By Adagbo Onoja
Nigeria-Cameroon first and second legs in the march towards 2018 FIFA World Cup competition was all over last night in a way most soccer enthusiasts have no reservations describing as unprecedented. But where might such word as unprecedented be coming from in referring to the two clashes?
Soccer is not like other sporting contests in one major respect. The capacity of members of a team to dominate the field or rank very high in ball possession might excite those watching the game but that is not what counts. That, as an icon in football administration has been quoted as saying, is entertainment football. But, as he has also been quoted as saying, “the football stadium is not an opera house”. It is goals that count at the end of the day, not so much how well you play. Playing well could be a bonus but soccer is not boxing where the player could get by on points. What is unprecedented from those matches must be the score line of 4-0 in the first leg of the encounter. That was shocking to many because it made icons out of neophytes and neophytes out of icons. How?
As the defending champs of the Africa Cup of Nations, the Cameroonian team were, ordinarily, the icons in the pair. And the Nigerians the neophytes! But score line being the marker in soccer, 4-0 made them neophytes and made the Nigerian team the icons. This is more so that even with home advantage in the second leg, they still couldn’t penetrate what the commentator called the non-porous Nigerian defence after “waves and waves of attack” and their lone goal came by a penalty kick. Some analysts have brought in the fact that in a friendly encounter with the Nigerian team shortly before their emergence as the champs of the Africa Cup of Nations earlier this year, the score line was 3-0 in favour of Nigeria. That was under Sunday Oliseh captainship.
Those who take the outcome of those three matches together, (3-0, 4-0 and 1-1) conclude that what is clear now is that the Nigerian team is a much better team. So, these last two encounters acted as a superiority confirming engagement. After all, the outcome in Cameroun’s other encounters have not been particularly good: they played a draw game with Algeria in an away encounter and same at home with the Zambians. If home advantage didn’t let them beat the Zambians, where is the guarantee that they might do better in the second leg?
The outcome of Nigeria-Cameroun matches simply brings to mind the portion of a recent opinion on soccer in The Nation where the writer was asking: if winning has such a powerful unifying import, why is sports in Nigeria not organised in such a way that we keep on winning and winning and winning? Winning in soccer as in every other thing is so sweet. It must be sweeter in soccer because, unlike in politics or business, cheating is minimal. As such, there is an incentive for human ability to be expressed. The mixture of dexterity and endless quick, eagle-eyed judgment that define human ability on the field of play means that soccer is most productive of the tension, suspense and drama that makes it into an emerging religion of a type, complete with its gods and canons.
It is enriched by the unforgettable magical moment when the ball slides into the net in spite of the wizardry of the defence and the keeper. The memory lasts long. Yet, that one, lone goal can make and unmake every other thing about the great player, the great team, the great club or even the great country. As such, the world remains hostage to soccer, “the only arena where differences disappear, be it class, ethnic, religious and regional differences”. Almost all normal human beings are expected to be intoxicated by soccer, particularly when it is between two nations. Then the outcome becomes a measure of the diplomatic weight of each.
As at today, the identity dimension of soccer is the subject of a research work by a Nigerian Professor of Social Psychology. He is curious to find out which is a stronger identity between fandom (or soccer affiliation in this case) and ethno-religious identity. His curiosity was triggered by a number of incidents he has encountered. One of it is where an Arsenal supporter withdrew from buying meat from a meat seller upon sighting the Man U logo on display, suggesting the meat seller is a Man U fan and, therefore, an opponent. He has also seen where two car owners from the same ethnic group who hit each other rarely forgive the other unlike what he has seen many times when such happens between two fans of one club side. So, he is wondering if fandom is not inferiorising ethno-religious identity category. He is equally struck by the vigour with which local Nigerian fans of the most popular football clubs deploy the word ‘we’ when speaking on phone-in radio argumentation on sports. He might be on to a really ground breaking research.
Of course, soccer is a great ground for social mobility. It can or it has moved many from the lowest to the richest class and to become the Greatest Of All Times (GOAT) or what late Mohammed Ali preferred: The Greatest. He was a classic of rising from nothing to the status of the legend, through boxing. His entry to boxing occurred as an accident, as most great things do. But it bears repeating that, unlike any other arenas, getting there through sports, soccer in particular, is essentially on the basis of demonstrable, fairly transparent display of certain skills. In the end, it is ‘solid personal achievement’ in all cases which is not to suggest that a godfather is dispensable. Godfather is hardly dispensable in anything because grooming is required and preferable to products of self-discovery.
Finally, there is money in sports generally and soccer particularly. It might even be said to be the least complicated arena for accumulation. Both the club owners and players make money in sports once you cross a certain threshold. There is no notable player in any sports arena – from boxing to tennis to soccer and what have you that is not finished with poverty, be it Lionel Messi, Roger Federer, Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova, to name just a few. In virtually every country in the world, there exist their local equivalents who have gotten stupendously wealthy but out of their own sweat. Not only are they stupendously wealthy, they are influential global personalities and actors in global governance in their own right, although the structural setting is such that the scope is wider for some than for other. Others are still the ‘Others’ of the system, making it easier for some than for the Abedi Peles and Didier Drogbas of this world. But it is a huge sector, employing huge chunk of labour, with some of the club sides posting budgets bigger than that of some countries.
Soccer or sports is simply emerging into a sort of a religion, with great prospects to unifying power because, unlike international politics which some people call a bar room brawl, soccer is substantially a law governed bar room brawl. Can the Super Eagles, the new icons, now move on to make neophytes of all else and clinch 2018 in Russia? That has been done before by their juniors. It can be done again!