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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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30 under 30

Applications Open for FORBES AFRICA 30 Under 30 class of 2020

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FORBES AFRICA is on the hunt for Africans under the age of 30, who are building brands, creating jobs and transforming the continent, to join our Under 30 community for 2020.


JOHANNESBURG, 07 January 2020: Attention entrepreneurs, creatives, sport stars and technology geeks — the 2020 FORBES AFRICA Under 30 nominations are now officially open.

The FORBES AFRICA 30 Under 30 list is the most-anticipated list of game-changers on the continent and this year, we are on the hunt for 30 of Africa’s brightest achievers under the age of 30 spanning these categories: Business, Technology, Creatives and Sport.

Each year, FORBES AFRICA looks for resilient self-starters, innovators, entrepreneurs and disruptors who have the acumen to stay the course in their chosen field, come what may.

Past honorees include Sho Madjozi, Bruce Diale, Karabo Poppy, Kwesta, Nomzamo Mbatha, Burna Boy, Nthabiseng Mosia, Busi Mkhumbuzi Pooe, Henrich Akomolafe, Davido, Yemi Alade, Vere Shaba, Nasty C and WizKid.

What’s different this year is that we have whittled down the list to just 30 finalists, making the competition stiff and the vetting process even more rigorous. 

Says FORBES AFRICA’s Managing Editor, Renuka Methil: “The start of a new decade means the unraveling of fresh talent on the African continent. I can’t wait to see the potential billionaires who will land up on our desks. Our coveted sixth annual Under 30 list will herald some of the decade’s biggest names in business and life.”

If you think you have what it takes to be on this year’s list or know an entrepreneur, creative, technology entrepreneur or sports star under 30 with a proven track-record on the continent – introduce them to FORBES AFRICA by applying or submitting your nomination.

NOMINATIONS AND APPLICATIONS CRITERIA:

Business and Technology categories

  1. Must be an entrepreneur/founder aged 29 or younger on 31 March 2020
  2. Should have a legitimate REGISTERED business on the continent
  3. Business/businesses should be two years or older
  4. Nominees must have risked own money and have a social impact
  5. Must be profit generating
  6. Must employ people in Africa
  7. All applications must be in English
  8. Should be available and prepared to participate in the Under 30 Meet-Up

Sports category

  1. Must be a sports person aged 29 or younger on 31 March 2020
  2. Must be representing an African team
  3. Should have a proven track record of no less than two years
  4. Should be making significant earnings
  5. Should have some endorsement deals
  6. Entrepreneurship and social impact is a plus
  7. All applications must be in English
  8. Should be available and prepared to participate in the Under 30 Meet-Up

Creatives category

  1. Must be a creative aged 29 or younger on 31 March 2020
  2. Must be from or based in Africa
  3. Should be making significant earnings
  4. Should have a proven creative record of no less than two years
  5. Must have social influence
  6. Entrepreneurship and social impact is a plus
  7. All applications must be in English
  8. Should be available and prepared to participate in the Under 30 Meet-Up

Your entry should include:

  • Country
  • Full Names
  • Company name/Team you are applying with
  • A short motivation on why you should be on the list
  • A short profile on self and company
  • Links to published material / news clippings about nominee
  • All social media handles
  • Contact information
  • High-res images of yourself

Applications and nominations must be sent via email to FORBES AFRICA journalist and curator of the list, Karen Mwendera, on [email protected]

Nominations close on 3 February 2020.

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The Springboks And The Cup Of Good Hope

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After their epic win beating England at the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan on November 2, the Springboks returned home to South Africa, undertaking a nation-wide tour, in an open-top bus, holding high the Webb Ellis Cup. In this image, in the township of Soweto, they pass the iconic Vilakazi Street with throngs of screaming, cheering residents and Springbok fans lining the street. The sport united the racially-divided country. For the third time in history, the South African national rugby team was crowned world champions.

Image by Motlabana Monnakgotla

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Déjà vu: South Africa Back to Winning

Our Publisher reflects on the recent Springbok victory in Yokohoma, Japan

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Rugby World Cup 2019, Final: England v South Africa Mtach viewing at Nelson Mandela Square

By Rakesh Wahi, Publisher
FORBES AFRICA

Rugby is as foreign to me as cricket is to the average American. However, having lived in South Africa for 15 years, there is no way to avoid being pulled into the sport. November 2, 2019, is therefore a date that will be celebrated in South Africa’s sporting posterity. In many ways, it’s déjà vu for South Africans; at a pivotal time in history, on June 24, 1995, the Springboks beat the All Blacks (the national rugby team of New Zealand) in the final of the World Cup. The game united a racially-divided country coming out of apartheid and at the forefront of this victory was none other than President Nelson Mandela or our beloved Madiba. In a very symbolic coincidence, 24 years later, history repeated itself.

South Africans watched with pride as Siya Kolisi lifted the gold trophy in Yokohama, Japan, as had Francois Pienaar done so 24 years ago in Johannesburg. My mind immediately reflected on this extremely opportune event in South Africa’s history.

The last decade has not been easy; the country has slipped into economic doldrums from which there seems to be no clear path ahead. The political transition from the previously corrupt regime has not been easy and it has been disheartening to see a rapid deterioration in the economic condition of the country. The sad reality is that there literally seems to be no apparent light at the end of the tunnel; with blackouts and load-shedding, a currency that is amongst the most volatile in the world, rising unemployment and rising crime amongst many other issues facing the country.

Rakesh Wahi, Publisher Forbes Africa

Something needed to change. There was a need for an event to change this despondent state of mind and the South African rugby team seems to have given a glimmer of hope that could not have come at a more opportune time. As South African flags were flying all over the world on November 2, something clicked to say that there is hope ahead and if people come together under a common mission, they can be the change that they want to see.

Isn’t life all about hope? Nothing defies gravity and just goes up; Newton taught us that everything that goes up will come down. Vicissitudes are a part of life and the true character of people, society or a nation is tested on how they navigate past these curve balls that make us despair. As we head into 2020, it is my sincere prayer that we see a new dawn and a better future in South Africa with renewed vigor and vitality.

Talking about sports and sportsmen, there is another important lesson that we need to take away. Having been a sportsman all my life, I have had a belief that people who have played team sports like cricket, rugby, soccer, hockey etc make great team players and leaders. However, other sports like golf, diving and squash teach you focus. In all cases, the greatest attribute of all is how to reset your mind after adversity. While most of us moved on after amateur sports to find our place in the world, the real sportspeople to watch and learn from are professionals. It is their grit and determination.

My own belief is that one must learn how to detach from a rear view mirror. You cannot ignore what is behind you because that is your history; you must learn from it. Our experiences are unique and so is our history. It must be our greatest teacher. However, that’s where it must end. As humans, we must learn to break the proverbial rear view mirror and stop worrying about the past. You cannot change what is behind you but you can influence and change what is yet to come.

I had the good fortune of playing golf with Chester Williams (former rugby player who was the first person of color to play for the Springboks in the historic win in 1995 and sadly passed away in September 2019) more than once at the SuperSport Celebrity Golf Shootout.

Chester played his golf fearlessly; perhaps the way he led his life. He would drive the ball 300 meters and on occasion went into the woods or in deep rough. Psychologically, as golfers know, this sets you back just looking at a bad lie, an embedded or unplayable ball or a dropped shot in a hazard. For a seasoned golfer, it is not the shot that you have hit but the one that you are about to hit. Chester has a repertoire of recovery shots and always seemed to be in the game even after some wayward moments. There is a profound lesson in all of this. You have to blank your mind from the negativity or sometimes helplessness and bring a can do and positive frame of reference back into your game (and life). Hit that recovery shot well and get back in the game; that’s what champions do.

We need to now focus our attention on the next shot and try and change the future than stay in the past.

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