Up Pillars!

The news didn’t come as a surprise to me, for I had expected the barbarity of man to rear its head once again, in that encounter. A week ago, as I sat watching the CAF Champions League Semi-final first leg match between Heartland of Owerri, Imo State and Kano Pillars of Kano, I literally told those around me that ‘there will be blood’ in Kano come the return leg in the Pyramid City. Heartland was of course, leading by four goals at the time, rendering the return leg a little more than mere formality. The calculation was simple: Pillars were not going to beat Heartland by up to four goals, if they managed to beat them at all.

And having witnessed many a less-important match end in wanton fan violence in Kano over the years, I needn’t necessarily be a Nostradamus to predict what would naturally follow during the match and after the final whistle in Kano. And so I was proved spot on as the Pillars fans did not only attack the Heartland fans in the stadium but also pelted the Imo State governor, Ikedi Ohakim and his Kano State counterpart, Ibrahim Shekarau with all sorts of objects. As if that were not enough, the fans also allegedly took the governors hostage for about 15 minutes after the match while more about an hour after the final whistle, some of the heartland supporters were still caged in at the Sani Abacha Stadium as irate Pillars fans bayed for their blood. And you are right to ask, all because of an ordinary football match?

It is a shame anyway that the Pillars fans reacted the way they did. Here was a team that had handed mighty Al-Ahly of Egypt a most humiliating exit from this year’s competition. Yes, Pillars it was that I glowingly wrote about after they did the seemingly impossible by holding African club football mega powers to a 2-2 draw in Egypt, a result that led to the exit of the six-time CAF Champions League champions from this year’s competition. At the hands of African club football debutants and total unknowns like Pillars, might I add.

Many followers of the African game had expected Egyptian fans to intimidate the Nigerians before, during and even after that duel, but suffice to say that even if they did, it must have been rather insignificant compared to what happened in Kano over the weekend. Shall we, therefore, say in as diplomatic terms as possible, that Pillars fans are sour losers? Of course, yes. If none of the teams they played away at and picked points from thought it appropriate to resort to riotous tendency against them during their fairytale journey to the semis of this year’s competition, the Pillars fans should have just savoured this experience and look forward to similar experiences in future, rather than giving CAF and football followers a dark label to put on their darling Pillars.

To think that this was coming at a time when I was starting to half-concede my memories of after-match scenes in Kano to the stuff of history. The history of the days when we needed to brace ourselves for doses of teargas, bruises here and there, missing personal effects, burnt cars, second degree injuries and even the occasional death, all from violence of mini ethno-religious colouration. I remember those days of the irresistible 3SC Shooting stars of Ibadan, the tenacious Bendel Insurance of Edo, the swashbuckling Iwauyanwu Nationale (now Heartland), the irrepressible Enugu Rangers, all teams whose performances against Pillars in Kano year-in-year-out sparked riotous scenes amongst supporters. Scenes to which I lost countless pairs of flip-flops, sniffed from dozens of teargas canisters, sustained numerous cuts and bruises as I was caught in the crossfire between opposing fans and the mediating team of teargas-hauling policemen. These were the sorts of riots to which I most fondly lost a part of my pair of Dan Medina (made in Medina) flip flops just three days after buying the pair for which I had saved up money for weeks. Dan Medina had been the in-thing back then. It was the most durable type of bathroom slippers known around Kano and its status as having (supposedly) been made in Medina, Saudi Arabia, added to its prestige and legend. If you didn’t own a pair back then, you hadn’t quite simply worn a pair of flip flop – it was a status symbol of sorts. And I lost a part of my pair after a riot broke out between fans of Iwanyanwu and Pillars in the aftermath of a dramatic Nationale victory in Kano.

Such times were reenacted at the weekend. Times when several hours after a football match, it was still considered suicidal for a lot of us to cross from Sabon Gari to Brigade Quarters. It was such times when for hours after a match you were holed up inside the main bowl of the Kano Township Stadium until policemen, at their own risk, too, managed to smuggle you out later in the night. Those were the times when even as a reasonably neutral fan you were forced to chant ‘Up Pillars!’ to save your neck. After any of the afore-mentioned teams had dished out the usual dose of agony to Pillars, and you happened to be caught in a mob of irate Pillars fans, you had one of two choices – remain steadfast, even in your neutrality and receive the beating of your life or manically shout ‘Up Pillars!’, before gloating Pillars fans. And in those circumstances, ‘Up Pillars’ was a small price to pay in exchange for a sojourn to the orthopedic centre. It was back to those Up Pillars days again last Saturday, shamefully so, for a team Nigerians had up until then been very proud of.

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