By Biko Agozino
Ruben Abati made very insightful observations in his analysis of the failure of the Nigerian national football team to inspire enthusiasm from supporters at home and abroad during the World Cup in South Africa. He concluded that the outing has brought more shame than pride to Nigerians given the Nigerian preparations for the competition were characteristically shoddy, while the South Africans distinguished themselves by organizing an efficient competition at a level that Nigeria could not manage, the way they effortlessly introduced a new equipment to the game, the vuvuzela, while Nigeria has yet to bring an innovation to the game we love so much, and how their national team played well even when they lost or drew while the Super Eagles are praying that some other team should suffer misfortune at the hands of some other team in order for us to qualify by default the way we managed to qualify for the finals.
Nigeria’s only innovation appears to be in the unprecedented image of the hustler with 30 stolen tickets who was sentenced to jail by a FIFA special court that must be the first of its kind. The other disgraceful image was that of the most unprofessional player ever whose name, Kaita, supposedly means disaster, who kicked a player outside the sidelines because he allegedly shoved the ball at him and called him unprintable names to get him out of his face so he could throw-in the ball. His red card caused the Nigerian team to collapse from an early lead to a 2-1 loss as they all trooped to the defense and gave up the mid-field to Greece without any imagination that they could still win a game with one man down the way Ghana’s Black Stars beat the Nigerian Super Eagles during the nation’s Cup in Ghana and again in Egypt with just ten men each time. Next time, Kaita should play hurt and see if he could send off an opponent instead of lashing out with the typical Nigerian gra-gra or bolekaja (Yoruba for come down and let us fight) mentality and if he gets sent off for acting hurt, the team should play on and try to win with an attacking game – the best type of defense. Apologies to Abati, I was wearing my coaching cap there, every Nigerian is a coach, says Abati, and yet we believe in the Cargo Cult mentality that the best coach must be imported from Europe.
Abati’s observation about national branding by Argentina which distributed free jerseys of their stars, free national flags and free vuvuzelas with their national colours to the international fans is a teachable moment for Nigerian officials. The Nigerian memorabilia were put up for sales even though the national sports commission may have already paid for the items to be distributed and in any case, there is not likely to be any accountability for the miserly sale of unpopular jerseys with names like Kaita on them. Typical of Nigerians, some official probably saw it as an opportunity to make quick bucks with the result that some Nigerian fans had no choice but to accept the free Argentina jerseys and wear them proudly without fear of losing their citizenship as punishment given that many Nigerians throw lavish parties to celebrate whenever they give up their citizenship and naturalize in some other country with regular electricity supply as one fan told Abati when threatened with denationalization for wearing the colours of Nigeria’s opponents.
I completely agree with Abati that we need to use this opportunity to re-examine our sports institutions from the local leagues that Nigerians do not seem to care about while they appear ready to kill and die for English Premiership clubs, to the training of coaches with the knowledge that mercenary foreign coaches will never teach us all they know for fear that some day we will face their own national teams, to the organization of supporters’ clubs and to private-public partnerships in the sponsorship of sporting events as is the case all over the world. Bringing in Tokunbo coaches from abroad at the last minute to disrespect the Nigerian coach who struggled to win qualification and demonstrating Pharisees-like prayers on the field of play will not cut it for us.
Where I disagree with Abati is on his observation that the National Stadium is being used by sex workers and fast food hawkers instead of being used for sports development. I would like Abati to visit the stadium early on any Saturday morning and he would be stunned. I recently visited a nephew in Lagos and he told me to get ready for a treat because early on Saturday morning, he wanted me to go running with him at the national stadium. I was intrigued and sure enough, he woke me up about 7:00 AM and off we went with Okada, then changed to a bus, then got another Okada before reaching the distant stadium.
I could not believe my eyes as the whole area surrounding the stadium was filled with amateur sports enthusiasts and fitness gurus and freaks alike jumping, boxing, doing martial arts, weight-lifting, dancing, running, skipping, doing yoga and aerobics, sweating and smiling. Sure, there were food and drinks vendors around but the people needed such refreshments after running non-stop for two hours. We joined one popular group that was led in song by a tireless young man and we chorused with the growing crowd of followers. It was as if we were back in high school and many of the songs were Igbo songs like ‘Obi Kererenke’ - ‘Obi’, to which the lead singer added popular Christian chants like ‘Anyi Ga Ebulia Aha Yaa’ to the chorus, ‘Enuuu’ (or let us raise His name, High!) which served as a notice that he was about to change to a different song. He would chant about the end of diabetes, the end of smoking, the end of alcoholism and his followers provided the ‘End’ chorus faithfully but when he chanted about the end of Igbo or marijuana many protested and shouted nooo! Some who did not understood the exchange in Igbo language asked for translations. I was soon exhausted as I had not done such hectic running in a long time and thankfully, the pure water vendor was on hand to rehydrate me with four sachets of water while I sweated buckets with a big smile on my face.
There and then I began to understand something that I had observed on the faces of many Nigerians: They looked more healthy than I had imagined from the sad stories of poverty and hunger we hear abroad. This must be one of their survival strategies – keeping fit for the fun of it. I asked when this revolution happened in Nigeria and they said that it was started by Sam Oparaji, the Nigerian football player who died tragically on the pitch from a heart condition at the national stadium where his statue stands. It was said that he used to run at the stadium in the 1980s and gradually, his fans joined him every Saturday morning. It felt as if I was witnessing something that happens only abroad and not at home and I was highly impressed.
I was surprised to know that such a popular lifestyle activity was going on for years and none of the newspapers had covered it. If Abati visits Surulere any Saturday morning, then he will realize that his dismissal of the national stadium is premature. Where Abati may not be surprised is that neither the government nor corporate sponsors have absolutely any role to play in all this. There is no budget to train the fitness coaches on safety precautions, there are no ambulances or health workers trained to attend to any emergencies, there are no freely distributed running shoes and jerseys to promote any company products and wait for this, there was no toilet for the athletes who had to enter the nearby bushes to do number one or number two.
The gates of the stadium were firmly shut against the enthusiastic sporting citizens from whose ranks would emerge the next sporting superstars. Only national sporting stars were allowed to train inside the stadium, I was told. There is no doubt that talents abound in Nigeria in all fields but the government and private investors are yet to tap in adequately towards the development of these talents in all fields to win national honours, create wealth for the sports players and create fair employment opportunities for others. For instance, the young man who led the jogging songs was not paid by anyone but I understood that some of the fellow runners settled him occasionally. Here is an opportunity for sporting clubs to emerge and train the Usain Bolts, Tiger Woods, goalie Enyeama and the Williams sisters of the world to break new world records in sprinting, golf, football, tennis and many other sporting areas but greedy leaders are more interested in scrambling for oil blocks that they always auction off to foreign coaches (sorry, companies) and pocket billions of dollars in commissions that they claim they do not know how to spend. What a crying shame!