In Nigeria, football is magic.

It is the one thing that binds all ethnicities together, regardless of gender, regardless of social status, regardless of religion.

You can’t deny if your favorite team wins a football match, there’s a certain bounce in your steps, you walk taller, you are more confident and generally happier. The same cannot be said if your favorite team lost. More often than not, this favorite team is not the Nigerian national team. Folks treat them the same way they treat the federal government. Zero faith. To the point where an Olamide song is even quoted as saying “…all these rappers, be like super eagles, dey no dey reach final.”

Once in a while, however, the national team manages to surprise everyone.

This is exactly what happened on Saturday, July the 6th, during the ongoing African Cup of Nations. The match between Nigeria and Cameroon was the battle of two age-long rivals with both teams boasting a chest full of medals and several of their respective stars plying their trades in the top tier football leagues of England and France.

The match began with Nigeria scoring the first goal through Odion Ighalo. But it wasn’t convincing enough and of course, Nigerians knew better than to hold their breaths. So it didn’t come as a surprise when Cameroon suddenly came back to reply with a goal of their own. And then with another, to take the lead. On social media, posts and tweets about the “Super chickens” were beginning to circulate. Disgruntled fans were beginning to blame the coach Gernot Rohr for his poor tactics.

What happened next was something out of a fairy tale. Odion Ighalo scored again. And then, Alex Iwobi one of the most promising stars in this new set of Eagles, scored to make it 3-2. It was an absolute turn around.

It didn’t take long before the Social media tacticians and vuvuzelas began to change tune. Suddenly the national team was no longer a bunch of overrated buffoons, suddenly accolades were flowing, suddenly the angry memes stopped to be quickly replaced by high praise.

Also, suddenly… Fans started praying that South Africa beat the hosts Egypt, so that we could play an easier opponent.

Now there are three points to consider looking holistically at the whole match.

First of all, the average Nigerian is a fickle friend when it comes to observing proceedings that are not going in his favour. He blames everything and everyone in sight. Does not present constructive criticism, offers no realistic solutions and champions no blueprints on how to make things better. Ironically, when things do seem to begin to get better, all the previous angst is forgotten. All of a sudden everything previously, apparently wrong with the system, is OK. We are easily lost in savouring the victory. All of a sudden, the end justifies the means.

The next thing that jumps out to the probing mind is how Nigerians think of prayers as a panacea. A cure-all for every misfortune. In the days when we would struggle against certain teams, one would find football pundits and fans alike praying on national TV that these teams lost to other teams, so that we could get ahead on points. We pray for everything in Nigeria. We pray for good governance, we pray when ASUU strikes, we pray for the church and their many philandering pastors… and now that we have qualified for the quarterfinals, prayers are intensifying. This time, however, the prayers seem to be bordering on the absurd (which is a paradox) because, then again isn’t it absurd praying for something you could very easily change, yourself. And now, praying to the “god of soccer”? Like the other teams don’t also know how to pray.

Egypt the host nation, had been the most feared team in the tournament. Up until yesterday, that is. The bafana bafana of South Africa whom they had faced, had beaten them 1-0. This was exactly what Nigerians had prayed for, because in the minds of the general public, the Pharaohs of Egypt were tougher opponents. But how does one honestly think a team that beat the team one fears would be easy meat? Their logic makes one wonder if they have been watching the same matches we all have been watching. South Africa is no push over. But maybe if they prayed hard enough, they could win, no?

The final, most interesting thing about the match on Saturday, was the seemingly joyous calm that permeated the streets after the matches. In Lagos, where I live, all was well with the world. The federal government could have decided to further its RUGA plans and no one would have batted an eye. Karl Marx’s celebrated dictum, “religion is the opium of the people”, probably needs an extension– football. Football too, is the opium of our people. Perhaps I am being a tad too analytical, when I say sometimes the way Nigerians react to their favourite teams winning or losing is based on a deeper psychological thing. The feeling that you can’t be loosing at the premier league or nations cup and still be losing in real life to a bad government or a terrible boss at work. The need to escape reality and live off the show of strength by a team of 11 athletes, is a big deal. In the end, even I cannot judge them for that.

To round off this article, let me say this. While I was typing, NEPA– Ikeja electricity company defies prosody, doesn’t it?– took power and I was left in the dark, with my laptop screen emmiting the only source of light.

I had not been fooled, not even once, by the steady power supply my area had been enjoying. There had been power for 72 hours straight and people were naturally, quite suspicious. For once, after a very long time, water kept in the freezer was turning into ice block, people could resist the urge to compulsively charge their phones, iron their clothes every opportunity they got, and just chill till whenever, because there was a semblance of constant power supply.

After the match, when NEPA finally struck, there was a loud explosion from the general direction of the transformer. Till now, we still haven’t seen light.

All around me, however, young men congratulated themselves and laughed unconcerned, in the bet 9ja shops even though their betting slips ‘cut’. Egypt losing to South Africa was a big upset and no one in their right minds would bet on Nigeria winning even if they wished them well.

The good mood continues to today, but in Nigeria, we’ve learnt never to hold our breaths.


Hannu Afere (c) July 2019

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