Mad About Football
By Reuben Abati
THE February 6, 2007 humiliation of the Super Eagles by the Black Stars of Ghana, in an International friendly match, that ended 4-1 in favour of the latter has understandably drawn from Nigerians angry commentaries about the oft-repeated failures of football administration in Nigeria. The frustration that accompanied this event was cut in sharper relief by the earlier lack-lustre performance of the U-20 team in the African Youth Championships; in which defending champions, Nigeria struggled to the finals, only to lose shamelessly to Congo. On February 7, the U-23 team, in a 2008 Olympics soccer qualifying match in Abuja defeated the U-23 team of Guinea, 5-0. But no one saw this as a sign of any great future for the Nigerian team. The point has been made repeatedly that football is the single most unifying element in Nigerian life and society. I believe that Nigerians are mad about football. A study of the psychology and attitude of the Nigerian football fan, his choices and preferences, would serve as a window for understanding much that is right and wrong with our society.
Across Nigeria, the presence, force, and the allure of football is unmistakable, the young Nigerian's love of the game is extra-ordinary. What I see is a love of performance, artistry and distinction. In appreciating football, Nigerians give vent to a subliminal love of quality and standards. For them, it is not about blind patriotism but skills. This explains why even when Nigerians are watching a match in which their country is involved, and the national team appears to be playing woefully, it takes no time before the Nigerians would switch to the other team and start commending other players for their superior ability. It further explains the fact that whereas Nigerians are totally unenthusiastic about the current national league they are absolutely crazy about the English Premier League. I do not know too many Nigerians who can list the names of the football teams now in the country's National League, (Lobi Stars, Gombe, Shooting, Gateway, Julius Berger, Enyimba...) nor are they keen about the players either, or the matches, but a young Nigerian boy of about eight (you'd be surprised), who has access to television, would easily reel off the names of clubsides, players, and match statistics from the English Premier League.
There are persons who insist that what we are dealing with here is a form of neo-colonialism. They complain endlessly about how a generation of Nigerian Youths is becoming Eurocentric and succumbing to the opium of football. Football as sports. Football as religion. But is this a case of mental slavery, or something far more constructive and useful? The domestication, or perhaps the adoption of English Football League in Nigeria is to start with, a product of globalisation. With satellite television, a match in Europe is watched live, real time, anywhere on the streets of Nigeria. In the past, only pool stakers knew about football teams in England. Today, old boundaries have collapsed. Football is no longer for pool stakers but afficionados interested in its art, science and sociology.
There is so much information in the hands of the young Nigerian who loves soccer. The fact that Nigerian footballers are playing in Europe, are doing very well, with some of them earning salaries that are about the equivalent of the annual budget of Gambia and Guinea - Conakry, has created for the contemporary Nigerian youth a new category of role models. Those wonderful boys playing football in Europe, their hardwork, and the reward of their efforts, raise much hope for an African child living in the midst of so much squalor. This is why the entire country has been overtaken by football fanatics. It is easy to know when there is an important football match in Europe. The traffic on the streets may disappear speedily; the young ones will sit in front of the nearest television set. Across the city, those who have television sets may choose to make quick business by turning their shops into viewing centres. A typical signboard in front of such a shop would read Chelsea vs. Man U., 4.30 p.m, N50 per person.
There are Nigerians who are die-hard fans of this or that club. Unlike politicians, they do not cross carpet. They are as constant as the Northern Stars; their commitment expressed ever so often, is total. At every match venue, supporters on either side would engage in their own little war, as the match progresses. They wear the Jerseys of their favourite players. They paint their vehicles with the emblems of their clubsides. Listening to them, you'd think they are English men. The most fanatical fans are to be found among the ranks of the supporters of Arsenal, Liverpool, Chelsea, and Manchester United. In every available football field in Lagos and elsewhere, Nigerian youths organise their own championship tournaments using the names of teams in Europe. In neighbourhoods, there are local branches of the Fans Club of Arsenal, Fans Club of Man U; and each of these clubs has a chairman, and a secretary.
They hold meetings. When Chelsea won the English Premiership, the Nigerian fans contributed money bought a cow, took aso ebi, and organised a lavish party to celebrate the victory. Membership of the Fan Club of a soccer team immediately translates into a sort of brotherhood. If the England FA were to move a match between say Arsenal, and Liverpool to the National Stadium in Abuja all the tickets will be sold out, and there could be violence among fans in parts of Nigeria depending on the outcome of the match.
Television has gained much from this explosion of interest in the English Premier and ChampionsLeague. Some Nigerian Television stations now air premiership matches specially, as a means of attracting viewers and advertisement revenue. At least one major telecom company is using the English League for the purpose of business promotion on television. But beyond globalisation, and the projection of the power of television, is the fact that football is shown up as big business. The make-shift viewing centres are often popular beer parlours, or pepper soup joints, where while watching football, the fans also spend money on other items on display, including those pretty, young ladies who are never too far away from such locations. There is also across the city, a thriving trade in the sale of the emblems of the various clubsides.
But the aspect of this translation of football into a kind of fetish, a god to be worshipped, which rancours, is the madness that is often put on display. You need to witness the venue of a live match involving two rival teams, and opposing groups of fans: the loud, maniacal screams, the hot arguments, the sudden removal of shirts, orgiastic dance steps, and endless commentaries. Every Nigerian football fan is a coach. They know what is best for their favourite teams. But sometimes, the passion that attends the game of soccer could become tragic, or almost nearly so.
Take for example, the ordeal of Sodik Anjorin, an Arsenal fan. On January 31, he and others were busy watching a match between Arsenal and Bolton Wanderers in Lagos. The match ended 2-1 in favour of Arsenal. This did not go down well with a certain Hakeem, a supporter of Man U. and Bolton Wanderers, who was soon engaged in an argument with Sodik who taunted him. The argument resulted in a scuffle, and in a moment of madness, Hakeem grabbed a kitchen knife, from a mai suya stand, and deposited it in Sodik's temple. The two boys, in their mid-twenties are supposed to be friends, but football divided them. Sodik Anjorin's story has been well covered in an award-winning series by The Nation newspaper. He was taken to the Lagos University Teaching Hospital (LUTH) where doctors struggled to save his life. He had lapsed into a state of coma, shortly after the assault. The kitchen knife was a few inches lodged in his temple. A four-hour surgery saved Sodik. When he woke up, later, the first thing he remembered was the fact that his team Arsenal had beaten Bolton. His first words: "Up Gunners, Up Arsenal" he screamed. And he slept off, again.
In an interview with The Nation, (Thursday, February 8), Sodik Anjorin expressed no anxieties however about his experience. He could have died. "I love football," he insists. "I love Arsenal. I love the way they play, the coach, and also the field. There is no way anybody can compare home and foreign." While Anjorin was in the hospital, a group of Arsenal fans from Ilorin, Kwara state volunteered to visit him, and promised to assist him with funds to enable him purchase drugs. In his interview, there is an insinuation that he has had to appeal to his friends not to avenge the assault on him by Hakeem whom he describes as follows: "Hakeem is not popular on the street: He bleaches, and smokes hemp. He is into weight-lifting and muscle-building. And most people shun him." This is not the typical portrait of the Nigerian soccer fan. Many of them are well-placed individuals who simply love soccer.
There is a lot that Nigerian leaders can learn from the social context of football in Nigeria. Football, and other sports can be used to mobilise Nigerian youths. There is great talent here. The Kanu Nwankwos, Yakubu Aiyegbeni,Mikel Obi, Joseph Yobo, Obafemi Martins, Odemwingie, etc have proven that. But there are many more talented youths who would rather express themselves through football and other sports. They have no access to facilities. They are disillusioned, in the face of so much disorganisation in the sports sector in Nigeria. For example, the National Sports Stadium in Surulere, Lagos has since been abandoned, it now houses one of the best pepper soup joints in Lagos, clearly the only section of that structure that still functions! A foreign coach, Berti Vogts has been engaged to help the national team but there is a lot more that is wrong with the Nigerian footballer playing for Nigeria: he has an attitude problem, and he would rather break a leg playing for his club side in Europe, defintitely not for Nigeria!
The total embrace of English and European football is an act both of protest and necessity. English footballers are heroes in the eyes of these youths because of the exceptional skills that they display. Individually the following players: Thierry Henri, Obafemi Martins, Van Persie, Rosicky, Helb, Didier Drogba, Schevencko, Roonie, Cristine Ronaldo, Saha, Ryan Riggs, Gerrard, Crouch, Alonso, Garcia are more popular among young Nigerians than the state Governors.. On one ocassion, a young Nigerian was asked to name the Nigerian President, his silly reponse was Baba Iyabo, but the same dim-witted young man could identify David Beckham correctly.
If Nigerian leaders could put up a level of commitment that approximates the dedication of the aforementioned, they would win many fans among the people. There is so much energy on the streets of Nigeria, translating that resource into an advantage, trapping it, and using it creatively is where the challenge lies