• Tuesday, September 26, 2023
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Football and nationalism


As a rule, I do not like football or any sport for that matter. Still, I am drawn to sports, particularly football because it speaks to several aspects of our life as a nation. It also speaks in various ways to the world in which we live.

Indeed, it has been said that if you look at a national football team, you are bound to know something about that nation. Thus, as a non-attentive observer of the European and COPA football tournaments, I was able to pick one or two things.

For instance, in the light of the historical but even relationship between Europe and Africa, fans in the latter continent were more tuned to the jousting in Europe than to the football fanfare in Latin America.

Read Also: Why do some Nigerian footballers play for England, other countries?

Meanwhile, as I watched the various football matches, I was able to determine which teams are playing. If they have a lot of black players in a particular national team, then it says something about that country. For instance, teams like Portugal, France and to a lesser extent England feature many black players in their respective teams. This is not an accident. What it speaks to, is that these countries were the major colonialists at a point in time in history.

The case of France is particularly striking. On one particular occasion, the French team paraded a star-studded, black side. So black, that the rightist politician, Le Pen, was forced to exclaim that: Is this a French team? Meanwhile, our Nigeria has amply contributed its own share of players to European club-sides and national teams.

Anytime I ponder on this, what comes to mind is that, just as we export brain, we also do the same thing as regards brawn. It is as if the capacity for nurturing greatness is not here. Sometimes, the situation gets so odd, that concerns begin to be raised about its desirability.

Read Also: Euro 2020 final: Can England claim their first major cup in 55 years?

The latest happenings in Watford illustrate what I am trying to say here. At the moment, the English club has four Nigerian players, and there are concerns that this critical mass may affect the cohesion of the team. Even then, the point-man of our football association, Pinnick, recently remarked that our players in their bid for greener pastures in the external realm should not go for the small clubs. Rather, and according to him, they should go for the big ones. On the face of it, there is nothing wrong with this deposition.

Still, what Pinnick said speaks, not just to the state of our football, but also to the state of our nation. Let us rupture the thinking here. Why is it that footballers only move from Africa to Europe? Why do we not have a reverse situation in which a Chelsea player will carry his boots and come to play for say, Kano Pillars. This is not happening because one is a developed country and the other is not.

In any case, as I have pointed out somewhere, even the light industries and technology which underpin the football game are not to be found here. In more explicit terms, those leather boots, jerseys and balls are not manufactured in this side of the world. Indeed and unthinkingly perhaps, we gush over the jerseys of our national team as produced by external entities like Adidas, Puma or what have you.

So, what is being said here is this: as titillating as the game of football appears to be, I get reminded about the terrible state of my country when I take in all the variables connected to the game. And as you throw in a Rohr into the mix, my sadness is complete.

For Rohr is just the latest Caucasian face in the line of previous faces like Westerhof and Jo Bonfrere. Think of it, would it have been possible for say, an Onigbinde to coach the English team?

And talking of the English team brings memories of the recent European Cup final match between England and Italy. As I watched the two teams, it was possible to say, thank God, these two nations were merely trading tackles on the football pitch. Some years back, during the Second World War, the hostility was more lethal. They were exchanging bullets. The run-up to the game was something else.

An inclusive England was to be seen. Never mind that the team was made up of players whose origins were owed to various places like: Ireland, Nigeria and Jamaica. Then it happened, England lost. The melting point started to crystallise in various directions. Such is the nature of defeat.

Some of the lost penalty kicks were taken by the foreign players. Predictably, the racist abuse began to flow. Such indeed, is the delicate nature of a diverse society. Luckily over there, there are experts in damage control. This expertise was to be seen in the intervention of the Member of Parliament for Coventry.

According to her, the racist fulminations of the English fans are by no means confined to them. According to her, such slurs can also be observed at the highest level of government as reflected in no less an individual like Boris Johnson, who in her view was fond of identity vilification and malformation.

Finally, she made the appeal that individuals like Rashford, Sterling, Henderson and Bukayo Saka embody the very best in terms of our cherished ideals in a diverse society like England. Thus, as can be seen, football can be double edged. It can tear apart a diverse society as nearly happened in this instance. And it can bring them together. And this is precisely what would have happened if the trophy had been retained at home, rather than taken to Rome where it is currently ensconced.

And dear reader, have you considered the fact that, when AFCON, the African equivalent of what we have just seen in Wembley is on, the media orchestration is usually very limited. That says something about the gulf between these two different continents, as regards the global information order.

Even then, some commonality could be observed. In the wake of the defeat, some enraged English fans attacked their Italian counterparts. Blood flows in their veins after all. A far cry from the stiff upper-lip profile of the English man-a staple on which we have been fed over the years. If that untoward incident had happened here, some of the well-known embassies in Nigeria would have gone ahead to issue warnings in the form of travel advisory notes. Our own foreign Minister may want to pick up the gauntlet by issuing a similar warning. But this is not possible. For as I speak, hundreds of my country men and women are busy at the British High Commission, seeking to leave Nigeria. And the bottom line here is this: A great football nation is not necessarily a great nation!