The Boundaries Of Our Success

The Boundaries Of Our Success

By Sonala Olumhense

Tonight in Abuja, Nigeria will defeat Switzerland to win the FIFAUnder-17 World Cup for the fourth time.

The young Nigerians play a joyful and exuberant brand of the game. What they are doing is a delight to watch.

I am particularly thrilled for Coach John Obuh. Not only did he not have a lot of time to work with, in the build-up to the championships, he suffered several distractions. Despite this, he is the commandant of a team that plays with firm confidence. Of greater importance is that he has developed a total-football structure of play upon which the floundering Nigerian game can regroup.

By tomorrow morning, unfortunately, we are not likely to be talking about the cup, but about our age-grade violation that emerged during the event. Team captain Fortune Chukwudi, it seems, is a little more than whom he says he is. According to former Super Eagle Adokiye Amiesimaka, who said he worked with the player some years ago, Fortune is at least 25.

Age questions have hung over Nigeria's junior teams since age-grade competitions began, but Fortune's case is the most compelling yet. If Adokiye is right, it may also be the biggest and most flagrant.

But we will not be returning the trophy. FIFA engineered an MRI testing of our boys before the competition, and of the various squads during the event. As laughable as it may appear, after the fact, we have it on the authority of FIFA that Fortune's case is within the bounds of acceptable error.

Anyone that knows how the MRI technology works knows that it does not always tell the truth. It is understandable that a number of overage players would slip through. By 'overage,' in this respect, we are talking of players one or two years older than the cutoff limit.

What is inconceivable, unexpected, and unacceptable, is that a man who-were he really something special might have been called up by the full national team several years ago-somehow appeared in our U-17 team.

Should this be proved to be true, he should be severely punished. That would not just be the error of technology or even of the Football Federation, but the cynical, ruthless avarice and corruption of a player and those around him. The issue, therefore, is not about FIFA, but about us, and our sense of right and wrong.

It would also be a reflection of the decay in the mass media. It is remarkable that, in the past couple of weeks that Mr. Amiesimaka's revelation has shaken the nation, the sporting press has been baying for blood. They seem to relish the 'patriotic' duty of holding Mr. Chukwudi's head while it is cut off. They want to show how tall they are, neglecting to say that they are standing on the shoulders of someone else.

Our sports journalists should save us the favour. The sad case of Chukwudi does not reflect how good our sports press is, but how negligent. As I have written elsewhere, it should not take a committed sports desk more than two weeks to put together the complete bios of our national players for this kind of competition.

That they did not know about Chukwudi, or preferred to keep quiet until they found Amiesimaka's intrepid shoulders upon which to stand, speaks eloquently about the quality of our sports reporting, which is increasingly dependent on the Internet.

Here is a related and alarming proof, and some of those begging for bits and pieces of Chukwudi's flesh might want to listen. In the past three weeks, most Nigerian newspapers and sports magazines did not bother to report the competition; they simply helped themselves lavishly to easy meals at the FIFA website. And they did it consistently, and without attribution.

FIFA puts out its match reports minutes after a match is concluded, and by the time reporters were through with their first post-match beer, the buffet was ready. It is no surprise that reporters too lazy to know our sportsmen are happy to have someone else report them.

Plagiarism is a shameful professional offence. It is within the province of double-speak: preaching what is right, but not performing it.

I know this menace is all over Nigeria. This week, for instance, the National Economic Council told Nigerians that our former President, Olusegun Obasanjo, squandered N200 billion of the Ecological Fund on "non-existent and poorly-executed contracts" during its eight years.

That was the same day that the current President, our Servant-Leader Umaru Yar'Adua, boasted that his government will not shield any public official from "prosecution and conviction" if found culpable in his duties.

Does this mean that Yar'Adua will seek to bring Obasanjo to justice? It is just PDP-speak: a framed-picture of Obasanjo in Aso Rock alone is enough to keep Yar'Adua from falling asleep. Where, then, will he find the courage to ask his predecessor any embarrassing questions?

Will members of the National Economic Council rise beyond their pettiness and recognize they should do something about the N200 billion Obasanjo threw away or gave to his friends?

The menace is all over the country: In Anambra State, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Dimeji Bankole, last week why such top sons of the soil as Chinua Achebe, Emeka Anyaoku, and Alex Ekwueme have failed to speak up "when Anambra burns."

He has a point. When things are not going right, our elders ought to speak out. But it is equally true that Bankole is playing games. Fire is a very powerful symbol, and I am sure he did not use it loosely. The fire in Anambra was started by his party, the PDP, which has been pouring fuel on it and fanning it for a long time.

Bankole knows this. But he did not say one word about the culpability of the PDP. He did not say a word about the role of the party leadership, and how the ambition of the party to win Anambra at whatever cost has seen the crisis spiral out of control.

Nor did Bankole mention that in mid-September, President Yar'Adua inserted him into the Anambra equation as one of the fire-fighters, a role in which he reportedly became not water, but an accelerant. What do Achebe, Ekwueme and Anyaoku know about the choice of accelerants and political anti-personnel landmines the PDP has deployed in the new Anambra that may well become the old West?

The evidence of our ethical and moral vacuum is all over the place, and this week, I can only hope that Fortune Chukwuma, for his sake and the image of our nation, has a good story to tell his country.

Let us be clear: trying to slip into a team because you are a few months or a couple of years older than the limit is one thing; trying to shoe-horn yourself in from up to eight years beyond is a shame. Nigerians like to win, but we must still insist on a little thing called losing with dignity.

Success is important, but unless we define responsible boundaries of what is unacceptable, we are defining a new jungle.