by Sylva Nze Ifedigbo
Growing up, football and the Super Eagles in particular was the only sense of nationality we had. We excited ourselves with talks of The Super Eagles being the best team in the world. We repeated to the point of becoming stale, tales of how Bebeto the Brazilian wept after we won them in the Semi Finals of the Atlanta Olympics. We decorated our walls with large coloured posters of Nigerian footballers and preferred note books that had their faces on them. And when they lost a match it was like a funeral.
Such is the hold football has on us as a Nation. We play it. We watch it. We live it. As a teenager, I remember the many days I left the dishes undone just to catch up with the evening football game in the little pitch in the Estate. It wasn’t important that I knew I was going to get whipped afterwards. All that mattered was the game and the stories about it that would be told at school the next day.
Nigerians will go to any length to watch a football game especially when the national team is playing and on more than one occasion, we have heard of PHCN staff being beaten up and their facilities vandalized because there was power outage during a foot ball match.
And like every true lover, we support our national team, but when they fail we don’t fall with them. We boo them. We criticize them in the news papers and phone into radio stations to rain curses on them. Recently I watched the finals of the FIFA U17 World Cup match between Nigeria and Switzerland in the main bowl of the Abuja National stadium. Before the match, the spirit of patriotism and nationalism was such that brought tears to the eyes. Our National anthem when sang reverberated round the stadium. We blew on the tinier adaptations of the Vuvuzela and danced to no music. But when fifteen minutes to the end of the match we still trailed by a lone goal, countless bottles of half spent water bottles began to rain down first on the Stadium stewards and later on to the pitch. No one cheered the fireworks that brightened the night sky at the end of the game. Sadness hung like a cloak in the air.
A similar cloak of sadness was witnessed the night Nigeria crashed out of the 2010 world cup. Usually if we had won-and we really needed just a goal to- the whole country would have been thrown into one big party. Neighbours who hardly exchange pleasantries would have shaken hands and congratulated each other. Youths would have taken to the streets singing winner o! o! o!. Beer parlour and pepper soup joint owners would have witnessed a tripling of sales and by the next morning the cover of the News Papers would have been splashed with green.
But we lost and in a really shameful way at that, ending our dreams and letting the rest of Africa down. Indeed we really had nothing to dream of. For it was clear to us all, though our patriotic juices wouldn’t let us admit, that we were headed for a resounding failure in South Africa. I had noted that much in my piece Ahead of our Failure in South Africa published in NEXT on 17th May 2010 http://bit.ly/aozTZ3. Was I being a prophet of doom? Perhaps so. Perhaps I was just stating the obvious for common sense should have told us, if experience failed to, that when you fail to prepare, you prepare to fail. World cups are not won by prayers and optimism. They are won by hard work, persistence and some hint of luck. So from the outset, the Super Eagles were a disaster waiting to happen.
First we qualified through the back door, riding by the help of Mozambique to get a seat on the train at the eleventh hour. We gave our selves Hi-fives and praised the team for rising to the occasion when the chips were down.
Next, we went to the Nations’ Cup in January and finished third. With few months to the world cup and when other countries were almost sure of who would be playing for them in the world cup, our football administrators were instead shopping for a new coach. Something about someone, any one with white skin being better than all we’ve got in the country. They hired one and three weeks to the start of the world cup the man Lars Lagerback from Sweden who ironically failed to qualify the Swedish National team for the tournament was yet to meet his team not to talk of playing a single warm up match.
But as a nation we hoped on. This was Africa’s World cup and we were sure to make Africa proud. Weren’t we the famed giant of Africa? Goodluck Jonathan had become president and it seemed likely that the ‘Goodluck’ which seems to drive him would rub off on the team. We actually gave ourselves a Semi final target. Nothing bad in aiming high I suppose. Our Senators in their numbers boarded flights to South Africa. Government Business grounded to a halt. We were determined to out number our opponents fans in the stands. And yes, our team prayed before the match and before leaving the pitch at half time. Didn’t the Holy books say we should call on God in the time of need?
Alas, God didn’t hear or perhaps he wasn’t inclined to granting us another miracle. We lost two games and drew the last, leaving South Africa with just a point.
Like I predicted in my infamous article, after we must have crashed out, we would have those familiar faces from the Football House telling us on national television that they would return to the drawing board, to that mysterious board that never gets full. The place where our leaders always return to after flopping and failing in very simple assignments. Today the song we hear is the same. Success is like a taboo to them. They abhor and dread it. They live it.
But then, it is not just about foot ball. Indeed, football and our Super Eagles has become a national metaphor. Nothing else works in this country. The roads are bad. The schools leave us illiterates. Our leaders avoid our hospitals. Steady power has become a jinx. And poverty stares us in the face, boldly and without remorse.
Perhaps however this is an opportunity to begin anew. Perhaps we can turn a new leaf and change tactics. Perhaps we can resolve to do things differently. Perhaps not. Perhaps we shall do them all over again, in the same way and yet expect a different result. Perhaps we might even hail ourselves with lines like we lost gallantly and pocket what is left of the allowances. Perhaps we shall wait to fail again in four years time. But whatever we do we must remember that for a whole lot of people in this country, football is a lot more than just a game. It represents a reason to continue to believe in life.