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Column: Randy Waldrum, Nigerian women’s soccer players are ‘fighting for what’s right’

Photo Courtesy / FIFA

When he took over the reigns at the University of Pittsburgh women’s soccer program in late 2017, Randy Waldrum showed right away that he’s a straight-shooter.

In the first couple of years on the job in Pittsburgh, the veteran coach developed a quick track record of tackling many difficult topics with candor.  Waldrum leaned on his experience in having successfully turned multiple women’s college soccer programs around, including winning two National Championships at Notre Dame, along with experiences coaching at the professional level with the Houston Dash and a tenure as Head Coach of Costa Rica’s women’s national team.

After arriving at Pitt, the Irving, Texas, native spoke frankly about the current state of the new program he was inheriting and what he was looking for to take the team to a higher level. That meant difficult conversations with young student-athletes who would not fit into what he was building.  And he did so with a high-level of professionalism and class.

“They’ve been great, but they’ll need to find a better fit where they can play,” Waldrum said of some of the student-athletes at that time.

“We’ve let them know that we’re here to help them.”

In some respects, it was a bit revealing to hear a women’s college soccer coach come right out and say that some of the players in the program were not ACC-level or even Division I-level players.  In time, Waldrum brought in the players to build Pitt’s women’s program into an ACC contender and a nationally ranked squad.  But he was always equally determined to support those players who didn’t stay at Pitt, and help them find their way.

Fast-forward to a couple of weeks ago, before conducting an interview on Pittsburgh Soccer Now‘s Sounding Off on Soccer Podcast, Waldrum, who was getting ready to embark on a trip to the Women’s World Cup in Australia, as the Head Coach of the Nigerian women’s soccer team, made it clear that it was time to speak out about the troubling waters surrounding the National Team squad he has been leading since 2021.

In numerous interviews and interactions with Waldrum in the time since he took the helm of the Nigerian National side, he shared some of his logistical concerns, mostly in confidence, but it was clear that there was always a sense that there were bigger issues brewing below the surface.

This winter, on a previous podcast with Pittsburgh Soccer Now, Waldrum expressed hope that the Nigerian team might even be able to train together for some time here in Pittsburgh.  That clearly never happened, but he was hopeful that he would generate support from the Nigerian National Federation to prepare the players with proper support and resources.

Instead, he’s had to deal with a ton of concerning issues, and finally felt something needed to be said.

Having covered him for nearly a half decade now, it wasn’t a huge surprise that Waldrum used the ‘Sounding Off on Soccer’ podcast forum to speak candidly, as he was resolute in support for the players and wanted to stand up for what needed to be said.

The veteran coach didn’t hold anything back during the near 30 minute interview on the Podcast, which took place a few days prior to departing for the World Cup down under in Australia.

Sounding Off on Soccer: Ahead of Women’s World Cup trek, Randy Waldrum sounds off concerns with Nigerian Football Federation

“I know we are not prepared the way we need to be. It’s been very frustrating in recent months and in particular, in recent weeks,” Waldrum said.

“We have less days than a college preseason to get ready for the World Cup. It blows my mind because we’ve known this since last year that we had qualified. The hard part is, we are supposed to have camp in Nigeria for about 10-12 days, then go directly to Australia to finish up with another 10-15 days.  For what ever it is, the Federation canceled the camp.”

On the Podcast, Waldrum explained some of the biggest rifts between the veteran coach and the Federation.

Since that podcast, after Nigerian media quickly reported some of Waldrum’s comments, NFF officials responded by slinging mud back at Waldrum.

NFF fires back at Randy Waldrum’s concerns with Nigerian women’s team lack of support for World Cup

Conventional wisdom was that once the team and coaches arrived in Australia, things would finally settle down, they could aptly focus on the task at hand in preparation for Nigeria’s opening match vs Canada, on July 21.

The Super Falcons are in Group B with host Australia, Canada, and the Republic of Ireland.  After facing highly touted Canada, they face the hosts, Australia, on July 27.  They conclude group play against Republic of Ireland on July 31.

Instead of being solely focused on preparations on the field down under, some of things that have been bubbling below are coming to the surface as the team has ascended on the World Soccer stage.

There’s an awful lot to unpack, but here are some of the most prominent issues Waldrum and the players are currently navigating through, while in Australia preparing to play in the biggest women’s soccer tournament in the World.

Player Boycott Looms

In the past week, players said they would consider boycotting the match against Canada if they were not given their payments. The players have not been fully paid in two years.

The threatened boycott, led by star striker Asisat Oshoala, who plays for Barcelona, stems from match bonuses for the competition which were canceled by the federation, following a meeting with the General Secretary of the NFF, Mohammed Sanusi.  Sanusi, it was exclusively learnt, also informed the players that they would no longer be paid 30 per cent from the $1,560,000 FIFA grant to all member associations for the group stage of the competition.

Waldrum Adds “I’m not going to be quiet anymore” and asks: “Where is the Money?” 

Speaking on another podcast ‘On the Whistle’, Waldrum tasked the federation to give an account of the $960,000 FIFA paid the federation for the Falcons preparations for the World Cup.  The 66-year-old stated that the NFF owed him seven months salaries while some of the Falcons players were still owed match bonuses spanning two years.

“My issues with the federation are my issues, but I’m not going to be quiet anymore,” Waldrum stated.

“I have a real close contact in the US that is very connected and on some of the boards at FIFA. This person told me, that in October 2022, every country was given $960,000 from FIFA to prepare for the World Cup. Where is that money? If Nigeria got it in October, why didn’t we have a camp in November?

Nigeria’s federation officials have responded to Nigerian-based media with lewd commentary, instead of actually communicating and addressing concerns directly with Waldrum behind closed doors.

Lauren Gregg Speaks Out with PSN/Equalizer Soccer’s Rachael Kriger 

Lauren Gregg, who has been the assistant coach of the Nigerian women’s national team, spoke exclusively with Rachael Kriger for the The Equalizer about being unable to travel with the team to the World Cup and her own fight with the Nigerian Football Federation.

Gregg has been ousted from her role as Waldrum’s right hand by an ultimatum from the NFF.

Waldrum was in a dispute with the Federation after he made final selections for the 23-player squad, which included two veteran backup goalkeepers: one (Tochukwu Oluehi) who was banned from the team after speaking out about previous concerns at last year’s AFCON tournament. Waldrum cited that it stated in his contract that he would have final say on player selections, as he opted to keep the three goalkeepers he had on the roster through AFCON and the most recent playing windows.  The NFF wanted Waldrum to select a young keeper they felt was highly touted.  Unfortunately, the Federation also canceled Waldrum’s plans to host a training camp that would have taken place prior to player selections.

“It’s not that we have anything against her — we just haven’t worked with her,” Gregg said of the young goalkeeper.

“[The NFF] made a comment in the paper that we have other local players going to the World Cup, but they’ve been at camp. There isn’t one player on the roster that hasn’t been in camp with us. It would be an aberration to suddenly bring a player to the World Cup that you’ve never had in — even just for chemistry. God forbid, if something happens to the first two goalkeepers, then you need your third goalkeeper. We felt, as did all the coaching staff, that Yewande (Balogun) was our best pick at the time.”

The Federation responded, in turn, by telling Waldrum that his right hand, American trailblazing women’s soccer icon, Gregg, who has been serving as Waldrum’s assistant, would not be able to make the trip.  They also cited false concerns about Gregg’s health and the squad’s inability to win AFCON.

Gregg’s credentials are impeccable, as she was the first-ever female assistant coach for any of the United States’ national teams between 1987 and 2000 and was interim head coach of the United States women’s national soccer team in 1997 and 2000. As head coach of the women’s soccer team at the University of Virginia from 1986 to 1995, Gregg was the first woman to lead a team to the NCAA Division I Final Four and to be named NSCAA Coach of the Year.

Gregg is a physician, as well as the co-author of The Champion Within: Training for Excellence.

In her interview with Kriger, Gregg spoke more about her experience in assisting Waldrum and coaching the players, and how they had to overcome a lot of adversity, especially in AFCON last year, when playing down to nine players.

Gregg said that the Nigerian Federation used the young goalkeeper as a way to get Gregg off the national team staff. She alleged that the retaliation all comes back to Nigeria’s loss at WAFCON.

“Because I’m willing to challenge him, willing to put my opinion out there, willing to speak my mind, it’s seen as threatening,” Gregg said. “They don’t understand that Randy is fully capable and will filter any advice from me or anyone else and make his own decisions. He’s his own man, he’s his own coach, but I have an obligation to point out whatever I can to make us better. And I will continue to do that, in this role, for the betterment of the team. That’s important background to this. It didn’t come out of the blue. They were looking for someone to blame for not being as successful as they thought we should have been.”

“We had qualified for the World Cup, which was our goal,” Gregg continued. “It is harder and harder each cycle to do that. It should have been celebrated … The critical dialogue is what helps us grow — how we, as a staff, can get better, and how the NFF can get better — but that didn’t happen. We wanted to work with them to ensure we, Nigeria, remained the dominant country in Africa and ultimately a World Cup contender.”

Furthermore, when Waldrum spoke out, Gregg (and Waldrum) said the retaliation also came in the form of punishing players who have benefited from Gregg’s coaching and expertise.

“We never exposed the federation, never undermined them, even when we show up 24 hours before a game in Japan,” Gregg added in the exclusive interview.  “We … tried to keep it between us and them. But it’s crossed a line where it’s retaliatory.”

PA West Soccer’s Director of Coaching and Nigerian native, Dr. Terry Eguaoje serving as an Assistant Coach

The entire fiasco involving Gregg and the spat between Waldrum, the players and the federation also dampens the excitement and news that another Pittsburgh-based soccer coach is involved, and is with the team in Australia as part of Nigeria’s coaching contingent.

PA West Soccer’s Director of Coaching, Dr. Terry Eguaoje  will be spending the next month doing exactly what he does every day, coaching soccer, although travel to a faraway place is part of coaching plans. The Nigeria native is part Waldrum’s staff as an assistant responsible for match analysis.  According to release on PA West Soccer’s web page, Eguaoje’s primary function will be to assist in creating and coaching training sessions after analyzing the team performances of both the Nigerian Women’s Team and their opponents.  He will also assist with in-game coaching.

The Penn Township resident previously assisted with the Nigerian Men’s National Team during the 2022 World Cup qualifiers against Ghana (home and away) and the 2022 African Nations Cup (AFCON).

“This is certainly a great opportunity for a soccer junkie like me, “ Eguaoje shared.

“It’s an opportunity for me to utilize, at the global stage, what we teach here in PA West Soccer in US Soccer Federation courses. I am excited and looking forward to the experience.”

Bottom line for Waldrum, Eguaoje and the staff who made the trip, along with Gregg, is that they been devoted to insuring Nigeria’s women’s players have the best possible coaching and resources available, and the NFF has made things difficult.

Waldrum and Gregg have spoken about how they have not been compensated fully, and that’s a dispute that may linger, but that still hasn’t stopped them from pushing forward and speaking out to do what’s right for the players.

“The sad part about all this is the amount of time and energy we’re spending on everything but preparing,” Gregg said. “This team has so much potential. We want them to be successful. I know what it takes … It’s not easy.”

When geopolitics and get in the way of sports, the ones who suffer are the athletes, especially when they’ve dedicated their lives to a sport which they grew up playing in a country — and people — they are proud to represent.  It has been abundantly clear that the Nigerian Football Federation has a proven, long-lasting track record of being very stingy with compensating its players and coaches, and when threatened, they’ve continued to point fingers instead of finding solutions and putting their players first.

And now, they selected a coach and have a group of players who won’t back down.

A few days after the podcast aired, as Waldrum had made his way to Australia, when following up on a post-interview message, the straight-shooter from Texas remained steadfast.

“It’s part of fighting for what is right and for your players to be treated with professionalism and respect,” Waldrum said.

“We will see where it all goes.”

John Krysinsky has covered soccer and other sports for many years for various publications and media outlets. He is also author of 'Miracle on the Mon' -- a book about the Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC, which chronicles the club, particularly the early years of Highmark Stadium with the narrative leading up to and centered around a remarkable match that helped provide a spark for the franchise. John has covered sports for Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, DK Pittsburgh Sports, Pittsburgh Sports Report, has served as color commentator on Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC broadcasts, and worked with OPTA Stats and broadcast teams for US Open Cup and International Champions Cup matches held in the US. Krysinsky also served as the Head Men’s Soccer Coach at his alma mater, Point Park University, where he led the Pioneers to the first-ever winning seasons and playoff berths (1996-98); head coach of North Catholic boys (2007-08), associate head coach of Shady Side Academy boys (2009-2014).

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