It wasn’t just a payment mix-up, but more of a cultural miscue that kept the Nigerian men’s Olympic soccer team stuck in the Atlanta airport this week.
And it was culture — in the form of Southern hospitality shown by one of the city’s iconic brands — that helped overcome it, according to the organizer of the team’s trip to Atlanta.
Delta Air Lines Inc. offered a chartered flight early Thursday morning to get the “Dream Team” to its first Olympic match in Brazil in the nick of time.
Despite arriving in the Amazonian city of Manaus just five hours before game time to face a Japanese team that had already been on the ground 10 days, the Nigerians pulled off a 5-4 victory Thursday night, providing an exuberant cap to a rollercoaster week. Just a day before, it wasn’t even clear if they would make it in time for the match.
After training for more than a month Atlanta, the team was slated to head down to Brazil this week, but there weren’t enough tickets for all the players on standard Delta Air Lines flights. The problem, according to organizers, was that they had approached the situation as they would have in Nigeria — where travelers are more apt to buy tickets in person at the airport than weeks in advance.
“They thought two weeks before, they can just book a flight and get 35 people on one plane into Rio de Janeiro. That was literally impossible. That was our first encounter with the challenge logistically. It wasn’t financial. It was logistical and planning,” said Bunmi Jinadu, a Nigeria native and founder of United Soccer Africa, which organized the team’s Atlanta itinerary.
The BBC had reported that a delayed payment from Nigeria’s sports ministry to a charter airline was the primary cause for the team’s being marooned at the world’s busiest airport in Atlanta. Other outlets quickly picked up on that story, and soon the airport was being bombarded with requests for interviews.
Mr. Jinadu asserts that while it was nerve-wracking when it became clear that it was a real possibility that the team could miss the match, the situation also seemed more dire from the outside because information trickled out slowly. The airport called him as it became inundated with media requests about the “stranded” team, and Japanese reporters — eager to see whether the match would be forfeited — began to ring his mobile phone.
A few Nigerians had offered their private jets — and the Nigerian sports ministry did end up wiring some money to at least one of them — but none could fit the entire team, even if the bureaucratic protocols of getting payment disbursed and the intricacies of international currency transfers could have been worked out in time, Mr. Jinadu said.
“We couldn’t go into Rio with 14 people and another 14 people. We had to go as a team and as a nucleus,” said Mr. Jinadu, who did not accompany the team to Brazil.
When NBC got through to him, though, Mr. Jinadu made an appeal based on Atlanta’s aspirations as a global city, its 20-year Olympic heritage and Delta Air Lines Inc.’s strong ties to Nigeria, where it operates a successful flight to Lagos.
It was Nigeria, he recalled, that became the first African team ever to win Olympic gold here in Atlanta 20 years ago after facing a similar travel mishap. And they returned here to train this year — engaging with the community through friendly matches and outreach to the African diaspora community and beyond.
When Delta stepped in and offered the charter, Mr. Jinadu said he decided without hesitation that this was the route that would get the team there in a timely and safe way.
Delta had this to say:
Within six hours and with no request for payment, Delta General Manager Mike Lowry and his team rounded up a plane normally used to transport NBA teams and had it prepped in time for an early morning departure. The aircraft is the same one that will fly the U.S. men’s basketball team back to the states after the Games wrap up in two weeks.
Mr. Jinadu confirmed that at the point when Delta stepped in, “it wasn’t about money; it was about getting the team to Brazil.”
To him, it’s all a part of the reason the Nigerians came here in the first place: Atlanta is a city that is continues to welcome the world, grow as a soccer city and capitalize on its Olympic legacy.
He says Delta even offered some hotel rooms for the team, which the airline didn’t announce in its news release.
“All of this I didn’t ask for, but they responded quickly.”
The Nigerians, he said, showed their resiliency in the face of adversity by the way they played against Japan. No one expected the team to win in 1996 against a disciplined Argentine team, but they pulled it off anyway. Mr. Jinadu and others are hoping for a repeat.
“We may be tired and frustrated, but we’re all still together and ready to win gold in Rio,” said team captain and Chelsea FC midfielder Mikel John Obi, according to Delta.
In what might be seen as a double public-relations win for Delta, the airline is also the official airline of Chelsea FC in the English Premier League. The club recently revealed that it receives more visits to its website in Nigeria than in England.
In reality, though, Delta had been part of the Nigerian team’s journey all along, according to Mr. Jinadu.
While the airline stopped short of sponsoring the team’s visit to Atlanta, it had provided the ticket that helped him get to Senegal to watch the Nigerians win gold at the Africa U23 tournament to secure their spot in the Olympics last December. That trip was integral to bringing them here, he said.
He credits Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport’s Alrene Barr, director of international business, with putting him in touch at the time with Delta’s previous Africa specialty sales rep, Rafiu Laguda, whose presence showed Delta’s commitment to Africa, Mr. Jinadu said.