As a rule I do not watch football matches; not anymore, that is. I have given up that passion because of the tragedy which has befallen the local league and football generally in Nigeria. I am sure some would ask what difference it makes whether or not I watch football. Of course that would be a silly point to make. Whereas I grew up knowing the Nigeria Football Association (NFA), my children talk about UEFA and Bundesliga. They even support different European club sides. Their mother knows who supports which team and sometimes joins the sympathy train when her son’s team loses a match! I have no time for such sentimental nonsense.
These days we have ten-year olds who are fans of Arsenal, Osasuna, Barcelona, Manchester or Liverpool. In some families, the father is a Manchester United fan while the sons support Manchester City. How come I know the names of these ‘imperialist’ clubs? Some of our leaders actually private-jet to Europe just to watch a match! I think back to my youth and the wasted opportunity that is Nigerian football, and I permanently shut my eyes to those beautiful forms of mental colonization. How did the roof of football collapse over us so easily within our lifetime?
I grew up with the beauty of the leather game as a constant- as a keen observer, as an enthusiast with more zest than skill, and as an admirer of the leather boys. I was not a fantastic player. Was I even a player? My schoolmates will never remember me as a player. I managed to be a goal keeper. As a boy growing up in Midwest, you had no choice you had to love football. We were familiar with the big names in football too. We were deeply familiar with the teams and the radio commentators. Radio commentators! Ernest Okonkwo. Sebastian Ofurum. Okokon Ndem. Ishola Folorunsho. These men made football commentary part of the game of football!
Some of the players were mythical even in their lifetime, even legendary. Some had quit active playing by the time I started watching football or listening to match commentaries. Muda Lawal, Jossy Donbraye, the Ilerika brothers, Thompson Usiyan, Christian Chukwu, Sylvester Egborge, Segun Odegbami, Godwin Odiye, Yakubu Mabo, Broderick. Goalkeepers Rigogo, Essien, Peter Fregene, Best Ogedegbe, Emmanuel Okala. What about the club sides and teams? Stationery Stores, Enugu Rangers of Enugu, Red Devils of Aba, Bendel Insurance of Benin, IICC Shooting Stars of Ibadan, Sharks of Port Harcourt, Mighty Jets of Jos and many more.
It was before the days of television. Indeed even after television came and we saw the live matches we killed the volume of the TV set and thrilled ourselves with the lively commentaries of the commentators. Sometimes they were even more exciting than the matches. ‘He beats one, beats two, beats three and it’s a goal’! ‘Oh no; not a goal; that was a close one’ or ‘Ladies and gentlemen, the impossible has become possible. Odiye has scored against Nigeria. Nigeria has scored against Nigeria”. The excitement in the commentator’s voice made up for the error, you know, and we moved on and enjoyed the next high pitch with feverish expectation. The more adventurous ones travelled from Sapele to Lagos to watch the football cup finals. In those hours, the nation was gripped in time and space, awaiting the results of the matches! Those were glorious days!
In those days, the foreign teams attracted only pool betters. Who had time for Everton versus Manchester playing in faraway London when Bendel Insurance was taking on Enugu Rangers in Benin, with Governor Ogbemudia offering juicy rewards for the victorious Bendel Insurance? When Sharks of Port Harcourt was playing against Mighty Jets of Jos, who had the eyes or ears for Bayern Munich? It is true that cable television was not available at the mass level those days. But the matches were pure entertainment and we felt at home with the teams because they were ours, our state team or a team based in our home state. We also supported good teams even if they were not based in our state. Suddenly, all the good teams went into a coma and we have groomed generations of kids who do not know that we once had a glorious football culture.
We need a national renaissance, a revival that should be led by a football Thomas Sankara, that is, by a man who knows the past, understand the present and prepare for the future. The truth is that with the right will and spirit we can revive local football. Who says that we cannot make our league as interesting as what we see in the other world? Who says we cannot put the stadiums across the country to use? Football could be a great source of unity and economic gains. It could produce employment for thousands and remove people from the labour market.
Football could make billionaires of Nigerians if properly organized as a business concern. Football could create more Segun Odegbamis, Henry Nwosus, Stephen Keshis, and feed them into the international space on our own terms if properly managed. As we know the local league as currently run is a sham. It is poorly managed, severely compromised and criminally manipulated. But it can change, could change and become a win-win venture for all stakeholders – administrators, footballers, TV houses, club owners and the nation.
I challenge football administrators in the country. Rise to the occasion. Seize the opportunity. Seize the day. Revive local league. There are too many young men and women whose skills and talents are wasted because of the poor structure in place. The next Sports Minister should not be a business-as-usual person. He should think big and be resourceful in orientation. He should think about the nation and its future. He should put a team together that can make a revival of footballing a goal. It is necessary. It is desirable. It is urgent. Only a man with a sense of history can achieve this.
Prof Hope Eghagha is the Head of Department, English and Literary studies, University of Lagos