Nigerian football: A Love of the Game in the Face of Corruption

Nigeria have failed to impress in Russia, but we should hardly be worried about their on-field exploits. The country’s systemic issues are much more pressing.
Nigerian football: A Love of the Game in the Face of Corruption
Art by Debanjan.

“Nigerians on Sunday expressed optimism that the Eagles will win the remaining matches in Group D,” read the opening line to an article on The Guardian, a trusted Nigerian news outlet. The sentence evokes a peachy sense of optimism, but we begin to peel back the layers of a nasty-smelling onion the further we read. A former chairman said “the team was a work in progress…an assembly of average young players that are struggling in their various clubs.” It is a feature, from my understanding, representative of the issues plaguing Nigerian football in recent years. Unabashed confidence in the Super Eagles overlapping the consistent threat of inferiority.

Some have argued the Brazilians watch football to quench their hunger for victory, for dominance. The English, we believe, watch football for the love of the game. It could be said that the Nigerians watch football for a combination of the two: a desire not only to win but to have fun as well. It’s why nearly 100% of all Nigerian households with a TV were tuned into an important World Cup qualifying match last year. It’s also why Nigerians remain positive in the face of failure; if they don’t make it out of the group, a great shame has been bestowed upon the nation’s sporting base.

Yet for all the hype — the Nike kit release, the vibrant array of young talent — Nigeria have fallen flat in Russia. A bland performance against Croatia didn’t quite cut it. Coming up against Iceland, the expectation is yet another poor attacking performance. But it is difficult to avoid being caught up in the spirit of the Nigerian fan. Something about being Africa’s global power bestows a sort of footballing manifest destiny upon the Super Eagles; Nigerians rightfully believe that dominance on the African continent should be a given. Yet, the team has rarely lived up to this expectation.

The Love of Victory

A 2007 study conducted by FIFA uncovered the federations with the most registered footballers – Germany, the United States, and China made up the top of the table, but the first African name on that list is Nigeria. The most populous country on the continent would expect to place on this list, which is why this finding is a two-headed monster: one of the love of victory, and one for the love of the game.

People in Nigeria love football. But the expectations that come with a large, football-loving nation are enormous. Nigerians are often regarded as perhaps the most unrealistic football supporters. An all-too large portion of the supporters truly believe they can win the World Cup. You’d expect this level of expectation from Germans or Brazilians, but Nigeria have never progressed further than the Round of 16 in the history of the tournament.

A period of success in the tail end of the last century helped set an unattainable level of expectation for the country’s performance on a global stage. Nigeria’s maiden voyage in the World Cup ended in a narrow 2-1 defeat at the hands of eventual 1994 champions Italy. Jay-Jay Okocha and Sunday Oliseh are still remembered to this day as Nigerian football royalty.

The success of these Super Eagles cemented Nigeria as the paramount African football power, fulfilling the desires of a nation of 186 million. Unfortunately, the desires of the ruling class — largely in the public sector — are often fulfilled as well, in the form of bribery and fund mismanagement.

Terrorist organization Boko Haram are kidnapping and terrorizing the northeast. Massacring looters have killed 1,500 in the north and central parts of Nigeria just this year, according to The New York Times. Protests of oil companies and violence between herders and farmers are compounded upon issues of wealth distribution and disease.

But the president will not step down. Nor will the many state governors cease to line their pockets with dirty money while their constituents continue to suffer.

 

“The eight-year conflict between Boko Haram and the Nigerian state has killed more than 20,000 and displaced millions…They saw the crowds of women and girls coming in and wondered: Where are the boys? No one knows exactly how many boys have been taken, though estimates number up to 10,000 — a stolen generation.”

– Sarah Topol for The New York Times

Nigeria scores a dismal 27 out of 100 on Transparency International’s Corruption Index. Even worse, perhaps, is their ranking on the Human Development Index, which places them below the likes of Syria and Myanmar in an aggregate score of life expectancy, education, and standard of living. Nigerians are in many ways the beacon of African hope. But there are simply too many domestic issues to ignore, especially when elected officials are so blatantly placing their financial wishes over the Nigerian people’s need for food and safety.

Subsequently, when the Nigerian Football Federation failed to scrape up sufficient funds to award player bonuses at the 2014 World Cup, it was difficult to feel pity for them. “The country lacks organization, especially in the sports industry,” said Kene, a Nigerian-born football tactics writer. “We should obviously be investing in it, but money is the main problem due to corruption and greed.” The issues plaguing Nigeria have tended to bleed into football as well.

The Love of the Game

Despite the hardships faced by the nation, football remains a priority for many. How Nigeria Works (…but doesn’t) is a podcast discussing all of these issues plaguing Nigerian society, but a full episode was dedicated to dissecting the shortcomings of the national football team. Co-hosts Sandra and Andy questioned the systemic issues with the federation and the nation itself.

“Football is highly influential in our everyday life. Just look at the streetwear for example; many people wear popular jerseys like Manchester United, Chelsea or Arsenal.”

– Kene, Nigerian Tactics Writer

“The Nigerian League is no longer the place to develop players…As soon as a player has any glimpse of potential, he goes off to the European leagues.” This, Andy argued, is a symptom of economic instability and an indicator of a lack of control over Nigerian player (and club) development. This has been the case for well over a decade and its effects seem to have dwindled attendance records for the domestic league.

With no powerful local clubs, the national team has no club identity. Look at Germany: the influence of Bayern Munich is clear. England? Pep Guardiola and Mauricio Pochettino have shaped the tactics of the Three Lions. Even the Argentines have some semblance of a connection to their nation’s largest clubs. But Nigeria, as is the issue with many African nations, has seen its players disproportionately launched into the unforgiving cycle of the European market.

The Super Eagles are a team of expats and naturalized nationals, a fitting squad for a country failing to guarantee the safety and health of its millions of citizens. Dull performances against the Croatians mean that a failure against Iceland will block Nigeria’s path beyond the group stage. But no matter what happens — an unglamorous group campaign or an exciting knockout stage birth — millions will be watching. In Lagos and the rest of the country, to the migrants in London or New York, a common sense of camaraderie is aloof when Nigeria take the pitch.

Whether that camaraderie is evoked by a sense of national pride and love of the game, or a constant urge to show the corrupt leaders who really runs the country, the spirit will be there. In large numbers.

The negative effects of colonial subjugation won’t trash the fighting spirit of the Super Eagles. Nor will the failure of governors and other political pawns to act in the interests of the Nigerian people. The harsh criticism of the national team is one of the only ways the common man and woman can make a change in Nigerian sport. As Andy light-heartedly boasted, “The god of football operates on preparation…and juju [laughs]!” Alex Iwobi and Victor Moses were never a part of the Nigerian domestic setup, but they certainly have the hearts and minds of millions of people in Lagos and beyond.

Special thanks to Kene for his knowledge on the game and his home nation. You can find him on Twitter here. Also, a thank you is owed to Alexander Shea for his article on corruption in Nigerian football as it was a large influence for this feature.
Alex Dieker

Alex is an American college student studying marketing, but his passion lies in football writing. A fan of the quirkiness and underappreciated aspects of the game, it comes as no surprise that he loves Dutch football.