More than just a game

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.

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10 Responses to More than just a game

  1. And to add to that… I remember most vividly Atlanta ’96. Due to time difference, we used to have some matches by 2AM. Believe it or not, it used to be my mum coming back from work at 12:00AM that would wake us up. Thank God for Abacha, light been de dey by then. See the excitement and all. The night became our day and there was no sleep… When the boys got gold – wow. Wow! Never did I see a nation happier.
    Back in the days, there were no clubs to support – no Man U or Arsenal or Barca, Inter or whatever… it was simply Super Eagles United! The flops started and … kai, Things have changed a great deal. We always say we wouldn’t watch any match again but with all hope, nostalgia and an undying love, we get back – to be disappointed again.
    E go better. Walahi, e go better. May our next pilgrimage bring us better tales of the Holy Land. Perhaps then, we would get the Holy Grail :) Till then… Kai, e go better. S’

    Su'eddie Agema
  2. Nze, I get to follow you round the world and this time I go with you around th leather. True talk, saying ‘more than just a game’ has become a footballing Cliché…. Take note. :) Nice piece as usual. Each world cup seem to give us a lot of lessons – no, not us as a National team, us as people and all. We have to learn that the dynamics of life na jeje and sharp depending on the occasion. Then, there is the issue of one person not being able to do it all…
    Nice piece all the way. Keep the ink flowing and may good tidings come to be yours to always hold. – S’

    Su'eddie Agema
  3. I am not a football fan but I know what you say when you call it a national metaphor. We always go to the drawing board; we always go there to set up commissions that never work; we always go there to draw up ways to chop more money, ways to never get things done.

    I enjoyed reading the piece. I love the way you use short sentences. Beautiful…

    Tayo
  4. True words spoken.Its been a familiar process of doing the same things, the same way,and expecting success, knowing fully well that you reap what you sow!!! “WE”have no ‘TEAM’ and as usual “WE”expect to reach the semi-finals,as usual.giving the just hired coach a mandate that “WE” know is 99.8% unattainable. Nah Wah. As usual “WE” shall all Talk Too Much. Write Too Much (myself included)and come 2014 in Brazil, its going to be “MODUS OPERANDI” & A SENSE OF “DEJA VOUS”
    ‘Dont worry Baba Sylva we might not even qualify.EXCEPT CHANGES ARE MADE. hopefully, in Jesus Name.

    Anthony Adegbola
  5. A NICE PIECE. THE ADVISES IF HEEDED WILL TAKE US FAR. SO YEARS AGO AFTER US ATHLETES, NIGERIAN ATHLETES WERE DREADED IN SHORT DISTANCE RACES AND RELAYS BUT TODAY I CAN’T REALLY SAY WHERE WE ARE. EVERY SECTOR OF THE ECONOMY IS SUFFERING THE DECAY IN NOT PLANNING BUT PRAYING AND WAITING FOR LUCK TO MAKE THINGS WORK FOR US. COMMONWEALTH GAMES IS AROUND THE CORNER, HOW ARE OUR ATHLETE PREPARING. SOON, WE WILL START THIS SAME CYCLE, THAT THINGS WILL BE BETTER NEXT TIME WHEN WE DON’T PUT STRUCTURE ON GROUND AND TARGETS TO GET THINGS IN PLACE. I MUST CONFESS TO YOU THAT I ONLY WATCH OUR TEAM AT U-17 TO U-23 BUT NEVER SUPER EAGLES BECAUSE THEY WILL BREAK ANY HEART. GHANA WENT FAR WITHOUT THE BIG NAMES, WHAT STOPS NIGERIA FROM ALLOWING THE SO CALLED ‘SMALL BOYS’ FROM PUTTING ON THE JERSEY INSTEAD OF THE BIG BOYS WHO CANNOT FIGHT FOR THE BALL WHEN THEY LOSE IT OR WHO WILL HIDE INJURY TO PLAY FOR THE COUNTRY. IT IS NOT PATRIOTISM TO HIDE INJURY TO PLAY FOR NIGERIA. THE PROBLEM OF SUPER EAGLES IS WITH THE ADMINISTRATORS, THE PLAYERS, THE COACH. I WILL STILL SAY IT, GIVE SIASIA OR KESHI THE OPPORTUNITY TO GIVE US A NEW SUPER EAGLES AND IN 2014 WE WILL HAVE A GOOD TEAM. WE DON’T NEED A WHITE SKIN TO GIVE US THIS. UNTIL WE BELIEVE IN OURSELVES WE MAY NOT GO FAR. THE MONEY SPENT IN HIRING LAGERBACK COULD HAVE BEEN USED TO SEND OUR COACHES ON COURSES.

    chikezirim aririsukwu-chuma
  6. Hardly a truer word written!

    In my first book “Identity and Development”, I quoted from the Economist magazine’s edition of 25/6/ 2001 where they said:

    “The task before Mr Obasanjo is nothing less than the reconstruction of Nigeria. It cannot be resolved by gestures. Nigerians have no common vision of a nation state called Nigeria, no sense of citizenship. The name and the footballers are about the only things that unite them. Even the footballers, though brilliant individual players, do not work as a team. It is the same with the country.”

    That this was the Economist magazine speaking all of 10 years ago shows that truths can be avoided but will never disappear unless addressed.

    Dele Ogun
  7. Nigeria, we hail Thee!!! we lost our way the moment we conveniently forgot that there is no shortcut to success. Nigeria is like a child who hasn’t perfected the art of walking but is more focused on ruinning. This is evident in the way corruption has permeated our evryday lives. We want quick & instant solution to everything & we cry for the head of whoever is in charge if he doesn’t wave his wand to fix our problems but praise him to high heavens if it favours us directly. What we need is to get rid of this “drawing board” which has made it easy to wipe our failures & draw up new plans to fail, maybe if we use “permanent markers” instead of the “temporary ones” that am sure is been used, then whoever gets to this board would have our failures glaring them in the face & would quickly run out of space to draw up more plans to fail. We can’t fix nigeria in a day neither can we fix it through shortcut. All we need is to lay a foundation our the next generation can build on however long it takes!!!

    maccollins
  8. I dare say ‘returning to the drawing board’ has been over flogged like other phrases but without results. A lot of us believe that our dismal performance @ d games r a reflection of d rot in our country. D way to solve d problems of football is to sort out d issues with d country. Register Scrutinize, Vote and Protect d vote!
    I enjoyed this Nze .

    D Fairy Godsister
  9. Nice piece! I suggest that we take the pain of overhauling our national team.

    Eugene Unbeatable
  10. “Perhaps however this is an opportunity to begin anew. Perhaps we can turn a new leaf and change tactics.” Nze, the solution lies in acknowledging that there is no team now, and deciding to stop the illusion and accept the reality. That is the beginning of putting an end to the decline and turning the graphline northwards. Imho, Ghana came to that point about 6 years ago and we started re-building from nothing. Even now, how many ‘big stars’ can you count in our team? Yes, we have what matters: a team. The Super Eagles’ problem, aside the problem of ineffectual administration, is the presence of primadona stars who think they are bigger than the team. Finally, I associate myself with a statement attributed to Mourinho: “No player should be bigger than the team. The star is not the player, and not the coach. The star is the team.”

    Nana A Damoah

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