Sometimes early this year while we were still in the United States, my family was having the morning devotion and the topic was idol. The writer of the passage in the devotional manual being used had identified several subtle ‘Idols’ that we worship, things we consider very important in our everyday living. In trying to amplify this for my children, I said, ‘Idol could be something that takes so much of our attention, like watching too much of Cartoon Network’. Hardly had I finished before my 11 year old daughter interjected: ‘And idol could also be football, like Arsenal’.
I was reminded of that episode last Sunday when, following Arsenal’s dismal performance in their first match of the 2011/2012 English premiership season against Newcastle, I simply went to bed without dinner. By the time I woke up the next morning, someone (whose name I refuse to mention) was chanting very loudly by my side, invoking Holy Ghost fire to bind and cast out the ‘demons of Arsenal’ from this innocent reporter. But while I plead guilty for my obsession with football and particularly the attention I devote to watching the English premiership and the (mis)fortunes of Arsenal, I take comfort in the fact that, like the Liverpool Football Club supporter (which I am not), I am definitely not walking alone.
To say that Nigerians love football is trite but the craze for English premiership and the Spanish La Liga has become the new opium in town. It is almost as if our lives revolve around Lionel Messi, Didier Drogba, Christano Ronaldo et al now as football becomes our way of escape from reality. We can skip food or meetings and we shirk a lot of our responsibility. For this, the South African company, Multichoice (generally known as DSTV) is doing the killing with their outrageous subscription fees just because they know we will find the money if only to watch their football channels.
The madness is everywhere. A retired Chief Justice of the Federation told me of a meeting he once held with a senior government official who looked visibly disturbed and evidently distracted throughout the session. After the meeting, he said he had to call the young man aside to ask what was disturbing him so. ‘After much prodding, the guy said Manchester United which he called his team, had just lost an important match. I felt like slapping him.’
I don’t want readers to think I am on a flight of fancy today. I believe we have a compelling reason to put method in our madness given our challenge as a nation which must put its people to work, especially with a growing idle population of young people. Last year, there was a report on Nigeria which was sponsored by the British Council and coordinated by David Bloom, Harvard Professor of Economics and Demography on the diversity of our population. Titled “Nigeria-The Next Generation” the report states that by 2030, Nigeria will be one of the few countries in the world with an abundance of young people in which case youth, not oil, will be the country’s most valuable resource.
The same report, however, warned that ‘if Nigeria fails to collect its demographic dividend, the seriousness of the country’s predicament should not be underestimated. Its prospects will be bleak and could be catastrophic. In the worst case, Nigeria will see: growing numbers of restless young people frustrated by lack of opportunity; increased competition for jobs, land, natural resources, and political patronage; cities that are increasingly unable to cope with the pressures placed on them; ethnic and religious conflict and radicalisation; and a political system discredited by its failure to improve lives.’
The research, on which several academics and Nigerian professionals at home and in the Diaspora collaborated, argues that right now, Nigeria is poorly positioned to maximise the economic opportunities created by its demographics yet if this potential is not harnessed, “it will become an increasingly disruptive force”. The signs of this malaise are already all-too-evident on the streets of our major cities and I believe all of us can make our contribution towards addressing this challenge.
In a recent discussion with the Youth Minister, Mr Bolaji Abdullahi, he told me of his multi-sectoral approach to the issue of youth development. He intends to work with other ministers and heads of departments and football is one of the key issues he has identified. The more I listened to Bolaji the more I appreciate the fact that he comes to his office fully prepared to meet the challenges and he has already identified the path he will chart. But I worry about whether his ideas will not be stifled by turf politics because for him to be effective, he has to navigate virtually all the sectors, from education to sports to agriculture.
Abdullahi says his preoccupation is tackling unemployment and has identified acquisition of skills in different fields of enterprise; job placements and access to credit for self-empowerment as some of the areas on which he will focus immediate attention but what interests me, at least for this piece, is the role he believes football can play as a catalyst for development. As he has rightly identified, there are several countries that have embraced football not only as sports but rather as a social policy to take children off the street. I am almost certain that if we can get the Boko Haram adherents in one room and interview them, most of them would describe themselves as either ‘Blues for life’ or ‘Red Devils’. That is why we have to provide the support network for the vulnerable children from low-income families without access to the kind of high quality education we give our own children (at very high cost) so we at least can divert their energy away from crimes and other anti-social behaviour.
I hope we can see that there is even an element of self-interest in this form of investment which should be of interest to Corporate Nigeria even though government will have to provide the direction. This is where Abdullahi comes in and he needs the support of all of us as he sells his ideas to different stakeholders. For instance, I see no reason why MTN cannot invest in Football and I believe even Globacom, which has played critical roles in the sector, can do more. Let’s have Mike Adenuga Babes. An Aliko Dangote football club in Obajana will also not be a bad idea. Some of our big banks can also use football for their PR. We surely need investment in this area where there is already an abundance of talents as we saw at the current Under-20 World Cup tournament in Colombia where our boys gave a good account of themselves before losing narrowly to France in the quarterfinals.
The point being illustrated here is that we are a football-loving nation but like other aspects of our national life, this is something we are yet to harness for our development, especially given that the game is not only big business, it is something that can be exploited for job creation. Yet it has not always been like this. As an undergraduate in the eighties, I was a fan of John Masteroudes’ Leventis United Football Club which played one of the most attractive football this country has ever witnessed. Masteroudes has never stopped investing his time and money in the development of the game in his adopted country, Nigeria but questions must be asked as to why his Leventis United dream died. We also need to know what happened to Patrick Osakwe’s Flash Flamingoes of Benin, one of the formidable football clubs of the era? Despite the efforts of Gloria Adebajo-Frassier to sustain the legacy of her father, Israel Adebajo, how come the Stationery Stores Football Club is no longer ‘flaming’? Where is Iwuanyanwu Nationale Football Club of Owerri that gave us the likes of Etim Esin? Where is Raccah Rovers of Kano?
Back then, we all trooped to the stadium to watch good football and we had our own stars. Segun Odegbami, Baba Otu Mohammed, Adokie Amaesimeka, Humphrey Nwosu, Patrick Ekeji, Peter Rufai (Dodo Mayana) et al. If Rangers were coming to Lagos, the city would be at a standstill. Their supporters in Lagos, mostly Igbos, would be singing ‘Nzogbu Nzogbu, enyin ba enyin…Nzogbu, enyin ba enyin’. You would see different costumes and masquerades. There were songs. There were dances. There was fun. These are moments we must recreate as we try to take our nation back to ‘the good old days’.
• This piece was first published in THISDAY on 18th August, 2011