In the beginning, God created a field and a sport. Now, the field was formless and empty. And God said, ‘Let there be football!’, and there was Messi.
It is not clairvoyant to understand that Nigerians lately decided to tighten the noose on tithe because of the age-long extravagant and vainglorious lifestyles of some clerics, whose pretentious facade masks the rotten logs in their eyes. Since I was a kid growing up and playing “omolere” plastic football on the streets of Mushin in Lagos, conmen and fake spiritualists has ripped their victims of money and belongings. A common sight it was to see adults, male and female, suddenly stripping, wailing and rolling on the ground upon realising they had been duped.
As a youngster, I had the privilege of witnessing the golden age of club football in Nigeria when Rangers International of Enugu and IICC Shooting Stars of Ibadan represented the best of our values of hard work, courage, competence, perseverance and diversity. Those were the days when the Oracle of Ibadan, the late Prof Sam Akpabot, bedecked in all-white agbada, would, on match day, wave at the crowd from the bleachers before a match and raise four fingers high up, signifying that the Green Eagles or the Nigerian club on duty would defeat their opponents by four goals. If the outcome of the match belied Akpabot’s prediction, you can rest assured that the foremost Ibibio professor, composer, author and ethnomusicologist would explain the reasons why his prediction failed, in his next column in the Daily Sketch or the Nigerian Tribune. This was also the period when we had the renowned India-trained parapsychologist, Prof Godspower Oyewole, and stargazer, Dr Gabriel Akenzua, perusing their crystal balls and predicting that the sun would rise in the east and set in the west.
No doubt, the three co-travellers – football, religion and politics – had long been subjected to exploitation in this neck of the wood called Nigeria.
Nigeria staked her claim to continental football glory on the national scene on March 22, 1980 when the “Chairman” Christian Chukwu-led Green Eagles walloped the Fennec Foxes of Algeria 3-0 at the National Stadium, Lagos, with two goals from “Mathematical” Segun Odegbami while the late midfield maestro, Mudashiru Lawal, added the icing on the cake. During this era, there was discipline in our sports, which blossomed on the wings of fair and competitive team selection.
As every era comes with its challenges, Nigerian football was kidnapped by a mafia in the 1990s when the late Stephen Keshi led the Super Eagles to another Nations Cup glory in Tunisia in 1994. The mafia dictated who was called to the national team, who played and whom the ball was passed to. The historic opening goal scored against Bulgaria by the most potent Super Eagles striker ever, the late Rashidi Yekini, was to the eternal agony of the mafia. By April 1994, the Super Eagles were fifth in FIFA World Rankings – the highest position ever achieved by any African team.
But Nigerian football never rose from the ruins of the destruction wreaked by the mafia and maladministration despite an unpredictable spasm in 1996 when the Dream Team returned home from Atlanta with the Olympic soccer gold medal after defeating Argentina 3-2 in the final. It is easier to destroy than to build, goes a popular saying. It took Nigeria 19 long years to reclaim the African Nations Cup in South Africa by 2013. Coach Keshi, who led the Super Eagles to African Nations Cup glory in 2013, failed to qualify the team for the biennial championship in 2015. In 2014, the team paraded, in the main, anonymous players at the World Cup, turning in a most dismal performance amid allegations of corruption in team selection.
The floundering continued from 2013 until last August when the Nigerian Football Federation picked a former Bayern Munich defender, Gernot Rohr, as the manager of the national team. Before Rohr roared the Eagles back to reckoning, a former Eagles captain, Sunday Oliseh, who, on account of his brilliant football analyses, was handed the coaching job, had abandoned the team midstream just as French coach, Paul Le Guen, turned down the offer to manage the team.
Success is a bastard. Now that Rohr has qualified the team for the World Cup, some former players of the team and a handful of unknown ones plying their trade in fringe leagues abroad have been making newspaper headlines in the bid to catch the attention of the unassuming German.
Joy has a slender body that breaks too soon, says Ola Rotimi in ‘The gods are not to blame’. For our World Cup joy not turn into ashes in our mouths, we must watch it. With our unenviable history of failing on the biggest occasions, caution is the word. The woe list is unending: November 12, 1977, Tunisia snatched the World Cup ticket at the National Stadium; in October 1981, Algeria went away with the World Cup ticket at the National Stadium just as Zamalek also defeated IICC Shooting Stars at the National Stadium to go home with the then elusive African Cup of Champions in 1984. Nigeria, painfully and controversially, lost Nations Cup finals to Cameroon in 1984, 1988 and 2000.
I’ve read stories calling for the invitation of former Eagles captain and goalkeeper, Vincent Enyeama, back to the fold. The Eagles had trod this familiar path to failure when Christian Chukwu was recalled in 1981 for a crucial World Cup qualifier against Algeria. Enyeama has served his fatherland well, let him enjoy his retirement.
Lack of maintenance culture is of the plagues of Nigeria’s development. Planning is another. The signs and repercussions of our planlessness as a country are etched in our current backwardness. And I wish we do not take this garbage to the greatest sport spectacle on the planet, the World Cup, taking place between June 14 and July 15, 2018.
I fear that our 4-2 friendly win over Argentina recently will go into our heads. I fear that our infectious optimism will not be matched with a deserving strategy and professionalism. I fear. I’ve not forgotten that the Eagles against Burkina Faso, on July 27, 1991, had to play in their tracksuits which were cut into shorts when officials forgot to bring players’ jerseys to the stadium. I’ve also not forgotten that players’ passports had been forgotten once. And how can anyone sanely explain the fielding of twice yellow-carded Shehu Abdullahi in the World Cup match against Algeria? Thank God Nigeria still qualified after FIFA deducted the one point earned for the 1-1 draw.
The big stage is here again and encomiums are pouring in for the Eagles. Analysing Group D, which has Argentina, Croatia, Iceland and Nigeria, in New York Times, Rory Smith said, “Probably the most delicately balanced, most interesting, and most competitive of all the groups. Argentina only just qualified, Croatia has an abundance of individual talent; Iceland, a tremendous collective strength and Nigeria was, possibly, the toughest fourth seed to draw. Argentina will not be happy at all.”
A former Argentine midfielder, Sebastian Veron, said, “Nigeria is unpredictable. They always come to us in the group. African players are actually unstable and depend on what they have a day before and how they feel ahead of the game.”
Unlike the greatest basketball player of all time, Michael Jordan, the greatest footballer ever, Lionel Messi of Argentina, doesn’t share the same birthday with me. But thoughts of the Lion of Argentina have been on my mind ever since the World Cup draws came up at the Kremlin in Moscow some days ago. What cruel fate made the Super Eagles draw the Lion again? I wish we had saved that our 4-2 friendly victory over Argentina for the World Cup. That win has put the Eagles on the back of the lion. They must not descend. The lion is livid. Pep Guardiola said it all, “When Messi decides to play, no force on earth can stop him.”
The Barcelona phenomenon and record setter is on the way to his sixth Ballon d’Or having dragged Argentina by the scruff of the neck to the World Cup finals and scored 18 goals in all competitions this season – leaving in his trail, Real Madrid’s Christiano Ronaldo with a dismal four goals in the La Liga but a commendable eight goals in the Champions League.
Can the Eagles cage the lion?
Odesola, a journalist, wrote from the United States of America