Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Football and Nigerians

JUDGING by his two articles (The Guardian, May 23, 2008 and May 25, 2008), on the recent European Champions League Final, one is compelled to wonder out loud where Reuben Abati has been all these years. Everyone living on planet earth knows football is a game people follow with passion all over the planet. The beautiful game is the most popular game on planet earth, and if my guess is right, Martians and those on other known and unknown planets must love football too. Whenever the whole of our planet is busy watching football, we have never had invaders from other planets, obviously because they are all watching too!!

What we are seeing in all spheres of endeavour in Nigeria today, as well as around the world, is that people are putting their money where their mouth is. In other words, people are making choices with their money. What can possibly be wrong with this? Every one wants, and is entitled to, quality whenever he or she decides to spend money. Globalisation has made it possible for Nigerians and everyone around the world to compare and contrast what is available within their borders with that available outside. Instant international television and instant international communication has brought the entire world to the doors of Nigerians.

Yes, we have played football in Nigeria for years and we do have and have had some very exciting footballers. But this era is the first time we have been able to compare and contrast what we get as spectators and lovers of football in Nigeria with what is available elsewhere. This goes also for all other services we need and demand. Why single out football. Our president recently announced to the world that he has had his doctors in Germany for 25 years. Are we to assume he is unpatriotic because he does not consult doctors in Nigeria? He is not alone in this. Every Nigerian who can afford it goes to Europe, America and lately South Africa and India for medical attention. In the days of my grandfather, when it took months to make contact with the outside world from Nigeria, that was unheard of. But globalisation and instant communication has changed everything.

Nigerian football teams must now compete for audience and supporters with teams outside our borders. If Abati knows anything about football at all, he would accept the inevitable, the quality and standard of our football, like that of our medical facilities, cannot compete with those outside our borders. The government and our newspaper columnists can only ask us to be patriotic and support Nigerian football or medical service if they are provided free of charge. We must be free to choose who to watch and who to support if we are paying with our hard earned income.

Imagine a labourer who earns about N20,000 a month and lives in Ikotun Egbe. One of the passions of his life is football. To get to the National Stadium to watch Abati Rovers play Bokini United, he needs at least N200 in transport fares as well as some N200 gate fee. All our first class footballers play in foreign leagues whose matches could be watched at a bukateria next to his house for only N40. Why on earth would he spend N400 and several hours travelling to and fro the stadium to watch our second tier footballers?

This is the logic of the current explosion of support in Nigeria for European football teams. Nigerians have always loved football like others around the world. We have always had heroes amongst foreign footballers. In the 50s, most school boys in Lagos had scrap books with portraits of Di Stefano and Putchkas of Real Madrid, Stanley Matthews of Wolverhampton and others. In fact the passion for these foreigners was so great that Stanley Matthews had to come on tour of Nigeria in 1958. And those were the days when we followed football on the pages of the London Daily Mirror which took a month to reach Lagos after publication.

It is not only in Nigeria that football passion turns violent. Did some two Central American countries not engage in a bombing war over football not too long ago? It would appear trading abuses, fights and general misbehaviour from one side to the other is all part of passionate football support. This is why in every stadium in Europe and Latin America supporters of opposing teams are usually kept apart. The support for Manchester United and Chelsea at that final match did not turn violent in the stadium or on the streets of Moscow only because of the strong presence of Moscow Police, who spent weeks training and preparing for the occasion. In far away London, there was rioting and running battle with the Police in Fulham Broadway for hours after the match.

Finally it is doubtful if Nigerians will ever turn their support to Nigerian teams again. Teams like Manchester United, Real Madrid, Arsenal, Chelsea and Barcelona have budgets of over ?200 million each annually, that is some N50 billion. Would Abati recommend that Nigerian clubs or government pour this kind of money into football, considering the problems we face in other spheres of our lives, just to stop Nigerians following foreign clubs? The simple truth is that Nigerian clubs just do not have the resources to compete for world audience.

As things are now in the football world, we are better off for the foreign scouts to keep recruiting our enterprising footballers to play in lucrative foreign leagues. Not only do we gain materially, but we must remember Nigerian football became noticeable outside Nigeria only with the coming of the likes of Yekini, Amokachi, Jay Jay Okocha, Kanu, etc who excelled in foreign clubs.