Football is an overwhelming unifying force in Nigeria, and with a team at the World Cup in Russia next month, the passion is palpable everywhere from the streets to the sports salons. But do they even have a chance to get past the quarter-finals?
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.
“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.
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.