In ‘The World Game is not Just a Game’, respected British sportswriter, Simon Kuper wrote that soccer (football) “arouses in the rest of the world collective passions that are matched by nothing short of war.” Published in the New York Times on 26th May 2002, shortly before the commencement of the 17th FIFA World Cup held in South Korea and Japan, Kuper added: “And unlike any other sport – indeed, unlike almost any cultural phenomenon – soccer is distinguished by its political malleability. It is used by dictators and revolutionaries, a symbol of oligarchy and anarchy. It gets presidents elected or thrown out, and it defines the way people think, for good or ill, about their countries…”
It is an understatement to say that most Nigerians love football and for good reason. With one sublime twist or turn, some footballers can make us forget our hunger, thirst, and sometimes even our financial predicament. In moments of sheer artistry, some players can also make us happy or make us sad. Hernan Crespo, one of the best strikers in modern times, once narrated how the late Diego Maradona’s genius transformed their home. He said their father never talked or betrayed emotion, so the family learnt to keep to themselves. But everything changed on 22nd June 1986 while watching the quarter final match between Argentina and England at the 13th FIFA World Cup being held in Mexico. According to Crespo, who was eight years old at the time, the moment Maradona scored his incredible solo goal against England, his father broke into tears and began hugging everyone, shouting on top of his voice. He said he had never seen his father like that before and it was that day he decided to play football and strive for excellence in order to make his father happy.
The foregoing shows what football means for those who follow the game, evoking emotion and passion that often transcend politics. In Nigeria, there is perhaps nothing as unifying as when the national team is playing. At that moment, everybody forgets about religion, ethnicity and artificial differences often deployed to divide us. Unfortunately, it is also when we display our true character. In competitive football, as in politics, one team must win just as another must lose and there is redemption in the hope for another day. But because we have not imbibed that spirit, most Nigerians are bad losers.
That is the only way to explain the manner in which many of our people have reacted to the ouster of the Super Eagles from the ongoing African Cup of Nations (AfCON) in Cameroon. Following the defeat of Nigeria by Tunisia, a number of our players have had to deactivate their social media accounts due to the abuse and hate messages they have received. Even the best of goalkeepers sometimes concedes silly goals but Maduka Okoye will long be remembered for missing that long-range shot that Reuben Abati could have ‘punched away’, as goalkeeper of the Arise TV Football Club!
Before I share a few takes on the defeat by Tunisia, let me also add that there is something about football that causes disappointed fans to react out of proportion and scapegoat certain players. The treatment meted out to former England skipper, David Beckham after the 1998 FIFA World Cup provides a ready example. In the group stage match against Columbia at the tournament held in France, it was Beckham’s free kick that earned England the qualification for the first knockout round. But in the match against Argentina on 30th June, Diego Simeone (current manager of La Liga Club, Atletico Madrid) committed a cynical foul against Beckham. In anger, Beckham kicked Simone who went down as if he was hit by a truck. And the trick worked. Beckham was sent off by the referee. England went on to lose a match they had controlled up to that point against a bitter rival. The next day, the banner headline in The Mirror newspaper (which, to take poetic license, mirrored the view of many English fans) was: ‘Ten Heroic Lions and One Stupid Boy’. A church even put a banner outside its premises which read: ‘God forgives even David Beckham.’ As extreme fans’ reactions go, however, Columbia takes the cake. On 2nd July 1994, Andres Escobar was shot dead because his own goal contributed to Columbia’s elimination from the 15th FIFA World Cup then still ongoing in the United States.
To come back home, while President Muhammadu Buhari has urged football authorities to undertake a critical assessment of why Nigeria lost to Tunisia, there are also lessons we can learn as individuals. The first is that the beginning is not as important as the end. In the group stage at the tournament, Tunisia was defeated by both Gambia and Mali and barely scraped through with three points obtained from beating Mauritania. In contrast, Nigeria defeated the highly-rated Egypt as well as Sudan and Guinea Bissau to secure the maximum nine points. So, we had a 100 percent record at the group stage while Tunisia had a 33 percent success rate. At the end, Tunisia progressed, and we crashed. Lesson number two: Never count your chickens before they hatch.
The appointment of Gernot Rohr as Super Eagles coach was terminated on the eve of the tournament. The problem was not so much that Rohr was sacked but the timing of it. In the preceding months, Nigeria had been defeated at home by Central African Republic (CAR) and could only manage a goalless draw against Cape Verde in the African World final group qualifying match. That we did well in the group stage at 33rd AfCON was therefore not the result of any coordinated effort. That much was exposed when it mattered most against Tunisia. Lesson number three: If you fail to plan, you unwittingly plan to fail.
Meanwhile, pundits have put the blame for the Super Eagles loss on the president who called the players before the match. There was nothing wrong in his wishing the team well and the superstition that Buhari’s call jinxes sporting teams is not supported by evidence. The real problem in this case was the opportunism of the call and I blame overzealous aides who set up their principal for the social media backlash. Such calls are usually made when the team reaches the final of a competition, not after getting out of the group stage. But someone must have imagined that the Tunisian national team, weakened by Covid-19 infection in their camp, would be a walk over. The gamble failed.
Now that the Super Eagles are out of AfCON, the focus should be on their double header against Ghana for the ticket to the 22nd FIFA World Cup holding in November/December this year in Qatar. Those crucial matches are just weeks away and the Super Eagles are without a substantive manager. This is where the president can come in to ensure that football authorities get their act together. It is all the more important given the country we are facing. To qualify for Qatar, we must show Ghana that not only is our Jollof rice tastier than theirs, we are also better on the field of play.
▪︎ Still on The Subsidy Question
When Senate President Ahmad Lawan said recently that President Buhari had not approved a fuel subsidy removal, I knew that both the Petroleum Industry Act (PIA) and 2022 budget were already dead on arrival. Even if we remove the distortions by the National Assembly which the president confessed had rendered the budget ‘unimplementable’, the proposals were premised on the assumption that there would be no subsidy payment from June this year. The same goes for the PIA which has led to the establishment of new agencies in the oil and gas sector.
However, the volte face by the federal government is understandable for three reasons. One, with organised labour poised for a strike that would most definitely have enjoyed popular support, it was sensible to back down. Two, it’s difficult for public officials who revel in profligacy to justify any policy anchored on the need to make sacrifice by the ordinary people. Three, Buhari’s question many years ago when aspiring for presidency, ‘Who is subsidizing who?’ still resonates. It therefore came as no surprise when the Minister of State for Petroleum Resources, Timipre Sylva, announced on Tuesday that the federal government is proposing an 18-month extension on fuel subsidy removal, effectively pushing its implementation till after the 2023 election and to the next administration.
While I have always likened fuel subsidy to borrowing from tomorrow, what I find particularly interesting is that the entire conversation around its removal has been the same for almost four decades. On 17th March 1988, at a time the then government of General Ibrahim Babangida was planning an upward review of fuel prices, Mr Francis Onaiyekan wrote an interesting article in ‘The Reporter’, a Kaduna-based publication, long rested. He asked salient questions to counter the statistics reeled out at the time by the Nigeria National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC). I do not share his position because I can see the harm that the regime of fuel subsidy has been doing to our economy, but I find it rather interesting that the tone and content of this debate between government and the people remains essentially the same.
Onaiyekan wrote: “How organised and convenient for the citizen is the transportation system? Compared with Nigeria, how easy (or difficult) is it to earn a decent living, with access to job, food, shelter, education, and health? What percentage of John Citizen’s income must he spend on transportation to and from work; does he receive value for a high fare that is the consequence of high energy cost?
“If it costs other people elsewhere so much to move around, what other subsidies do their government give for social services like health, education etc.? Inescapably, the conclusion is that, to compare the Nigerian with other nationals based on fuel prices alone is not fair, is not honest and is meant to support a preconceived lie. To ask Nigerians to pay more for fuel is to automatically demand that they pay more for food, clothing, transportation, indeed every good and services that require transportation.
“Finally, since talk is cheap, it is easy for well-paid oil experts and policy makers to sit in the comfort of their offices and argue for an increase in fuel cost. They ride cars owned, fueled, and maintained at government or company expense. They can’t know what the poor feel down below. And it is doubtful they want to know. For when they pass us by, they wind up the glass of their car windows. Ensconced in air-conditioned comfort, their conscience is insulated from the harsh truth as they shut out the real world from them…”
That article was published 34 years ago. Today, we are still talking about the same issue, asking the same questions, expressing the same misgivings and apprehensions. And we are still left with expending billions of dollars every year subsidizing a single consumption item at a period the social sector (education, health etc.) has practically collapsed!
▪︎ Super Doguwa!
“It is true that my beloved family has gotten an additional one person. It is a baby girl. Bouncing. The mother and the baby are hale and hearty. The husband is still active. I am here. And I thank God that I kept my word with the House that while I had 27, I promised you that I would continue counting. I want by the grace of God and your prayers that the count would continue.” That was the Majority Leader in the House of Representatives, Hon Alhassan Ado Doguwa, announcing his latest ‘achievement’ at plenary on Tuesday.
Doguwa, a proud polygamist who once showcased his four wives in the House, is only 56 so he has many more years of ‘active service’ ahead of him. In fact, Doguwa has already pledged to hit 30 before the 2023 general election and there is a political benefit he intends to derive from that: “Now that we are considering the Electoral Act amendment, when we get to the floor, perhaps in the Committee of the Whole, I would appeal to my members so that we suspend relevant rules and we have a clause in the Electoral Act where it permits families that do have up to 30 kids in their homes to have an electoral polling unit in that family.”
With such demonstrable ‘skill’ in ‘matrimonial oversight functions’, I won’t be surprised if Doguwa gets inundated with desperate calls from Denmark in the times ahead to come and perform similar ‘miracles’. In that Nordic country, there is a growing concern in official circles over falling fertility rate such that government now encourages women to get pregnant. So, imagine what would happen if the prolific Doguwa were to be incentivised to spend one year in Denmark on sabbatical!
While it remains to be seen how much of Doguwa’s prayers are answered in the new electoral bill in what looks like a calculated attempt at genitalia gerrymandering, one thing is certain: the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) Majority Leader already has one ‘record’ to flaunt as electioneering season gets closer. Come 2023 general election, Doguwa can at least brag to his people in Doguwa/Tudun Wada federal constituency of Kano State about his ‘proficiency’ in The Other Room.
What a democracy!
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