The football at this summer’s world cup has been nothing short of mesmerising. Off the field, a number of inspirational stories have emerged too. From Barack Obama calling the U.S team to congratulate them on garnering the support of an entire nation (many of whom still view “soccer” as the fifth sport after baseball, basketball, American football and ice hockey). To Iran and Algeria, albeit with less headlines, doing their respective countries proud. The Iranian economy is uncertain, with many Western states still viewing them cautiously (over their ambiguous nuclear agenda). However, at this world cup, the Iranian players gave their fellow countrymen something to be proud about. Against one of the pre-tournament favourites Argentina, it took a Lionel Messi 91st minute equaliser to settle the affair. Whilst Algeria, a small north African country, who were very much an unknown quantity before the world cup, went on to out perform many of the better known African nations. Against Germany, they delivered one of the most aesthetically pleasing games of the tournament. Such encouraging performances by these national teams, have no doubt delivered their countries a timely PR boost.
Witnessing these success stories unfold led me to reflect on what could have been with my country, Nigeria. Having been one of only two African teams to make the last 16 with some outstanding individual performances from our goalkeeper, I can’t help but feel we had more to give. Success brings attention. Our team had, in my mind an amazing opportunity to put the spot light on Nigeria for the right reasons. Let’s face it; God blessed Nigeria with oil and football. Everywhere you go, there is a football or what resembles a football. We idolise the golden generation of Nwankwo Kanu and Jay Jay Okocha. They gave us all hope, they made us dream.
I have a strong affinity with both Nigeria and England for varying reasons. I was born in London, raised by my (Nigerian) parents. Both my parents spoke our language to us, so that we wouldn’t grow up like “these spoilt British kids”. At school of course we spoke in English, shortening our Nigerian names so the English kids could pronounce them properly. (Don’t judge, I know some of you did too!). At home, my siblings and I enjoyed staple Nigerian food such as pounded yam & egusi soup, and jollof rice. Whilst at school, my favourite meal was fish and chips. My parents taught me to greet with my right hand or to prostrate politely. At school however, my teachers didn’t seem to mind whether I greeted them in any specific way, as long as there was mutual respect. As I’ve grown older, I’ve become more aware of the existing dichotomies. I have also grown much more appreciative of my parent’s continual attempts to ensure my siblings and I appreciate our country, Nigeria.
Apparently, I was quite naughty as a youngster so my parents saw sending me ‘back home’ as a convenient opportunity to discipline my behaviour whilst also reminding that I wasn’t like “these spoilt British kids”. They perceived that my schoolmates influenced my behaviour, so in case ‘Billy’ from school persuaded me that I could talk to my parents anyhow, they calmly reminded me that I could be whatever I wanted outside but in their home, I was Nigerian. To this day, the official story from my parents is that it was good for me to go and experience Nigerian culture first hand. Can you imagine? The less said about that lie, the better. Anyway, I remember my first trip home.
As the relentless heat pounded my soft mosquito friendly British skin, I remember looking up at enormous sign which read, “Welcome to Murutala Muhamed Airport”. I must have been about ten or eleven at most. I remember the air feeling completely different, musty. I travelled with my Mum whilst Dad had stayed in England with my younger brother. I had just travelled on a plane for the first time, landed in an unfamiliar territory with everybody begging my mum for money. I looked around full of wonder and amazement. This had to be a dream. Mum never told me we were rich and famous. As I continued to process my thoughts, I remember missing the rest of my family in England but promising myself I would make the most of my new adventure.
The first day my mum dropped me off at my new boarding school, was surreal. As we queued up along with all the other new kids and their parents the word had gotten round that there was a British kid in the queue. The senior boys began circling (I later found out why). The first question I asked them was do you have a football team? They looked back at me bewildered. “Wettin him talk?” They repeated my words back to me and we all laughed. I immediately struck up a cord with them as we spoke about football. I couldn’t wait to show them my football boots.
Deeply engulfed in conversation, I heard my mum all of a sudden shout, ‘Kenny Kenny!’ Won’t you give me a hug? As I turned round, I realised I had moved deeper and deeper into the packed boys accommodations. In doing so, I had moved further and further away from my Mum. Realising this, I ran towards her, clutching her dress as she squeezed me. This was it. It wasn’t a dream anymore. She was leaving. At that moment it dawned on me. My mum was leaving me. Not down the road. Not round the corner. In a different country! I mean, I knew I was Nigerian but this was about to get real!. The tears came later. She held me so tightly almost as if to say, ‘won’t you cry like the other kids so I’ll know you’ll miss me’. Looking back now, I realise it couldn’t have been easy for her to leave her child. Perhaps it dawned on her at that moment too. Although, I imagine she knew I’d be fine after observing how quickly I seemed to adapt to my new environment.
The three years I studied in Nigeria went so fast. I had to grow. My most enjoyable memories came on the football pitch. We were simply crazy about the game. Inter-house football tournaments were the most anticipated days of the year. I met friends, many of whom I’m still in contact with 10 years later. Travelling so young was a blessing in disguise. It allowed me to perceive another culture, climate and contrasting characters. Nigerians come in many shapes and sizes but the one common and shared love is football. As a nation, we have been embroiled in many unfortunate scandals but football is our common denominator. We come together, behind a big screen and hope that NEPA doesn’t take light.
I congratulate our boys for their performance at this summer’s #WorldCup. However, we mustn’t forget that there are serious problems at home. Let’s not forget that the disparity between the rich and the poor is at an all-time high. Let’s not forget that our government is unwilling or unable to defend and protect a group of innocent girls, much less an entire country. Despite all the Neppa jokes, let’s not forget the challenges that lie ahead with energy. Let’s not forget that the misappropriation of oil by bandits leads to the collective fruitlessness of our country.
God gave Nigeria Oil and Football, let’s use both wisely.