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Nigeria; Where Football Is Life

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Xavi has just got the ball from Sergio Busquets; Casillas makes the run to the edge of the penalty area as he receives the ball, dribbles past one opponent before playing a through-ball for Zidane, who lays it on for Iniesta on the left wing. Iniesta curls in a cross; Christiano Ronaldo rises at the far post to meet it with a powerful header –goal! The stadium erupts in thunderous cheer with cameras synchronizing in a blinding daze of flashes.

Unfortunately, this is not the commentary for a charity match with legendary players from the upper strata of football. There are no cameras in sight and instead of pristine, beautifully landscaped Astro Turf, we have sandy and rocky grounds.

Representing their icons are Obinna ‘Xavi’, Balo ‘Sergio Busquets’, Tola ‘Casillas’, Dayo ‘Zidane’ and Kola ‘Ronaldo’. We are in Lagos, Nigeria, watching the final game between two under-17 teams in the local league cup. The winner gets bragging rights as well as some products from a local FCMG brand.

Football is an overwhelming moment of beauty, spirit and pride and in the most populous country in Africa, that passion is palpable. Gianni Infantino, FIFA President, who was in Lagos at the maiden edition of the AITEO-Nigerian Football Federation (NFF) Awards this year, summed up this love perfectly.

“I was told that in Nigeria, football is passion, but it is a lie because it is more than that. In Nigeria, I was told that football is love, but it is a lie it is more than that. In Nigeria, I was told that football is a religion, but it is a lie. It is more than that. In Nigeria, football is life,” he says in his opening address to a room full of corporate executives, the upper echelons of power in government as well as the hall of fame of Nigerian football.

“Football is also business; when we can harness it properly, a lot of money can be made for the country through the game.”

The country’s love affair with the sport has blossomed over the years into an obsessive relationship. At a buka (local restaurant) in Surulere, a waiter is nearly slapped by an angry fan when he mistakenly changes the channel from a game between Chelsea and Man U to Soundcity, the indigenous 24-hour music channel that is a favorite of most of its diners.

After a heated exchange, the manager apologizes for the interruption and the game is back on. Commonsense is restored. Although this is a repeat match, the men watch intensely with the same passion and vigor of a live game.

“We found that football is the main pull for customers to our restaurant. They are passionate about football. It has turned into a family. Our customers come from all over Lagos to watch the games and once they are here, they have to eat and drink so it’s a win-win for us,” says Nnamdi Mayowa, owner of the restaurant.

As he speaks, a cheer rings out from outside the restaurant. Hordes of football fans have gathered to also catch a glimpse of the action and as any good football story goes, it all began with the kick of the ball in 1945.

That year, the Nigerian Football Federation was introduced as the governing body for the sport. Nigeria subsequently began participating in Africa’s Challenge Cup in the 1960s. Since then, the national team known affectionately as ‘The Super Eagles’, have had a fair number of successes. They won bronze medals in the 1978 and 1979 African Cup of Nations (AFCON) and in 1980, they won the championship in Lagos.

In 1984 and 1988, Nigeria subsequently captured silver medals in the tournament. Football had come to stay and with it a number of international stars were born and shipped to some of the world’s most successful football clubs with lucrative deals.

Then came the dark years. In 2010, Nigeria finished bottom of their group in South Africa with just one point from three matches after losing to Argentina and Greece and drawing with South Korea. In response, the then President Goodluck Jonathan banned the team from competing in the sport for two years. Then followed their exit at the 2014 World Cup where they lost to France, and a subsequent failure to qualify for the 2015 and 2017 editions of the AFCON. Nigerian football morale was at an all-time low.

Finally, a shimmer of light emerged at the end of the tunnel. The Super Eagles breezed through their group stage of the FIFA World Cup Qualifiers to earn a spot as one of only five African countries to make it to Russia 2018.

They were unbeaten in six matches with four wins and two draws, scoring 12 goals and only conceding four times, an incredible feat that took the team, led by German tactician, Gernot Rohr, to their sixth FIFA World Cup.

For Nigerians of this era, there is no sporting moment more significant than this triumph, especially as it is achieved against a backdrop of a sputtering economy that has gripped the country since the fall in crude oil prices and the Foreign Exchange (FX) fiasco of 2016 and 2017. The 2019 elections are also on the horizon and with it, greater economic uncertainty for Nigerians. The country has been increasingly marred by public dissent reflecting the mounting anger over an absentee president. To make matters worse, Nigeria has more than 300 tribes, making a consensus of any kind at the best of times, almost impossible to reach.

“We call football the unifying factor. When Nigeria is playing everyone comes together, we forget our tribes, we forget our differences, we even forget our religion. We all hug together when we do well and we all sulk together when we lose. Football is also business; when we can harness it properly, a lot of money can be made for the country through the game,” says Akin Alabi, founder of NairaBET, a leader in a wide range of betting opportunities on all sports.

Having attended two World Cups, South Africa in 2010 and Brazil in 2014, Alabi firmly has his eyes set on Russia.

“I want them to get to a quarter appearance. That will be the best-case scenario for me because I do not think we have gotten further than that,” he says.

However, he is quick to point out that this is not Nigeria’s strongest team.

“I think our 1994 team was fantastic. We do not have the caliber of players we had then, but no one has the perfect team out there. This is a national team and not like pro football where you can take money and buy whichever player you want. You have to make do with those that are available from the country you are from. So we are hoping it goes well,” says Alabi.

He believes the prospects of an African country actually bringing back the cup is far-fetched. Countries like Germany for example have a well-oiled football development machine, which helps them churn out a lot of quality players, which any African team cannot match right now.

“The German team is called a German machine for a reason, they have a well-oiled team and continuity. Their manager has been there for years on various World Cups so everything is run professionally. In Nigeria and Africa, when it is time for a match, we just invite players to run and play so that cannot work. We need better development in terms of processes,” says Alabi.

However, Brian Okonkwo is adamant Nigeria will go all the way to the finals. But then again, he would be. As a member of the Nigeria Football Supporters Club, he has dedicated his life to the advancement of the sport that saved his life as a troubled youth.

“When I was younger I used to be in an armed robbery gang and we did a lot of bad things to innocent people. I was on a fast track to jail or death but luckily, someone from my family was able to help me turn over a new leaf by introducing me to football,” says Okonkwo.

He has been present in all Nigeria’s five World Cup appearances in the past.

READ MORE: African, Football, Cup Up Aces’ Sleeve

“I think we have everything it takes to bring this home for our people, the team simply needs the support of the country behind them and that is our job. We are with them all the way and we need the resources to enable us to do our job,” says Okonkwo.

According to the Club’s National Chairman, Samuel Ikpea, the club will take 1,000 people to Russia to cheer and support the Super Eagles. This means 1,000 visa applications, 1,000 hotel rooms and 1,000 mouths to feed for the duration of the Russia 2018 tournament.

“Football is a passion of the nation and we do this job out of love for the sport. We have been in this business for a long time and we are already sourcing for funds to ensure that we get to Russia. Unfortunately, it is difficult because we have not been able to receive any funds from the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) or the ministry of sports since this new government came,” says Ikpea.

According to Ikpea, this differs to the previous government who invested $140,000 to help them cover expenses to support the Super Eagles in the last World Cup.

“Teams like Nigeria come into the World Cup and historically something happens. They look great in the qualifiers then everything falls apart, something happens with the federation, somebody doesn’t get paid and now all of a sudden this team is in disarray going into the competition,” says Marcus Dawson, a sports commentator for Metro TV.

In the absence of adequate infrastructure, and in spite of the paucity of training facilities, football is played on streets, paths or fields. The potential of the sport has not been realized in the country due to the lack of support from corporate organizations that only see football as a CSR initiative instead of a lucrative business venture.

As a result, the NFF is fighting to ensure the team has adequate resources to efficiently compete in Russia. According to Amaju Pinnick, President of the NFF, the organization is working on generating $2.8 million for the Super Eagles’ participation in the games.

“Failure is not an option in the FIFA World Cup and we need to come together to ensure we provide the team with everything they need to make it through,” says Pinnick.

The organization receives support from private organizaitons like Aiteo who have a focus on developing the quality of football in Nigeria. So far, Aiteo has paid the sum of $600,000 and $890,000 to cover its contractual obligation of providing support to the technical crew of the Super Eagles for the whole of 2018, well beyond the World Cup, according to Deputy Managing Director, Francis Peters.

READ MORE: Wounded Swallows Roast In Football Hell

This however pales in comparison to investment in sports by their European counterparts. In a little more than a decade, Germany has invested nearly $1 billion in its youth soccer programs, with academies run by professional teams and training centers overseen by the national soccer association, the Deutscher Fussball Bund, according to a report in The New York Times.

Also of grave concern was the issue of the selection process for the team, which sparked widespread debates across the country. Like the case of Sone Aluko, a professional football player, who is a striker for Fulham FC but could not make it on the coveted team shortlist.

“The NFF is not responsible for making the selection of who joins the team. That is the decision of the coach. I know the story of Sone but unfortunately we are just focused on getting the team ready for Russia 2018,” says Pinnick.

Colin Udoh, a leading journalist and sports presenter, shares his insights on the team selection methodology used by the coach.

“It is the coach that selects not the federation even though they have some sway in the decision but ultimately it is the call of the coach. But yes, Sunday Oliseh, who was the previous coach, said he likes to pick players from the top division and I think most coaches in Nigeria want players who are playing at the highest level and the very best in the world rather than those playing in the lower division,” he says.

Secondly, Udoh claims that most European coaches like Rohr will not admit this is what they do. An additional criteria, which Rohr has also added to this team’s selection process evident in the team representing the Super Eagles, is the attempt to lower the average age of the players to 23 years except for John Mikel Obi, Leon Balogun and the goalkeeper where he is trying to integrate a bit of experience into team. So on these two key criteria, most players like Aluko unfortunately will fall out of contention.

“He is not in the top division and he also happens to be 28 years. I would pick him in a heartbeat but unfortunately I am not the coach. If you look at the way the team have qualified for the World Cup, you cannot argue with the results. Apart from that one loss against South Africa, Rohr has masterminded the success of the team to qualify for the World Cup and it is going to be hard to argue with that result,” adds Udoh.

It has been a long road to get here. Nigeria could qualify through the group stages by having the best balance of exciting promise and solidity. In every nook and cranny, and from every social stratum and walk of life, one thing is undeniable, and that is the game of football permeates every aspect of Nigerian culture, and Russia 2018 is another opportunity for the country to put away the differences and unite for this all-important goal.

After all, football in Nigeria is life.

Nigeria’s supporters celebrate after their team scored the opening goal against Burkina Faso during the 2013 African Cup of Nations. Photo Getty Images.

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John Smit leaves everything on the field

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A game does not end when the final whistle blows. Its impact reverberates throughout a community when the stadiums are empty. Former rugby captain John Smit, in his role as CEO of a security company, has ensured that the tournaments are alive and kicking.


As captain of the World Cup-winning Springboks in 2007, John Smit was, “Mr Right Place, Right Time”. He was the centerpiece that connected management to the players and the players to the fans.

His talents have evolved into the commercial sphere, where he now sits and curates a partnership that could save rugby and have a much more meaningful impact on the communities whose lives revolve around club rugby.

Security and maintenance company SSG Group – for which Smit is acting CEO – were, in March, named co-sponsors for the Gold Cup, a rugby tournament steeped in the blood and sweat of community involvement.

“A lot of our clientele are the mines in the North West and Limpopo area,” Smit says.

READ MORE | Bryan Habana Swaps Sweatpants For Suits

“Those communities are massively passionate about the game and we wanted to show that this company not only wanted to leave a footprint within the community using SMEs but also, we wanted to help keep a tournament alive that is quite important to a lot of them.

“It was really just to show our gratitude for the community that we were allowed to work within. I met the Rustenburg Impala Rugby Club guys a few weeks ago and rugby is really important around that mining area.

“It’s a massive part of their culture and their working environment. When this thing happened, Jorge Ferreira (SSG Group CEO) called me to get my thoughts on what this sponsorship would entail. I said to him it’s an unbelievable partnership because everyone wants to go straight to the top but this is where the real rugby starts and ends.”

Fans pack the creaky stands, making a ruckus and cheering uninhibitedly for their sons, fathers and uncles as they put their bodies through the dirt for the sheer pleasure of it.

In most communities where club rugby is played, it’s the only recreational outlet with the gravitas that pulls 12,000 people to a game, like last year’s Pirates Grand Challenge Final between Villagers Worcester and Roses United in Worcester last year.

Put into perspective, 14,000 people watched the Stormers play the Lions at Newlands in February. Goliath-eque franchise budgets were brought to size by passionate, ordinary folk.

“There was a guy that came to one of the games on horseback. There were so many people at the game that he could not see, so he watched the game on his horse to get a view,” Smit says.

You can only get that at Gold Cup games. It’s something magically unique. These people play for free, they play for the community and they play for each other.

“The games are well-supported because the communities have a vested interest in the game – their husbands, uncles, brothers, friends, cousins, employees or employers are participating in them. Everyone comes.”

The Gold Cup portfolio landed on Smit’s desk by chance. One might say there was some alchemy involved. Ferriera’s untimely death, last year, meant Smit was redeployed from shareholding company Richmark Holdings to hold the SSG fort.

When he got to Ferreira’s seat, he saw the founder’s plans for the partnership with SA Rugby were complete. The baby was in the right hands. Smit wasted precious little time and stamped the deal.

In a time of austerity, load-shedding and budget cuts, Smit saw the forest for the trees.

“I can’t take credit for that because it was the brainchild of our previous CEO,” he says.

“I am delighted that I am a part of this and that things have worked out in such a way that made it possible. This was pioneered by Jorge Ferreira and supported by two other companies (Blu Approved and M4Jam) who made it possible.

“The unique positioning, the timing of my transition into SSG, I don’t think there would have been anyone else who understood what the Gold Cup means to this country and the communities that hold it dear.

READ MORE | Super Rugby In Sin Bin

“It’s hard to quantify that commercially because it is more of an emotive vibe. These communities have passionate people who stick with the game after school. They are the backbone because they are not playing for money.”

Indeed, if it isn’t a man atop his steed looking for a glimpse of the action, it’s a “tannie” (older woman) selling boerewors rolls on the grass bank. It’s kids running freely along the touchline, collecting balls that have been kicked too long and returning them to their hometown heroes.

It’s a second and third chance at the game for players who’ve been hooved by professional rugby’s cut-throat contracting system – such as MB Lusaseni, College Rovers captain and former Lions lock. It’s a combination of all these factors that make a mineworker spend his or her free time in the hot sun, absorbing the Gold Cup.

-Sibusiso Mjikeliso

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HUGO BOSS Partners With Porsche To Bring Action-Packed Racing Experience Through Formula E

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Brought to you by Hugo Boss

HUGO BOSS and Porsche have partnered to bring an action-packed racing experience to the streets of the world’s major cities through Formula E.

Formula E is known for its fascinating races globally. The partnership will have a strong focus on the future of motorsport. In doing so the races will host a unique series for the development of electric vehicle technology, refining the design, functionality and sustainability of electric cars while creating an exciting global entertainment brand.

HUGO BOSS which boasts a long tradition of motorsports sponsorship – has been successfully engaged in the electric-powered racing series since the end of 2017.

In this collaboration, HUGO BOSS brings its 35 years of experience and expertise in the motorsport arena to Formula E, as well as the dynamic style the fashion brand is renowned for.


Alejandro Agag (Formula E CEO) and Mark Langer (HUGO BOSS CEO)

Mark Langer HUGO BOSS, Chief Executive Officer (CEO) says that though they have been working successfully with motorsports over the years, he is exceptionally pleased that as a fashion brand they are taking the cooperation to new heights.

“As a fashion brand, we are always looking at innovative approaches to design and sustainability. When we first encountered Formula E, we immediately saw its potential and we are pleased to be the first apparel partner to support this exciting new motorsport series,” he says.

The fashion group is also the official outfitter to the entire Porsche motorsports team worldwide.

The fascination with perfect design and innovation, along with the Porshe and Hugo Boss shared passion for racing, inspired Hugo Boss to produce the Porsche x Boss capsule collection.

Its standout features include premium leather and wool materials presented in the Porsche and HUGO BOSS colors of silver, black and red.


Porsche x BOSS: introducing a new collaboration | BOSS

Since March, a range of menswear styles from the debut capsule collection is available online and at selected BOSS stores. In South Africa the first pieces of the capsule will come as a part of the FW 19 collection.

Alejandro Agag, Founder and CEO of Formula E says he is confident that the racers will put their best foot forward on the racecourse.

“This new partnership will see the team on the ground at each race dressed with a winning mindset and ready to deliver a spectacular event in cities across the world. As the first Official Apparel Partner of the series, we look forward to seeing the dynamic style and innovation on show that BOSS is renowned for,” says Agag.


Hugo Boss x Porsche  

Oliver Blume CEO of Porsche AG says Formula E is an exceptionally attractive racing series for motorsport vehicles to develop.

“It offers us the perfect environment to strategically evolve our vehicles in terms of efficiency and sustainability. We’re looking forward to being on board in the 2019/2020 season. In this context, the renowned fashion group HUGO BOSS represents the perfect partner to outfit our team.”

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For Xolani Luvuno Its Mind Over Matter

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A story of hopelessness, drugs and crime and an athlete who conquered land and sea, on crutches. 

Xolani Luvuno will enter this year’s prestigious New York City Marathon flying the flag of South Africa, but this is no ordinary athlete; he will complete the run on crutches.

Luvuno’s story is one of hopelessness, drugs and crime, but then a life turned around in the most remarkable fashion as he became an ambassador for good; taking on, and defeating, some of the most grueling athletic pursuits on the planet. All with one leg.

Luvuno continues to defy the odds and, ahead of his journey to New York, will also compete in a full IRONMAN African Championship event, in April, which includes a 3.8km swim, a 90km bicycle ride and a 42.2km run.

That would present the mightiest of challenges for an able-bodied athlete, but Luvuno must do all of that having had his right leg amputated 11 years ago, after he developed cancer in the bone.

Xolani Luvuno’s right leg was amputated 11 years ago, after he developed cancer in the bone. Picture: Supplied

The 34-year-old has already proven his superhuman mental and physical strength after completing the 89km Comrades Marathon on crutches last year, and followed that up by completing a half IRONMAN event in East London in South Africa earlier this year.

“I started running as a distraction from the substance abuse that had gripped me earlier in my life; it focused my mind in other areas and gave me a purpose,” Luvuno tells FORBES AFRICA.

“The events are one part of it, but the training is what helped me the most. In the townships, a lot of the drinking and alcohol abuse happens over the weekend, and that is when I would go running. I would head out with my crutches in the morning, and by the time I had finished, I would just crash at home and sleep the rest of the day.

“It provided me with a new interest away from drugs and alcohol and motivated me to do something with my life. I really needed a change at the time, and running provided me with that.”

Luvuno’s teenage years were difficult. Falling into the grip of substance abuse, he ended up living under a bridge in Pretoria and spent five years in jail, having been convicted of housebreaking.

Xolani Luvuno and Hein Venter at Comrades finish. Picture: Supplied

He would beg, steal and borrow to fuel his drug habit, before his life was turned around by a chance meeting with Hein Venter, at a traffic light in 2016, who took pity on Luvuno.

Venter gave him a job in his perfume factory and it was from there that his running career was born.

“I could see his potential and I wanted him to meet new people, away from his old life. Good people, normal people who he could use as role models,” Venter says.

“We created a running club within the company and, literally overnight, two-thirds of the employees took up running. It was amazing! Xolani had his challenges, but he didn’t want to miss out and started to go out with them too.”

Venter arranged formal accommodation for Luvuno in Mamelodi and had a prosthetic leg made.

He was later sponsored with a running blade, an attachment for his leg that should have enabled him to compete with able-bodied athletes. But, as a result of the long-distances involved in marathon running, he began to develop sores and returned to running with crutches.

But his progress was incredible, and within 18 months, he was lining up in one of the world’s most famous road races, the Comrades Marathon, albeit five hours before the scheduled start of the race, completing the event in 15 hours and 50 minutes.

“I always finish a race, no matter how long it takes me, I will never quit,” Luvuno says. “I always want to push myself further, to break down new barriers. After I completed the Comrades, I needed a new challenge.

“That is when I turned to IRONMAN, though cycling and swimming were completely new to me. But after four or five months of intense training, of really hard work, I was ready.

“Now I want to complete a full IRONMAN in April, that is my next challenge, and after that, it is the New York [City] Marathon. My entry for that has been accepted, it will be an amazing experience.”

Xolani Luvuno giving motivational talks. Picture: Supplied

Luvuno’s story is an incredible tale of triumph over adversity and how, even in the depths of despair, there is always the opportunity to change the situation. He is now also a motivational speaker, mostly sharing his story with school children, many of them handicapped themselves.

“It is something I have a passion for, it allows me to give something back,” he says.

“There was a time when I was not society’s ally and I accept that, but that is in the past now and I can only look forward to the future. Maybe my story will help some youngsters gain perspective and take on the valuable lessons that I have learned.”

-Nick Said

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