My earliest memory of football was in 1998. I was five and must have been a very stubborn child. My mother, bless her soul, worn out and tired from the strain of having to cater for her four little children would dip me in her washbasin: soap, water, and baby Charlie: and wash she would. Me with all our dirty things: I always found a way out though. I still have visions today: My small tender body, butt naked, running to the neighbours – who had a T.V and could afford to use a generator – to join the ever-present crowds, to watch France play, to watch Nigeria play.
For Nigeria and its people, football was always a national obsession: The 1940s and 50s when fables of the mythical Teslim “Thunder” Balogun were first formed, the tragic death of Sam Okwaraji in 1989, and the incredible talent of 1996 Olympians who went to Atalanta.
The legends of these yesteryears were the staples of dreams and an indelible part of the fan culture growing up: Kanu Nwankwo, Austin “Jay-Jay” Okocha, Finidi George and Pius Ikedia provided an example to follow, a passion to be enveloped by and escape from the often difficult and sometimes unbearable circumstances of life in Nigeria.
Leading up to the new Millenium, Nigerians were optimistic. This was borne partly out of the trauma of civil war, the endless rounds of military intervention that had plagued the country -for most of its life-, and rooted in the hope that within the framework of a functional democracy, its much-touted potential would finally result in social and political dividends for its 122 million inhabitants.
One of a 122 million, Sani Haruna Kaita was born in 1986, in Kano, Nigeria. He began his professional career at the local club, Kano Pillars in 2004. This, after largely undocumented stints at smaller clubs in Kano such as Action Stars, Farm Milk, and Super Arrows. Eventually, he got his big break: a stint at Kano’s biggest club, Kano-Pillars. In his first year there, the 19-year-old lined up for the first team and did enough to convince U-20’s coach, Samson Sia Sia to pick him – in a team that had John Obi Mikel and Taiye Taiwo – to play in the Youth World Cup tournament in the Netherlands.
While John Mikel Obi, Isaac Promise and John Owoeri captivated the nation with dazzling displays against Switzerland and Ukraine to qualify for the knock-out stages, trouble was brewing back home. Pre-election tensions that had begun in 2004 had seeped into local communities and left the region unstable with 17 deaths registered in Odioma Bayelsa earlier that year: Still, the nation watched. In that competition, the 5ft 10″, tough-tackling, defensive-minded Kaita starred in midfield, playing all seven games including the famous defeat to Messi and Argentina earning himself a transfer to recently promoted Spartak Rotterdam: There begun the problems.
Nigeria was a great nation once: A land of great pride and promise. Nigerians were a key part of Africa’s decolonization effort and even before then, they, the Nigerians of the 40s and 50s were able to, through reason and debate, wrest away British control over their affairs and all this while maintaining robust trading surpluses in Cocoa and palm oil.
Perhaps, if Nigeria had continued on this trajectory, Sani will have returned home to Kano, a hero for the Pillars. He didn’t. He went to Rotterdam instead because being Nigerian in 2005, it was what you did. If you desired to make something of yourself, you travelled abroad because back home, the ceiling had been set low and remained so, more and more so as the decade rolled on.
Kaita’s first season at the club was hampered by immigration and work permit issues. After joining the squad in October 2005, the player returned three months later to join the Nigerian squad for the African Cup of Nations and claimed a bronze medal coming third behind runners up, Ivory Coast and winners, Egypt.
As the Nigerian team coasted through the competition, beating Ghana, Zimbabwe, and Senegal to qualify top of Group D, the storms from the year before had come to a head as aggrieved youths in communities in the Southern oil belt turned to militancy: kidnapping expatriates, destroying pipelines, ravaging communities and paradoxically, destroying their land as they sought virulently to reclaim it.
The crowds were gone now. There were no naked babies watching games at the neighbour’s screen or queues outside barber’s shops smarting for the Super Eagles. You either saw the game in your home or you missed it: Your mother made sure of it.
In February 2006, the religion fuelled deaths of over one hundred people in the eastern commercial hub of Onitsha only served to make many Nigerians more insular. “Protect yourself and your family above all else, build high fences, buy dogs and keep the neighbours out”: became the unspoken mantra among the populace. The Nigerian team, now a shadow of the great sides that lined up a decade earlier, missed out on the World Cup to Angola and consequently, suffered a slow but sure recession in the hearts of Nigerians and with it, all sense of national pride and hope.
When Sani returned to the squad at Spartak Rotterdam, the squad at the Het Kasteel, the manager, Wilja Vloet and the whole of Holland, had moved on. A new penchant for injuries meant that in his second season at the club, he played only four games, started twice and was out of the squad for the whole season. Worse still, of the four games, Sparta lost three and won the last by a hair’s breadth away to Heracles Almelo.
While Sani Haruna Kaita’s career in the Netherlands slowed to an almost standstill, Nigeria recorded three major airline disasters within the same year, a national record: The country’s over 70 million Muslims lost their spiritual leader and many Nigerians lost loved ones.
In Sani’s final hurrah in the province of South-Holland, he played eight matches for Spartak. His longest run of games at the club coming between October and December: Spartak won only two games within that stretch and unsurprisingly, he sat the rest of the season out. He transferred to Monaco in January 2009.
As Sani Kaita completed his move to Monaco, Nigerians were healing from the Massacre of over 200 people in Christian/ Muslim clashes in Jos in October 2008. To make a bad time worse, the prominent militant group, Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (M.E.N.D) threatened to call off the four-month-old cease-fire and threatened an offensive on the Nigerian Military.
Nigerians were feeling the heat and so was Kaita who was unable to compete in a Monaco side that had Jeremy Menez, Freddy Adu, and Jan Koller. He was immediately loaned to Kuban Krasnodar in Russia and managed to string a much more consistent run of games, playing 23 times as the club finished 15th in the Premier Liga and got eliminated from the sixth round of the Russian Cup.
Despite his troubles in Europe, he continued to thrive at home. Once again, Sani Kaita was called up to the 2008 Olympic squad for the tournament which had been slated to take place in Beijing. This explosive side had Victor Obinna, Peter Odemwingie, and Chinedu Ogbuke – and got past the Netherlands, U.S.A, and Japan in the group stages easily.
They blazed past the Ivory Coast and Belgium in the knock-out games, humiliating the latter with four goals in the Semi-finals but were eventually put to the sword by Argentina and Angel Di Maria in a game which -should have been a bright spot in a dark void but instead – was a painful reminder of the defeat in 2005 and a bitter re-affirmation of the fact that when it came down to it, we – the Nigerians, West Africans of this black continent – were something short of the truth.
In July 2009, for the first time since the beginning of the decade, terrorist group, Boko haram orchestrated a series of coordinated attacks on vulnerable towns in North-Eastern Nigeria, killing hundreds and capturing several “stronghold towns”. While the war to contain the radical Muslims raged in the north, the federal government led by Musa Yar’Adua successfully implemented an amnesty programme to pacify the southern Militants.
Despite all the violence and destruction of the last decade, in 2010, Nigerians had cause to be excited. The World Cup was finally coming to Africa. After hosting competitions such as the World Youth Championship in 1999 and the All Africa Games almost immediately after in 2003, Nigerians could be forgiven for thinking that their country could be in contention to host the most important competition in world sports: thing is, they did not.
Their belief-or a lack of it was not based on the fact that Nigeria had, 7 years before the competition in 2003, opted to defer its ambitions and put its weight behind the South-African campaign – They knew, just as their leaders did that they were barely getting by hosting themselves – how much more the world?
At this point, still contractually obligated to Monaco, Sani Kaita too was running out of foreign hosts. He had been farmed out to -Russian club- Alanya on loan, his fifth club in three years when Lars Lagerback called him up to feature for his country at the tournament in Germany: a call-up which would both define his legacy and put him away for good.
It was the second game of the tournament, on a bright afternoon in Bloemfontein and the Nigerian team, desperate to stay in the competition after an underwhelming result against Argentina knew that against Greece, it was all or nothing: had to be. The match began with a Greek side – beset with the ghosts of heroes past – that opted to sit deep and expected to wait out the Nigerian attack- there was no such attack. Instead, the Nigerian team meandered from left to right with little or no incision and opted to whip in speculative efforts which the defensive pair of Avraam Papadopolous and Loukas Vyntra repelled with ease.
It was Greece who in the 11th minute would go on to get the first free-kick of the game – a chance which was promptly wasted after a shot from 45 yards by Kostas Katsouranis and it was Nigeria, in the 16th minute who would score first: again, from 45 yards but it was Sani Kaita, the diminutive, combatant who until now had been a quiet, reliable, ticking presence in the middle of the park who would turn the game on its head and dump Nigeria out of the tournament in one missed lunge at Vasilis Torosidis: Nigeria finished the tournament last in group B, picking up one out of a possible nine points: not all, nothing.
After the game, and as a response to the carefully worded apology released by the player and his representatives, he received over 1000 death threats: an unprecedented event in Nigerian football history.
Later that year, as if feeding off the collective vitriol of Nigerians at the player, the team, the federation, each other and every one, on Christmas eve, a bomb near the central city of Jos killed at least 80 people: 200 more were massacred in reprisal attacks between Christians and Muslims during that period. Over 500 Nigerians died in violent attacks that year along with the Democratic leader of Nigeria, Umaru Musa Yar’ Adua who passed away after a protracted illness.
“You sabi any Nigerian player?”, I ask belatedly in Nigerian pidgin. “Chukwueze, Ahhhh na only Chukwueze I sabi”. “You nko, who you sabi?” “Wetin concern me with that one!” Shola, the second respondent hisses and returns to his phone. The others look away, dropping their gaze and returning to the thoughts which I so rudely interrupted.
“What of Sani Kaita?”, I ask with a knowing smirk on my face. They light up immediately “Ohhh, that fool wey collect red card for World Cup I remember am. Na him make we comot for World Cup that year”.
That “fool” Kaita went on to feature for Lokomotiv, Spartak V-kavkaz, Metalist, Iraklis, SK Tavriya, Olympiacos Nicosia, Saxan, Hercules and ROps before his release in 2017. Barring his martial artistry at the World Cup in South Africa, almost any player on that incredibly promising 2005 squad would have fit into this story seamlessly.
The late Olubayo Adefemi, Onyekachi Apam, Yinka Adedeji, Chinedu Obasi, Isaac Promise: All played at levels far below what they promised in that tournament. John Obi Mikel spent ten successful years at Chelsea but played out of position and well below his potential. Taye Taiwo had a successful period at Marseille but fell off a cliff after his stint at A.C Milan and Even Samson Sia Sia, the talented tactician who led Nigeria to two successive medals is currently serving a life ban from the sport following a match-fixing probe by FIFA.
God’s truth is clear – No matter where we go or what we become, we will remain limited by our willful blindness and contempt for one another. We are that fool, that fool is us. On the other hand, as the famous Swiss psychoanalyst, Carl Jung once said, “The fool is the precursor to the saviour”.