close. But the player has a right to demand his contract is honoured; he is a worker like any other.”
Two years from the pinnacle of his career, Uchebo’s next dream is rather more simple. He just wants to be allowed to play again.
By Nick Ames. This article was originally published in the Guardian.