Friday, June 05, 2009

In the name of the 'God' of soccer

WHEN Nigeria's football team, the Super Eagles, confront their Kenyan opponents, the Harambee Stars, in the soccer World Cup qualifying match on Sunday, June 7, we expect the Eagles to win outright because God loves our players more than the Kenyans. The nation has put in so much in terms of prayers and fasting that the national team deserves to win.

The law of equity in religious worship states that whoever prays more, wins more. The team that prays together, stays together. That's the way we view things. That's the way we expect things to work in Nigeria. That's the way we understand the power of prayers. With sustained prayer sessions, all obstacles are conquerable.

According to the Daily Sun edition of Tuesday this week, the Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG) is about to commence a three-day period of praying and fasting intended to help the Eagles to overwhelm their Kenyan counterparts in this weekend's soccer World Cup qualifying match. The prayer session will last from 4-6 June 2009. Pastor Paul Bankole, the sports minister of the church (I didn't know that churches also have "sports ministers"), was reported to have said that prayers and fasting will be used to invite God to sit metaphorically on the Eagles' bench.

Bankole the pastor, who arguably understands God more than every other Nigerian, said: "There is need for us to go back to God in this country... It is high time for this country to go back to God and tell Him we are sorry for all that have taken place in Nigerian sports... I know God is a merciful God, I also know he can intervene for the Eagles despite being in a tight corner... This prayer is so important because the Eagles are meeting Kenya the next day...Our General Overseer... always prays for Nigerian sports. We want to pray that God should uproot all the uprootable to ensure nothing stops us from being in South Africa."

If you believe Bankole and other religious charlatans or devotees like him, you will also believe that, with God on our side, the Eagles need not waste their time training, sweating and fretting over a match in which victory has been guaranteed by virtue of the intensity of our prayers. This is the context in which we must analyse Bankole's rambling comments which also show the extent to which some pastors in Nigeria preach to their followers the virtues of laziness.

Bankole's words indicate quite clearly that there are indeed Nigerian pastors and religious leaders who believe naively that prayer alone can overturn all obstacles. When I saw the headline of the story in the Daily Sun for the first time, I thought it was one of those sensational but insignificant stories commercially packaged to attract the maximum attention of newspaper readers. The headline read: "Divine Intervention", with a kicker which stated: " ... RCCG takes Eagles case to God".

On its own, the story about national observation of three days of prayers and fasting for the Super Eagles reeks of utter ignorance. It casts us all as a group of day dreamers who need more than divine intervention to determine our priorities. Kenyans will have their ribs cracking with laughter when they read the story. How can prayers by Nigerians help to harm or confuse the Kenyan players on the field during the World Cup qualifying match?

The idea that the RCCG and its members will pray and fast for three days simply to help the Eagles to win the World Cup match shows how disingenuous some pastors have become. Could prayers alone win a soccer match for any nation? Perhaps the Kenyans don't know how to pray.

I have no problem with pastors and their followers who believe strongly in the power of prayers. But pastors and other religious leaders have an obligation to inform their followers that religious precepts are dressed up in metaphors and those principles should not be understood in the literal sense. Pastors should also educate their followers about the differences that separate the world of idealism from the world of pragmatism or common sense. For example, the fact that there is an injunction in the holy book does not mean that it can be applied to the world out there.

To suggest, as Bankole implied, that the Eagles do not need days of serious training and hard work but three days of adoration consisting of singing and dancing and praying, represents an invitation to indolence. Rather than preach about the rewards of hard work, constant training and practice as the sure path to victory, Bankole is busy sermonizing about the supernatural power of prayers.

If prayer is all the Eagles need to win matches, there would be no need to hire coaches, managers and technical advisers. If prayer is the magic bullet for victory in sporting competitions, no government would invest in the construction of stadia, training venues, and in the acquisition of sports equipment. If prayer is all we need to attain victory in soccer, we could easily hire - for half the cost of expensive professional players - a team consisting of pastors, bishops and archbishops to represent Nigeria in the World Cup and other continental competitions. Bankole's views make nonsense of the concept of talent development in sports.

The way religious leaders misinterpret the Bible or Koran or whatever holy book they adopt for worship has become a source of worry. Many Nigerians who follow their pastors blindly are so gullible they will believe anything. These are the people who deserve to be saved from further psychological, physical, spiritual and mental damage inflicted on their psyche by the all-knowing pastors.

Action is long overdue. The nation has kept quiet for so long while religious leaders commit murder and all manner of crimes against members of their congregation - all in the name of God or, preferably, all in the name of the dark forces they worship. I've heard some people say the reason they can't confront the fake pastors and their questionable practices is because of the fear that the pastors may invoke the so-called "Holy Ghost Fire" against people who criticise them.

There are three inherent impressions in the story. The first idea mirrors the level to which standards of soccer have collapsed in Nigeria. Resorting to prayers suggests that there are no skilled players in the Eagles' team that the nation must now prayer feverishly in order that the Eagles can win.

The second and perhaps more insightful impression underlines our foolhardiness in believing that prayer and fasting are sufficient to generate success for the Eagles even in circumstances where hard work and sheer determination are guaranteed to produce a favourable outcome. The third idea reconfirms the extent to which religious organisations are leading Nigerians astray. Anyone who believes that three days of praying and fasting would produce victory for the Super Eagles in a crucial World Cup match must be a religious extremist.

As the Eagles face the Kenyans in two days' time, it is futile for us to hang our hopes on prayers. If the Eagles didn't prepare well ahead of the match, they should not expect easy victory against their opponents. In soccer, prayers don't win matches. There is a limit to which we must rely on prayers to produce instant results that coincide with national expectations. If the management of soccer has not collapsed at the national level, if the players have not been behaving as if the nation owes them some kind of debt, there would be no need to seek God's intercession in this World Cup qualifier.

It is perhaps instructive that I should return to the words of Bankole, the pastor, to conclude this essay. His closing remarks expose the ambiguous side of a man who had argued previously for prayers and fasting as the pathway to Super Eagles' victory on Sunday. Hear him: "We should not joke with that match coming up on June 7 and avoid listening to the news coming from Kenya; it could be deceptive. Amodu and the boys should prepare very well, whether they are in disarray or not." Did Bankole actually use the words "prepare very well"? And did he understand the meaning of the word "prepare"?