Friday, August 20, 2010

Nigerians and the Beautiful Game

Some people think that football is a matter of life and death. I assure you, it’s much more serious than that.
Bill Shankly


              For a while now, Nigerians have been given very little to cheer about by their national football teams, especially the Super Eagles. A few triumphs at the junior, youth and women's competitions have not been consummated by real success at the highest level of the game by the Super Eagles. The last three world cups and African Nations’ Cup tournaments since 2004 have been disastrous by Nigerian standards. To grasp why this matters at all, we need to understand football’s deeper meaning in the national psyche. Nigerians tend to hit the summit of their collective consciousness during football matches involving their teams. This is a genuine social phenomenon. Nigerians are never more united that when the Super Eagles are playing. For a country that supposedly lacks national character, Nigerians are remarkably enthusiastic about their football teams. This is understandable. Some analysts say that of all sports, none resembles warfare more than football, a game in which eleven warriors on each side risk their limbs, to win personal esteem and national glory. It is a continuation of war by sporting means.
Nigeria is a football-crazy nation where passion for the game runs very high. A Nigerian goal is a moment of national euphoria; a contagion of ecstatic madness that instantly spreads from one end of the country to the other. According to Onome Osifo-Whiskey, Nigerian nationalism explodes at such moments because through football, we are making our last pitch for recognition in the world as a special power. During tournaments, Nigerians mysteriously forget ethnic allegiances, religious affiliations and all other emblems of a fragmented national existence and bond together in support of their team. There is much more to what is at work here than just football.
            During the 1989 World Youth Championship in Saudi Arabia, a talented under-21 team got to the semi-finals where they faced the powerful Soviet Union. The Flying Eagles shockingly conceded four goals in the first half of the game and by halftime, despondent Nigerians had given up on the team. But in the second half, a revival of epic proportions ensued. Chris Ohenhen scored two magnificent free kicks in quick succession to halve the soviet lead.  The late Ernest Okonkwo, Nigeria’s greatest soccer commentator, then at the height of his powers, would cut in intermittently during the match urging Nigerians to pray, while quoting verses from scripture. A defender aptly named Samuel Elijah scored the third goal, and then Nduka Ugbade ran on to a pass, rode some desperate tackles to score the equalizing goal.
The soviets were dazed and Nigeria went on to triumph after extra time on penalty kicks. The entire nation was delirious with joy. Afterwards it did not matter that the Flying Eagles subsequently lost to Portugal in the final. For Nigerians, the players were already champions.  The nation crossed a psychological threshold and pushed the barriers of possibility further than we could previously imagine. The Damman Miracle, as the Nigerian media dubbed the game, had etched a belief indelibly upon our national psyche; it is the belief that somehow with God’s help Nigerians will always come back from any setback no matter the odds stacked against them and that no scoreline no matter how wide spells certain defeat until the final whistle.
            During the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, Nigeria paraded a hugely talented squad that had been christened the Dream Team. The side advanced all the way to the semi-finals where they faced the mighty Brazil. Brazil, for most Nigerians and fans the world over, epitomizes the summit of footballing excellence; they model the way the game should be played. In the first half, the Brazilians led the dream team 3-1 and looked likely to score more goals. Many Nigerians went to bed in despair believing their team was beaten. Because of the time zone difference, Nigerians were viewing the match in the early hours of a working day. In the second half, the dream team upped its game and Victor Ikpeba pulled one goal back. Team captain Nwankwo Kanu scored an equalizing goal and then in extra-time scored a golden goal which ended the game. The Brazilians were heart-broken. Wild jubilation broke out on Nigerian streets in the early hours of the morning. And when the Dream Team went on to defeat Argentina in a pulsating finale, the entire nation was enraptured. Nigeria erupted in an unprecedented outburst of breathtaking nationalism. By beating two of the strongest footballing nations on earth, Nigeria’s heroic athletes had redefined possibility.
Both the Damman Miracle and the Olympic triumph speak to something deeper than a nation’s passion for football. When we see Nigerians put aside all differences to root for their team, we are witnessing the eruption of the national spirit. The Damman Miracle and the Atlanta 96 victory in a sense are both part of the nation’s folklore, part of a collective experience, a self-affirmative mythos which disclose our strengths to us as a people. Those memorable matches are a mirror of self knowledge for us. They portray the values which we subconsciously believe to be part of our heritage and our cultural DNA - heroism (On his way to scoring the fourth goal in Damman, Nduka Ugbade sustained an injury that dogged him for the rest of his career), courage, resilience (Nigeria will always come back from the dead), flair, skill, talent, faith (God is always on our side) and hope (for which Nigerians are accused of being incurably and unrealistically optimistic). To the Nigerian mind, the Eagles in full flight embody these values and the vast potential of Nigeria.
Military regimes understood the psychological and political capital that could be extracted from these sporting victories. During the Saudi ’89 Under-20 World Cup, the Babangida regime declared a public holiday to enable Nigerians watch the final match. As it turned out, the Eagles lost. It did not matter. While receiving the team back from Saudi Arabia, Babangida remarked that their “courage and fighting spirit” were the gains of his regime’s “search for a new consciousness among Nigerians.” In a similar vein, the Abacha junta declared a two-day public holiday to celebrate the two Olympic gold medals won by the Eagles and the sprinter Chioma Ajunwa. 
The frenetic intensity of these celebrations only papered over the blights on the national psyche. The celebrations could not erase the widespread angst with country’s general underperformance. Even as Babangida was serenading the Eagles, Nigeria was sinking deeper into recession. The very next month, the country was rocked by violent demonstrations against SAP. The regime responded by shutting down universities nationwide for several months. Successes in international football were a relief from depressing social, economic and political conditions. As Osifo-Whiskey observed in 1996, the Olympic victory could not obviate the fact that the country could “not yet make a single Adidas Boot, grass a single pitch, manufacture things as common as footballs, let alone dream of having a Nigerian-made scoreboard.” The staged jubilations could also not mask the fact that most of the athletes were living abroad because they saw no future for themselves in Nigeria. Or the fact that the country’s best and brightest were scattered across many foreign lands burdened by the weight of hopelessness and the dreariness of life in exile. In short, the sporting triumphs only underscored how far we had fallen as a nation.      

What the celebration of our sporting exploits reveals is that Nigerians desperately want heroes and heroines – totems and talismans that symbolize the potentialities for excellence and achievement presently lying dormant in the Nigerian spirit. In our successful teams, we perceive intimations of what the nation is truly capable of achieving. We see young Nigerians drawn from across the country on the basis of merit and capability not via dubious quotas or through ridiculous attempts to promote “federal character”. We see our youth give themselves to preparation, hard work, commitment and discipline. Their successes prove the wisdom of entrusting national tasks to the most competent hands. Chinua Achebe once wrote that Nigerian under-performance stems from a distressing tendency to field its third and fourth eleven with the resultant serial failure to make it into the world league. Applying the same metaphor, Dele Giwa argued in a 1986 column that Nigeria constantly fields its last eleven. Their rebukes address the fact that our most serious tasks are constantly entrusted to the most unfit, the most unprepared and the most undeserving.
Our society is looking for champions. The challenge is how to extend this same enthusiasm and passion for football to the larger social terrain. How can we get Nigerians to be as passionate about their nation as they are about their football teams? The super eagles are symbols which affirm the nation’s potential. Their exploits even affirm us individually as being capable of success and achievement. This is the kernel of that mysterious ‘something’ that gratifies Nigerians about their football teams’ victories and even the exploits of Nigerian players in foreign leagues. Old fashioned national pride which Nigerians are often accused of lacking manifests itself in this apparent craze for football. We can fan it by cultivating a cult of heroic example.
All nations need their symbols and totems. They might be personalities, institutions, images and even events but what they have in common is that they are charged with a profound meaning for the people of that nation. They are a means of psychological and spiritual capitalization; generating a mental impulse that propels national advancement. For the U.S. in the sixties, John F. Kennedy astutely identified putting a man on the moon as a totem and a symbol of American scientific and technological superiority. For South Africa, it was the way in which Mandela shepherded the nation from an apartheid enclave to a multi-racial haven skipping the interlude of a bloody racial civil war which so many observers had assumed was indispensable.    
One of the major tasks of political leadership is to provide the citizenry with symbols and totems with which they can identify their lofty aspirations for advancement. It is not enough to say that Nigeria is a great nation or that she has a manifest destiny; the people must have symbols and talismans: material embodiments of that greatness, tangible achievements which will serve as the first fruits of national self-realization. For us, that means providing and becoming those symbols in the economy, politics, education and socio-culture of the people. We cannot escape the Gandhian imperative: “We must become the change we want to see.”  

1 comment:

  1. Sigh. So very true. As usual, Chris, a very insightful and thoughtfully written article. Bravo!