In June 2010, Nigeria’s Super Eagles went to the FIFA World Cup in South Africa under the guidance of the experienced Swedish manager Lars Lagerback. Despite the presence of eternal nemesis Argentina in the same group, Nigeria was expected to do well and at least progress to the next round. Greece and South Korea were not exactly insurmountable obstacles in the way of what was at least on paper, one of the most talented and individually accomplished Super Eagles squads ever to grace an international tournament.
No fewer than 14 of the 24-man roster played their club football in Europe’s top 5 leagues – England, France, Italy, Spain and Germany. A narrow 1-0 loss to Argentina in the opening game was by no means a result to be sniffed at, and optimism was high for the two subsequent games. Instead, this star-studded team served up two inexplicable borefests focused on nullifying their technically inferior Greek and Korean opponents. One point and out – bottom of the group.
The post-tournament recriminations put the blame on many issues – the perceived lack of commitment from the players, the usual player bonus shenanigans from the NFF, Lars Lagerback’s negative tactics, and even dodgy refereeing. What these complaints were in fact, were just symptoms of a wider problem facing not just Nigerian football, but African society as a whole. That problem is a deep-seated lack of ambition that makes Africa expect very little from itself, self-sabotage, waste money on expensive non-solutions, and ultimately blame outsiders for our poor outcomes.
“Haramball” typifies African governance and administration
The term “Haramball” is a colloquial pejorative used to describe a cynical, unwatchable style of football focused exclusively on playing defence and nullifying the opposition for 90 minutes – punctuated once or twice by an attempted counterattack. While this term is often used jokingly referencing limited European club teams making do with what they have to stay competitive, it takes on an altogether different – and uglier – meaning in Africa.
Here, Haramball is very much a choice as against a necessity because many African teams do not lack the talent to play a more watchable, game-winning brand of football. While countries like France, Brazil, England and Portugal compete for trophies and play expansive, progressive football using players of African descent, African teams, which have these players by the bucketful, go into international tournaments having zero expectations of themselves other than winning headers, fouling cynically, stopping the other team from playing and ultimately, keeping the losing score down and little else.
For these teams, Haramball is not only unnecessary and unnatural, but also a manifestation of this continent’s unique propensity for self-sabotage. Where managers like Bruno Metsu, Stephen Keshi, Clemens Westerhof, Jo Bonfrere and Shuaibu Amodu have demonstrated what can be achieved with a little ambition and rudimentary planning and preparation, Africa’s football administrators still overwhelmingly prefer their Lars Lagerbacks, Herve Renards and Gernot Rohrs – comfortable, conservative, milquetoast types who guarantee hardworking, stultifying, ignominious failure on the world stage.
After all, who expects any better from Africa? Definitely not Africa, that’s for sure. Where it is possible to build a 6-lane highway that can economically transform a region by connecting two cities, why bother doing something so bold? Take the Haramball option and construct a small, poorly-finished single trunk road instead. Hey, half road is better than none isn’t it? If it is possible to push for a political change that will change a country’s destiny, why do something so daring and ambitious? Just use the opportunity to extract some patronage for yourself and a little pork barrel for the people. That is the African Haramball way.
“Ambition” does not mean flights of fancy
Avoiding the Haramball method of public administration and being bold must not be conflated with building international conference centres in Gombe, international airports in Ebonyi and billion dollar monorails in Port Harcourt. Being ambitious is not analogous to being foolish or profligate – it simply means having a vision to something achievable, which is greater than the status quo.
Fortunately, it is not entirely down to politicians to determine what classifies as bold and ambitious or foolish and unviable. That is also the job of the small army of aides, assistants, advisers and consultants that they employ. Any of these who are fit for purpose can inform African politicians that building a million dollar 120km/hr railway between Port Harcourt and Aba is bold, while building a billion dollar 1 kilometre-long monorail on Ada George Road is daft.
If they’re not too tired after doing that, they can also inform African governments that funding genuine disruptive research and development is bold and ambitious, while funding one state-owned car assembly outfit after the other is the perfect merger of African Haramball governance and white elephant investment – mediocre, unimaginative, hideously expensive and without any route to viability.
If they’re not too tired.