Nigerians are in a celebratory mood after our boys came back with a vengeance on June 22, 2018 to defeat Iceland in the group stage of the FIFA 2018 World Cup in Russia. After some Nigerians defected to Senegal, which registered the first African success in the ongoing competition and many even swore by Senegalese rice, allegiances were restored and the balance of power in African football favored Nigeria again with Ahmed Musa’s delectable second half goals. Indeed, our hero’s brace are two of the best goals I have witnessed so far in this tournament. On a serious note many of us were peeved that our united felicity was soured by the specter of tribalism. We have all been excited about the Nigerian’s fabulous brace at the world cup, which gave us a resounding victory over the pretty Icelanders in royal blue and reignited our world cup hopes for soccer glory. Some people in a rather untimely fashion chose to implicate our hero’s tribal identity, which is anathema in Nigerian soccer.
Football which has unequivocally always united Nigerians is one sector in which federal character or quota is never raised. No Nigerian deliberates over the ethnic makeup or expresses a desire for diversity in our national soccer teams. Until a friend’s reckless post yesterday, I, like most Nigerians, had never been affected or been influenced by the tribe of our players. We can have all Igbos, all Hausas, or all Kanuri boys, we don’t care: they are our boys. And accordingly, they have perennially commanded respect in every corner of Nigerian territory.
However, perhaps my friend like some of these “malo” boys on my Facebook raising the point that our hero is Hausa-Fulani, are just happy or even nostalgic to see a malo boy shine in a sport that unites all Nigerians, and which we hold so dear. Hausa-Fulani has been implicated infamously for a notorious trend that are appearing to become a pastime in Nigeria – herdsmen killings. The best form of defense they say, is attack. An attack, that was what was inadvertently unleashed on Nigerian football and our collective love for the game, by raising number 7’s ethnicity yesterday. Of course, it was not the intention of my friend.
Now that is behind us, an incongruity lingers that I am disturbingly aware of: the paucity of Hausa-Fulanis in not just our national football team but in every other area of Nigerian and international sports. I am not playing tribalism here, but please indulge my curiosity for a moment and I will explain.
Nigerians all over the world are known for producing great athletes in a variety of fields: The Yoruba man, Anthony Joshua, is world boxing heavyweight champion. The Igbo man, John Mikel Obi, has won every conceivable championship in Europe (except the world cup) which his former club, Chelsea was eligible for. These are just a few examples, but where are the Hausa-Fulanis? For someone like me who observed the virtually unrivaled abilities of AREWA folks – actually Hausa-Fulanis – in sports in my secondary school, King’s College, it is confounding. Hausa-Fulanis unquestionably dominated sports in my secondary school. My King’s College class has produced an Olympian – the Igbo man, Che Chukwumerije and his family of world class athletes have represented Nigeria at the Olympics and internationally.
But there was something starkly evident about our “malo boys”: they were the best athletes. Even the bad ones among them were better than the rest of us. I never met a Hausa-Fulani (Malo is not considered derogatory in Nigeria) boy who was not good in soccer. Typically, in school, the “butter” or sheltered boys were often not good in sports. But not the malo boys. Even the party ones like Nuhu Kwajafa, “Ballzo” Sadiq Bello could “tan” soccer. The fastest 100 meters sprinter for a long time (and he held the record I believe) was Abdulkadir. I still recall Mumuni in 200 meters. Then there was Nasiru and his brother Sofiano who dominated long distance. Even the “slightly” overweight” ones like Ibrahim Yaro played soccer for his house. Salihu Mohammed, now a married civil servant played. Moha (Mohammed Aliu) in form one was a goalie. Prefect Gawe, who was school captain was also captain of the school soccer team. He was also a sprinter who won in his category.
They were the quintessential natural athletes (if athleticism can be permissively deemed natural). Even our very own “formerly skinny” Colonel Umar Aminu of the Nigerian Armed Forces was a gifted soccer player despite his slight frame at the time. Because I studied history, I know of traditional Hausa boxing. Athletics is a part of Hausa-Fulani traditions and culture. Arguably, this is one reason why they appear to be natural athletes while they are teenagers. So, what happens that causes their unquestionable natural athletic prowess to taper off as adults? Perhaps this is a question we should consider seriously as we start to brainstorm about nation-building. I hazard a guess: while something in the culture made our malo boys indisputably the most athletic among us as teenagers, something in that same culture of northern Nigeria has impeded their development and ability to blossom and show the world their prowess as athletes and make a living from it. I have not investigated this. I have many malo friends. Perhaps they will enlighten me, if they are not offended by my boldness. The Hausa-Fulani teens were not just decent athletes – they were outstanding athletes, and just like it has become cliché that Igbos are businessmen, Hausa-Fulani teenagers were unbeatable in sports. What happens in adulthood that makes them fade into athletic oblivion?
If you think Kenyans are unbeatable in marathons, wait till we solve this riddle and see what Hausa-Fulanis from northern Nigeria will do with it once they start to participate wholesale in professional sports.