Football as a Microcosm of Nigeria's National Problem

by Peter Claver Oparah

From all possible indications, it looks like Nigeria has crashed out of this year’s world cup after losing two out of a possible three of the group matches. It seems the stage is set for the topping of the progressive degeneration of Nigerian football, which is in sync with the general malaise that has afflicted everything in Nigeria in recent years. It speaks of a country in fast decline in virtually all spheres of human existence. It speaks so glaringly of national decay and a dawning atrophy that threatens to sweep off everything in its stride. Football is just an integral part of the wobbly Nigerian state and its atrophy is in sync with the general malaise that struts Nigeria like second skin at present.

But for long, football has offered a ready escape from the human tragedy Nigerians have been made to experience especially in recent times. It has served a temporary unitive balm to the festering calamity of nationhood exacerbated by a suicidal proclivity that has seized Nigeria and Nigerians in its riotous wake. It has become opium that serves as an escape route from the dungeon Nigeria has been turned into by bestial leaders in recent years. This explains why so much energy is expended on how and why our under-achieving national team plays in every competition. It explains why every street corner and public space is infested with stormy discussions about which Nigerian player is doing well and which is doing badly in team and national colours. From its recreational role, football has intruded into the national psyche and displaced more serious issues as the first item on the Nigerian menu. Nigerians are not about trading this role reversal because politics and economy of the Nigerian genre offers no ready alternative to the captivating; some insist diversionary, role football plays in Nigeria.

This is why the following has widened and the interests extended far beyond the primary catchment areas. When Nigeria plays, it is like a national holiday and all manners of pundits stake all to wager on what this team will do or not do. But most times, our flattering rating had come unstuck and we had walked away with broken hearts. Some have adjusted however and are unperturbed about what results this continually underperforming team churns out. As the days go by, more and more Nigerians are detaching themselves from their national team on the reasoning that it has only heart ache to give its ardent supporters. The sad epic of the Super Eagles (yea, we are in love with flattering pseudonyms) is a reflection of the shambolic state of Nigeria and one can comfortably say that the rickety Eagles is Nigeria in its miniature sense.

But then, like everything in Nigeria, our football is in fast decline. Even as we hide it or refuse to admit it, there is no escaping the fact that we are losing our status as a first generation African football nation. The same decrementing mediocrity which ensured that our country is being gradually reduced to rubbles is fast eroding our football to nothing. The negative ennui of planlessness, corruption, lack of focus, cashing unearned capital, cheating, scamming etc have caught up with our football and we are all living to rue this. Our football thrashes so lifelessly on the threshold of complete ruins and it follows the death wish of other superstructures in Nigeria. It is on an irreversible journey to Golgotha and there is no redemptive impetus in view.

However, most Nigerians rightly quarrel with this creeping fanatical attachment to football. They insist that football is a form of recreation that ought not to be elevated to the real issue. They contend that Nigeria has serious socio-political and economic problems to snatch up their waking time and football should not be employed as distractive opium to sway attention from the calamitous rots that threaten to sweep Nigeria down the ocean. To this school of thought, football has been employed successfully by our so-called leaders, since the era of Ibrahim Babangida to divert attention from the maladministration they have unleashed on the Nigerian state. They wonder why citizens of a right thinking nation should deploy their full energy to football when they have no light, no water, no healthcare, no security, no employment and when they are bedeviled by horrible leaders, harsh life, excruciating poverty, extreme corruption, nepotism, greed, avarice, etc. They would rather Nigerians treat football like the pastime it is and address serious problems of nationhood. They are right but then, it is difficult to talk about the dire straits of Nigerian football outside the wobbly and decaying statehood of Nigeria. Both endure and worsen by the day and accounts for why Nigeria is on a progressive descent.

We do not have a good team at the world cup. We knew this yet we freely mouthed the desire to win the world cup! We do not have quality players who are on top of their game yet we believed the world is ours to conquer! We lacked the needed quality preparation for this competition yet we believed that the miracle working God is there to see us to the diadem! We lacked the will, the power and the conviction yet we trusted on our ancestors to ensure better prepared teams were manacled for us to walk away with the trophy. We do not do our homework yet we set high falutin and flattering targets that better prepared teams and people are reticent to set for themselves. Our attitude bespeaks the get-rich-quick syndrome we had been mocked with. We live a life of self-fulfilled tragedy. We excel on building hope on nothing; erecting castles in the air and hoping to take advantage of those who have done their homework.

All these were in full display at this world cup and it follows a rudderless pattern that has been elevated to a nation ethos. We were all guilty in this serial anomie. Our leaders did nothing to develop our football yet with the approach of every competition, dizzying targets are set and stunning promises made to the players as if they control the destiny and expertise of their opponents. Our press is guilty in not adopting the same critical modem other nations employ to bring out the best in their players. The Nigerian press is always aiming to give rev attention to one of our tired legs that notches the usual one-a-season goal for one underwater club in Europe and flattering our clay footed Eagles whenever they put up any of their shoddy outings. Nigerians are guilty because they are not modest in analyzing our opponents in any competition. We always win before we know who our opponents are and in this state, nothing as to the record of such country matter. That was how we already won Brazil before meeting Denmark in the second round of the 1998 world cup-an apt mockery of our permutations of how we were going to trash Brazil in the quarter final of that competition when we were yet to scale through Denmark in the second round of that competition. For a country that knows the results of elections weeks before the votes are cast, this is in tune with our national life but as has been proved in football, this does not work against other countries and is a sure route to national perdition.

Even as I had my doubts permanently engraved about the Eagles, given the run of heart-wrenching performances they put up en route qualifications to the world cup and during the African Cup of Nations, I became more apprehensive when they sat back through their opening match, in obvious fear of Argentina and was praying that the match end with just one goal advantage to their opponents. God heard their prayers through Enyeama and we nearly declared a public holiday that ‘Argentina beat us by just one goal!’ Mediocrity has no better name and there and then, I knew it was over for the country. We gleefully talked of how we would pick off the remaining points effortlessly from both Greece and South Korea and in doing this noisome calculation, we didn’t care to know the current form of both countries. But my God, this is an Eagles of glorified ball boys who snaked through qualification among A

frican minnows more through the mistakes and efforts of other teams than its own proven strength.

Honestly, I don’t see any hope for the Eagles in their next match against South Korea because I have watched both teams and South Korea is better. Even as football is no mathematics, I am tempted, like that Nigerian, who after watching Nigeria and Argentina swore that if Nigeria ever makes it through the group stage, he would hang himself, to say that I am almost certain that the best result Nigeria can get from that match is a draw. Early rustication awaits Nigeria from the first ever world cup on African soil. It is scary, as it is a poignant statement that captures the rickety state of Nigerian football, nay Nigerian state. Already the usual blame game, which was not there before the kick off of the second match has started and nothing is spared. You can be assured Nigeria in the next couple of weeks will become one huge, chaotic talk shop and the blames will be flying left, right and center. But you can be sure that we would be talking of every other thing except the real problems afflicting our football and the larger Nigerian state. That way, these problems will certainly mutate to giant irritants and continue to hunt us all; football and everything for more years to come.

So let us come home and holistically start addressing our mounting national problems. Let us face the real questions of statehood and ensure a sincere commitment to tackling our hefty national problems. When that is done, football will be on the ascent again but till that is done, let us be content with such floppy display as our football team is putting in the present world cup. It speaks of an untamed national malaise that is eating fast and deep into the sinews of the troubled Nigerian nation.

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