We played football on the roads near the college’s sports centre. Two remnants from broken cement blocks placed ten paces of my foot apart formed the goal posts. They occupied the spots that the upright of a goal post would have been, assuming the tarmac road was to be a soccer pitch. Giggling, panting, focusing, kicking and aiming we chased around the round rubber which we fondly called flying carpet. We had no choice but to use the roads as our elder ones played their soccer games on the pitch nearby.
Nicknaming ourselves, we took names of stars we either met in person or admired and this made us feel on top of the world. Hence, we screamed as we ran around the portion of the road serving as a soccer pitch calling out our adopted names-Pele, Etim Esin, Goalkeeper Chukwuma, Shumaker, Maradona, Ruggeri, Chairman Christian Chukwu, Sam Okwaraji and other identities of reigning football stars or legends. Names of soccer stars rented the air. The two opposing sides in the games were distinguished by those who wore shirts and those who wore none.
We abruptly stopped the soccer game when there was an oncoming car or motorcycle. If someone we liked was in the car, we saluted and cheered him or her, if it were someone we disliked we simply frowned our faces or booed. Those who never allowed their kids to join us in a game, or those we considered stingy or strict never got our salutation. This added to the excitement as we played football with all our hearts on the road.
I could remember the day I sat on the gutter, close to a major road where boys often played soccer in the evening with a school mate in the Unity school we attended. We talked about soccer stars and the big club sides and he clearly stated his desire for a big break, he said, “Okey, I dream of the day that I will play in the World cup, I love the quality of football there…I tell you, I will play in the World Cup one day”. He shook his head as he made that comment and I could see the burning passion in his eyes. Something in me believed him as I could recollect how he shined in soccer even in our Primary school days.
I almost shed tears with joy when I saw the same schoolmate of mine, Bartholomew Ogbeche, in the starting line up of the Super Eagles in the Japan-Korea 2002 FIFA World cup game against Argentina. In a flash, I remembered that fateful afternoon. I saw a dream born, I saw a dream lived. Bartho, as we fondly call him may not be in the Super Eagles line up at the moment but he will always be a motivation. With such a zeal that catapulted him to stardom, I do not doubt his ability to bounce back to the highest echelon of soccer in the nearest future.
Kids with potential soccer prowess are all around our neighbourhoods. From the roads or bare grounds beside households, they graduate to school soccer fields, from where they head to local sports stadia where scouts discover them. A blend of talent, luck, and the ability of their personal managers often determine how far they go. Some get the necessary encouragement from their parents while others can only live their dream to be professional players by disobeying their parents who have other dreams for them and follow up their passion for soccer.
Their ages and backgrounds might differ but they speak the same language with their running and shooting feet on the pitch. They display their skills and knowledge of the game in age grade tournaments, school sports competitions, neighbourhood games and charities. The Ajegunle Mock Nations Cup, Coal Camp Cup and similar initiatives in other cities form breeding grounds for club scouts. The likes of Jay Jay Okocha and Kanu Nwankwo played on the streets, no doubt. Even as new trends emerge while technology and techniques advances, the search and enrolment of youngsters into soccer academies has surprisingly not been a daunting task. Despite the quest for formal education, little boys still see these academies a veritable means for their own education.
Football played on roads often serves as a one of the starting points of the nurture of the talent of footballing. However, as the journey to soccer stardom gets nearer, the make shift soccer pitch situated on roads is abandoned for the field.
The power of the youthfulness yields enormous results when tapped. It is a period in a person’s life of which there is over zealousness and great quest. This forcefulness in the youthful age has paid great dividends for Nigeria in the game of soccer. The first time Nigeria had its name written in Gold on the world stage in the game of football was in China ’85 FIFA Kodak Under 16 World Youth tournament. The image of Nduka Ugbade lifting the world trophy formed part of many advertisements. Apart from Nduka Ugbade, enterprising footballers like Johnathan Akpoborire, Victor Igbinoba, Baldwin Bazuaye, Atere, Momoh became household names.
As the years went by, the FIFA cadet tournament which is now christened a FIFA Under 17 world cup has produced Nigerian stars like, Philip Osondu, Christopher Nwosu, Oladimeji Lawal, Lemmy Isa, Benedict Akwuegbu, Godwin Okpara, and Victor Ikpeba. The 1993 victorious squad produced the likes of Nwankwo Kanu, Wilson Oruma and Celestine Babayaro who still play football. Over the years strars like John Obiora, Henry Onwuzurike, Late Igeniwari George, Opabumi and Victor Brown emmerged. The not too far ago success of the Late Yemi Tella tutored team in South Korea 2007 tournament easily comes to mind where players like Chriantus Macauly, Rabiu Ibrahim and Haruna Lukman shone like stars.
Football is a language spoken by Nigerians. When officials in one of the centres bidding to host the Nigeria 2009 Under 17 FIFA World Cup, showed newly constructed roads to the FIFA inspection team who came to access the readiness of Nigeria to host the next cadet tournament. Emmanuel Maradas, a member of the delegation and a media consultant to FIFA replied in astonishment “Football is not played on roads”. This is a true fact as what the inspection team needed was to be shown the specifics and what was most important.
The level of degradation that has taken place in most of our once ultra modern sports centres is nothing to write home about. The lack of standard soccer pitch and the enabling infrastructure can be a major hindrance to a youngster who has all it takes to excel in the round leather game denying him the necessary exposure and modern techniques. What a loss for our youths!
Though literally, football may not be played on roads. However, our burning zeal, lack of basic infrastructure and quest for adventure led some of us to play it on roads. Even up till this day, youngsters still play football on roads or roadsides. These roads have born and nurtured dreams. The great footballers we know did not achieve their success overnight, they started playing the game on the road and this led the way to their stardom.
Many kids are dreaming, some others are just at the verge of bringing to pass their highest dreams while some will be made to dream as the football World Cup for the youngest age grade is hosted in Nigeria. It will be our collective responsibility to write our name in the sands of times through a successful hosting and winning of the event. It is time to leave the politics of bigotry and set things straight. This will not just benefit the country in terms of image but help to build careers of many Nigerian youngsters participating or not participating in Nigeria 2009 FIFA Under 17 World Cup.