By Eddie Iroh
On Tuesday, March 12, when Barcelona Football Club of Spain played AC Milan of Italy in their UEFA Champions League encounter, an angry young Nigerian Kemi Martins kicked off a raging storm on Facebook.
Martins, a very articulate and regular blogger called Nigerian football fanatics some unprintable names. She continued: "They will be following Chelsea and Barcelona around whilst their nation is being raped! How does the fate of Barcelona or Chelsea affect the price of fish in your village? ... They won't invest their time in valuable things that will improve the quality of their reasoning. How will Nigeria change if you continue in your folly?"
While Martins's outrage appears to brand football as a waste of time, I have a different take on the matter. I am a football fanatic and make no apologies for it. Nor has my love for the sport deprived me of any opportunity for self-growth or prevented me from doing the best I can when the occasion arises. But here is the difference. I grew up with football in Nigeria, specifically Enugu Rangers International. Although we all deceive ourselves that sport and politics do not mix (flash back to China and the US and the 'Ping-Pong diplomacy' that changed their relations in the 70s), it was the political significance of Enugu Rangers winning the Challenge Cup, one year after the defeat of Biafra, that endeared the club to the hearts of Ndigbo in the early 70s.
To come from the war front and 'conquer' Nigeria so soon after Ndigbo had been given a bloody nose in battle was a psychological, political and sporting morale booster for a defeated people. On match days, Enugu stadium would be packed to the rafters, with standing room only. We forgot our misery and reveled in the victory that had eluded us in the battlefield. It was more than sport; it was politics as well. But it WAS sport, if you pardon the deliberate contradiction, because the focal issue here was that Rangers played fantastic football. It was a joy to watch Rangers play. The all-conquering Brazilian team of those days could not hold a candle on them.
The superstars of Rangers - Christian Chukwu, Nwabueze Nwankwo, Harrison Mecha, Kenneth Ilodigwe, Godwin Ogbueze, Emmanuel Okala, and a host of others - were heroes, even demi-gods in our youthful eyes. Interestingly, not a single one of them had played abroad, nor did they have access to foreign football matches on television. Indeed radio was the main medium for enjoying football and iconic broadcasters like Ishola Folorunsho and Sebastian Offurum made their names as sport-casters. More important for me, even after I went to study in the UK a few years later and fell in love with Liverpool Football Club, Rangers remained my club and retained my loyalty till today.
But what we have now is literally a different ball game. It would appear that our love for the game and support for local players have migrated to foreign lands and foreign clubs. On match days in Europe and Nigeria, while Warri Wolves or Shooting Stars of Ibadan and other top clubs in the Nigerian Premier League are playing to embarrassingly empty stadia, pepper soup joints and beer parlours across the land draw massive crowds around wide screen television sets installed primarily for Nigerians to gather and watch Chelsea, Manchester United, Arsenal, et al. Families have been divided along European club lines. A husband and wife were reported once to have come to fisticuffs over which club they should watch on television.
An Arsenal fan in Warri reportedly slumped to his death when his club was trashed by a rival team. It is common to see young Nigerians flaunting Wayne Rooney or Christian Ronaldo jerseys while none celebrates Sunday Mba or even Victor Moses; baseball caps (what Nigerians call "face" cap!) bearing foreign club logos are normal fashion items. The cars of these supporters (and even their okadas!) carry stickers hailing their favourite clubs. The ridiculous aspect of this aberration is that the vast majority of these aficionados do not have a single physical affinity with the clubs, cities and countries that cause them high BP every week. They have never visited the countries of or watched a live match by the clubs they are ready to spill blood for. And most of them never will.
The desertion of Nigerian football is not limited to the fans, although spectators provide the support, resources and, critically, the atmosphere in which football thrives as an enterprise. But even our own electronic media pay little attention to Nigerian football. Not a single Nigerian television station broadcasts live local league matches. Indeed just seven years ago, then Information Minister Frank Nweke devoted an inordinate amount of his energy to wresting English Premier League broadcast rights from South Africa's DSTV. You would have thought that a Nigerian minister would fight to bring the rights to Nigeria’s television networks. Instead some faceless Nigerians quickly cobbled up a television service called Hi-TV, rustled up the huge amount (some say $400 million) and paid for the rights.
The station was set up primarily to broadcast foreign football matches! They offered their service at cut price to under-cut DSTV, but evidently did not think of the huge advertising needed to recoup such massive capital outlay. A few Nigerian stations were given the palliative of a share in Hi-TV's rights. Notwithstanding, Nigeria's foreign football fanatics trooped over in their hundreds of thousands to subscribe to Hi-TV. But as we all know, when it came to renewing the rights two years later, Hi-TV proved both faceless and cashless. DSTV promptly paid for and retrieved the rights and Hi-TV ended up with egg on their face! To rub in the egg, a magnanimous DSTV began broadcasting the Nigerian league matches that we ignored, in spite of empty stadia. Even for a nation that the late Dele Giwa once described as 'unschockable', the chagrin must have been palpable.
Now let me quickly make clear that I respect the inalienable right of every citizen to make choices that affect his life and pursuit of happiness without infringing other citizens' rights. I am not suggesting that the preference of any sport lover to scream himself hoarse in support of any foreign football club infringes anyone else's right or well-being. But we must dispense with the delusion and hubris that football is one thing that unites Nigeria. Admittedly we band together and forget tribe, tongue and faith when Nigeria is playing some foreign country. Nor should we continue to ignore the contradiction highlighted by Sunday Mba at AFCON, that we should pay more attention to home-based players, the very players that we ignore in favour of their foreign counterparts. It is plain hypocrisy. Considering the ethnic mix of players in the various clubs of Nigeria, football will be a true uniting factor when we support local clubs and cheer Warri Wolves playing in Enugu against the Rangers.
Igbos and Istsekiris would be in the same stadium not cheering their kith and kin playing in either of the clubs, but the clubs themselves who have brought such inter-ethnic mix in the field of play. There will of course be the oddballs who will be there only to cheer his kinsmen and tribesmen. But they will be in a minority drowned out by true football lovers because studies have shown that the love of football has more to do with the skill and entertainment that a particular team provides than where the players come from - except perhaps in the case of Celtic and Rangers of Scotland which is divided along bitter religious lines. Proof of this is that the Nigerian who supports Manchester United and wears Wayne Rooney jersey does not do so because Rooney is his kinsman any more than Manchester is his city.
Finally I am reluctant to introduce patriotism into this, but there is a lot to be said for it. Charity they say begins at home. The amount of resources Nigerians plough into the coffers of already wealthy foreign teams, whether to purchase their items or pay subscription mainly to watch them on television, and the millions of dollars Hi-TV paid in 2005 are wages and resources denied Nigerian players and our football. When stadia are empty and resources take flight, how do we expect to fund the growth of local football and pay players wages that encourage local talents? Brazil mesmerised the world and won the World Cup in 1958 with an entirely home-bred team. And today, at the end of their foreign forays and their bags of money, players like Romario and Ronaldo still return to give something back to the country and clubs that gave them opportunities in the first place. They can do this with pleasure because Brazil, roughly the population of Nigeria, is fanatical about their home teams. And if you need further illustration about how home support affects a spectator sport like football imagine yourself as a stage actor performing to an empty theatre!