Unarguably, the most popular sport in this clime is football. At one time or the other, every child has kicked a football. In elementary and secondary schools as well as institutions of higher learning, football ranks as the most famous sport. It is, perhaps, for this reason that the sport is famously referred to as the ‘King of Sports’. On a private note, I find the allure of the game of football somewhat irresistible, though my famous team, Arsenal FC of England, sometimes turns the sport into a traumatic experience for fans. But then, once you catch the bug of football, you might just not be able to get off it.
Globally, football has become a money spinning enterprise. The organisation and management of football in Europe, for instance, is a multi million dollars venture with all the teams running other sports related businesses. Indeed, all sorts of professionals-doctors, physiotherapists, psychologists, grass men, scouts, etc-are employed by the various teams in their drive for soccer glory. Therefore, football, in Europe, has gone beyond the mere recreational activity that it is in other climes. As a result of the excellent manner it is managed in Europe, youths across the world have found in football a means through which they could use their talents to escape poverty.
The FIFA World Cup remains the most important football event across the world. Since Uruguay hosted the first edition of the World Cup in 1930, during the era of revered FIFA President, Jules Rimet, the competition has continued to grow in leaps and bounds. From a 13 team event, with which it started in 1930, it grew to become a 32 team affair during the1998 edition, which was hosted and won by France. Today, the World Cup commands a global TV audience in excess of one billion. Every nation desires to be represented at the quadrennial international football tournament. The event has become more than a football affair. It is now a huge public relations platform for nations.
Hence, the sheer ecstasy and electrifying jubilation that greeted the 74th minute goal of Super Eagles in-form striker, Alex Iwobi, in the recent grueling decider against the ‘Chipolopolo’ of Zambia is a sure expression of what participating in the World Cup means to our compatriots. Before Iwobi’s eventual clincher, the ‘Nest of Champions’ where the decisive encounter took place in Uyo, Akwa-Ibom State, was full of tension as soccer fans agonizingly watched as the obviously ambitious boys from Zambia held their own against the star studded Super Eagles. With Iwobi’s goal came a huge relief and suddenly the stadium and, indeed, the whole nation came back to life.
As Nigerians continue to savour the joy of the hard won victory against Zambia, one thing that keeps ringing in my mind is the unifying power of football. It is quite mystifying how a nation that was before now faced with numerous tribal and ethnic agitations suddenly decided to bury the hatchet in order to pursue a common goal. While various groups complain about marginalization in political appointments, resource control among others, it is hard to see anyone complain that a particular section of the country dominates the Super Eagles. Nobody cares about that. No matter where the players come from, the song on every lip remains: “Halleluiah, Eagles are winning today!” Muslims, Christians and Atheists were united in singing this song.
Now, the question is: “How come we easily unite when it comes to the passionate matter of football and the Super Eagles and yet don’t seem to see eye to eye on other major national issues. Well, while there might not be a straight jacket explanation for this, my take is that the ordinary Nigerians from diverse walks of life don’t really care about most of these seemingly divisive stuffs. The ordinary compatriots don’t really bother much about religion, tribalism and other such conflict-ridden tendencies. This much was demonstrated in the botched June 12 1993 Presidential election when they overwhelmingly voted for the defunct Social Democratic Party, SDP, Muslim-Muslim ticket of the late Chief M.K.O. Abiola and Ambassador Babagana Kingibe.
The bane of our nation is the elite. Be it political, religious, traditional, bureaucratic, academic, professional etc, the Nigerian elite through pointless egotistic, parochial and avaricious tendencies has continued to hold the nation by the jugular. Whenever it suits their selfish predisposition, they could agree to work together, intermarry, preach tolerance and generally act as harbingers of all that is good. But then, when their egos are bruised, business interests and political concerns collide, they don’t mind setting the country on fire. Yes, the nation could burn, for all they care.
Sadly, whenever they decide to go on rampage, it is the hapless commoners whose rights and privileges they so deliberately and viciously trample upon that are often used as canon fodders. When some of the most tumultuous socio-political crises that have engulfed this nation are properly scrutinized, major victims of such crises have always been the common folks on the street who are subtly hoodwinked into being active participants in a skirmish they know nothing about. Ours is a nation where ‘warlords’ trick the ordinary folks into coming into the battle front, unarmed and ill prepared, only to flee at the slightest prospect of trouble.
The Nigerian elite need to come to terms with the reality of the time. The times are changing and very soon, there would be no more guinea pigs available for exploitation. One foresees more of “Our Mumu Done Do” kind of movements across the country as compatriots are fast ‘wising up’. Rather than continually engage in destructive selfish agenda that will do our nation more harm than good, the elite need to allow the metaphoric message of football sink deep into every sphere of our national life. We should allow the football process serve as model and reflection to our real life in the society. Being a team sport, every player in a football team including the coaching crew pursues one common goal: Victory.
The Super Eagles achieved victory against Zambia because everyone worked together. Everyone worked to ensure that the weakness of the team was not unduly exposed. Everyone worked to ensure that the strength of the team was fully maximized. Team spirit and focus which are the main forces in football are the hallmarks of nation building. No nation that is against itself can stand. Just as any football team that encourages in-fighting can’t achieve victory. This is the time for the elite to think Nigeria first in all that they do. This is also the time for the common folks to stop being willing tools in any agenda that could bring the country down. As the saying goes in my part of the country, “It is not everyone that knows the beginning of a war that would live to recount it”. God bless Nigeria.
Ogunbiyi is of the Ministry of Information & Strategy, Alausa, Ikeja, Lagos