For most football enthusiasts in Nigeria, the month of May brings with it some sort of ‘summer blues’. May is the month of the year when the curtains traditionally fall for the season on most football leagues across Europe as European club football goes on summer break for the next three months or so. And this is the time of the year many Nigerians fervently hope (in vain) should never come as it also marks the end of the football season in England.
It is no secret that the football is the only factor nay event that consistently unifies Nigerians, especially with matches involving any of the country’s national teams. With European league football, especially the Barclays Premier League, Nigerians are today being unified and divided by the game at the same time. Unified because of their mutual attraction to the Premier League for reasons ranging from commercial to club support. But they are divided by their passionate support for different clubs in the league.
The introduction to Nigeria of DSTV, a South African pay TV broadcast company that screens matches of the Premier League live, brought a new dimension to football following in Nigeria. With the acquisition of the English league’s broadcast rights for the Nigerian territory by HITV, a Nigerian pay TV company, the Premiership, as the English league is popularly called, has become an even bigger business to Nigerians as the availability of DSTV and HITV has afforded many people the opportunity to open viewing centres across the country by purchasing and installing satellite TV decoders in places where football enthusiasts could converge to pay a fee to watch matches. Consequently, almost every Premier League club with an African player in its ranks or which consistently challenges for honours domestically and on the continent now enjoys some measure of support from Nigerians. And this trend has translated into big business for the proprietors of viewing centres as fans troop in, in their hundreds to pay between N30 and N50 to watch Premiership matches.
Today, the Premiership has grown into more than just a football league; it is a global phenomenon, a movement and arguably the most sellable brand of football leagues in the world. And Nigerians are faithful patrons of this brand. Like in most other parts of the world, support for Premiership clubs in Nigeria borders on the religious and fanatical. Apart from paying to watch the matches, fans have been known to win or lose large amount of money in betting during matches. Fisticuffs and mass brawls are also a common occurrence at such fora, especially with matches involving some of the big clubs like Arsenal, Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool. Car owners adorn their cars with stickers and other paraphernalia of their favourite Premiership clubs while most fans don fashion accessories with the names and symbols of the English clubs they support. This has created another window of employment for those who sell the neck chains, wristbands, shirts and baseball caps spotting the identities of these clubs.
In a landmark incident of emotion taken too far in Lagos sometime in 2007, a young man named Anjorin Dokiki had to be rescued from death’s jaws by a team of surgeons as his support for Arsenal FC threatened to end his young life. One of his friends had stabbed the young man in the head whilst they were watching an English FA Cup match between Arsenal and Bolton Wonderers. The customary argument that characterizes the experience of watching such matches in a viewing centre had ensued between the two friends, and as they say, one thing led to another and Anjorin ended up on the surgeon’s table with a knife buried in his temple. Such is the emotive nature of the attachment of Nigerians to clubs in the English football topflight. Yet Anjorin’s is just one in numerous such cases, although not always fatal or near fatal.
But how did the English version of a game which has never lacked in true global standing and charm become this enchanting to the extent of evoking extreme emotion from Nigerians? How come the English league easily eclipses others such as the Spanish Primera Liga, the German Bundesliga, the Italian Serie A, amongst others? Just how the hell come the Premiership is so popular that the UEFA president, Michel Platini and Sepp Blatter, the FIFA president are having sleepless nights over its continued acceptance worldwide as though the English league were some Genghis Khan-led Mongols threatening to overrun the rest of the world? The answer may be found in the power of science and technology as represented by the advent of pay satellite television, which has made it possible to relay matches of the English league live to the four corners of the world. But so also the Spanish league one might rightly argue.
That makes television only a part of the answer then. The global commercial and emotional appeal of the Premier League has as much, if not more, to do with the English attitude or mentality, particularly from the media angle. The English adore their own, whatever it may be. They promote and worship it and strive to plant it in the consciousness of everyone. The English royal family is today arguably the most visible and royal of royal families though much more ceremonial in comparison to many others around the globe. And much of that appeal is down to English pride and hype. Again, place Nigeria’s Kanu Nwankwo’s football brain and feet side by side David Beckham’s and you may begin to understand that the English zeal and propensity to hype about their own rather than superior football skills is the reason Papilo cannot match the idol, brand and religion Becks is today.
In one of its promos, Supersport, the South African satellite television channel, once described the Premiership as “the most watched drama series on TV”. How else do you describe the most incident-packed football league in the world? The phenomenon called Barclays Premier League boasts of such football coaches as the deliberate, refined and astute and annoyingly oft stubborn Arsene Wenger; the wily old Sir Alex Ferguson (knighted by the Queen of England for his contribution to English soccer); and Sam Allardyce, an English man famed for his ability to turn the cemetery-bound careers of seemingly spent footballers into a rugged and efficient football machine. There is also Harry Redknapp a football manager who is as famed for his tactical nous as he is for his penchant fro jumping the managerial ship when least expected. And lest we forget, there has also been a certain brash, arrogant but tactical genius called Jose Morinho as part of the league’s managerial role call and now also there is the Dutchman, Guus Hiddink who, from Australia to Russia and from South Korea to PSV Heindoven in Holland and now to Chelsea FC, has continuously proven that all he requires to weave his magic is to be put in charge of any rag-tag army so long as that army is an army of footballers.
The league has, over the years, featured such flawed football geniuses as Eric Cantona, Paul Gascoigne and Paulo Dicanio. Add to that the fact that it features some of the best players from the four corners of the world, and the perpetual hype and scandals around players, coaches, referees and all, all practically in the front of the cameras, then you will understand why the league can rival Prison Break in terms of the suspense and intrigue of drama.
The part played by the exploits of the likes of Daniel Amokachi, Kanu Nwankwo, Anthony Yeboah and Austin Okocha at one time or the other, for their respective premiership clubs, is also a key factor in the league’s appeal to Nigerians. But if these players attracted Nigerian fans to the Premiership, the fans’ interest has been sustained by the fact that the Premiership, with its all-over-the-world import in players, serves up argu
ably the most beautiful brand of the beautiful game.
Then again, you can add to the list the fact that the Premiership, despite its perpetual scandals, is arguably one of the best-run leagues in the world with its football played on some of the best-tended football pitches in Europe – and that also means the world. When you add the number of African and, in particular, Nigerian football players currently plying their trade with different Premier League clubs to the equation, you might begin to appreciate the fervour Nigerians attach to the Barclays Premier League.
And this is why, as from August this year once again, although our darling Heartland FC of Owerri and Kano Pillars, conquerors of almighty Al-Ahly of Egypt would both be slugging it out with the rest of Africa in the MTN CAF (African) Champions League, the Premier League will once again attract the most airtime and commentary on both radio and TV as well as newspaper and magazine space across the country. Even though the football season in Nigeria and elsewhere in Europe will also be in full swing then, the mantra for Nigerian football enthusiasts will be “Gunners for Life!”, “You’ll Never Walk Alone!”, “Up Blues!”, “Up United!”.