Most of us did not really care whether or not Nigeria was at the World Cup. In fact, some of us were happy that we were not there. We have weak hearts and we cannot stand the tension and the hypertension that our team puts us through in certain crucial, even local encounters. Apart from this too, I didn’t think that ours was a crack enough team that packed a sucker punch that some silly team could fall prey and then, give the rest of the world a scare or a stiff fight for that spoon, er cup. That we could not qualify for the competition was not because there is a Galadima at the helm of our football affairs but methinks it is sometimes because there seemeth to be something inherently out of sync in the way we prosecute our business as a nation. Consider this: the World Cup did not produce a singularly fantastic hero this time like other World Cups did a Mario Kempes, a Paolo Rossi, Socrates, a Diego Maradona, a Roberto Baggio or a Ronaldo, Rivaldo or a Ronaldinho or a Zidane. This is mostly because of the way football and politics is handled today. You handle a party and a football team as a team, a compact team not built around personalities but on that goal that a team scores and which ignites the fire of patriotism in the hearts of a people and flaunts whatever spoils are won. If you saw some of the matches played by the big teams that had the big names, you would see that they fell as soon as their biggies began to exercise their bigness. But the small ones like Ghana that were making their debut and had no big names to fall back on actually outplayed the one that just qualified for the final match. For me, I thought that Nigeria as a country and team is ripe but just not ready. I should do well to discourage you from falling for that old wives’ tall tale by Bank PHB, that one day we would win the World Cup. This is because from the angle I see it, we still lack the kind of world class team spirit that brings laurels home.
But there is a but. After having seen the conduct of the present World spoon, er cup, I think it was a bigmistake we were not there among the comity of nations, joined together in an ambience of friendly rivalry. Right now, this little weak heart of mine beats a nostalgic rhythm for the attention that the little Togolese nation got as they struggled to make an impact despite the very intimidating circumstances that they faced. Their debut in the World cup actually was a platform from which to let the world recognize the problems that bedevil many an African country that is desperately wannabe and had the guts to challenge the bullies in the fray to a fight. And this is why I think that Nigeria should have done her best to be at the World Cup.
Many advantages accrue. One, the man on the street should have had reason to abandon his business any time that Nigeria is billed to play. The advantage of this being that football is one factor that has consistently neutralized all of the suspicions we hold against each other either from the South-South, North-North, West-West, or East-East. If you check somewhere in your encyclopedia, it is on record that Nigerians observed a 48-hour truce during the Civil War so that football legend, Pele could play an exhibition match in Surulere, Lagos. Two, Nigeria should have been properly highlighted and brought to better spotlight, what with the sort of pejorative reports that CNN subjected this nation recently. Whether or not we fumbled would have been a collective fumbling and if we did well, it would been a well-done on a collective bargain also. Some think not. If we did not do well, it would be reason to adjudge us as one nation that is yet to put her act together. Those who are miffed that we are a country that makes about three billion dollars daily from crude oil sales and still have an economy that is run by, and on power generating sets and on diesel should refer to that as a symptomatic index. The way I see it, I doubt if Nigeria would have done any better than Togo or Ghana or Angola. As we have tried to quietly imply in our first paragraph, football is politics and politics mostly can be a game. It depends how you play it. Some, like the Brazilians, caress the ball the way an adroit player would the samba or trombone and they do have adroit, individual players like a Ronaldinho who mesmerizes with the ball, while some others are wont to cheat, score with any part of their body like Maradona did in 1986. Because there are those who have dribbled and cheated us in the past, is there any surprise that our wordsmiths have aka-yed Ibrahim Babangida ‘maradona’? Because there is quiet a large number of Nigerian politicians who still see the game as a do-or-die affair, we make bold here to say again that that is why we believe we may not have gotten any farther than the very first round. Today, football, politics is no longer the way it was played in 1986 with the ‘hand of God’. Football and politics is high-tech, with television cameras and mobile phones doting the entire terrain, covering every aperture and bringing the action right down to your doorstep and doggedly follow on your heels as you race right down to work each morning. Today’s business of politics and of football is conducted with a lot of interactions with electromagnetic forces that make it almost impossible for you to do that same old school trick of scoring with the hand. See that match between France and Brazil. It was so clear to us all that the ball struck Ronaldo’s arm, but the worthy kept arguing to the contrary, probably still thinking that we were still in that world where FIFA did everything it could to protect her larger-than-life stars. It is the same with our politicians or the guys who got there by force and still have the foolish bravado of staging a comeback. I hope they learn the hard way, the way Brazil did with France, that today’s political leadership is a thing of the heart and mind rather than of your wherefore, whither, hitherto or whereupon. This is no longer 1986. Nigerians are now keener, now much more circumspect and will definitely not be taken for a ride, not even by the smartest carpetbagger in town.