I arrived 70 minutes late. My DSTV had refused to work, no thanks to the subscription expiry which I noticed late by the way. So I had to join my compatriots at the bar to get the rumbustious feel of the match. Incidentally, Cote Devoir was level with Nigeria and looking around the small bar, the tension was palpable. No one paid me any notice, and as I sat down, the attendant hurtled towards me. I must order something to qualify to watch the match.
“Give me pure water” I requested, waving my hand in the air to show my importance.
“Pure water or bottled water?” the impatient male attendant pouted enquiringly, raising his eyebrows as if he didn’t hear me the first time. His eyes oscillated like a pendulum between the television and me.
“Yes, pure water!” I replied, raising my voice above the din of noise to make sure I was being heard. The TV was so loud, although the atmosphere in the bar was damp with tension. ‘Is pure water not a commodity again? I thought to myself. After all it has a NAFDAC number just like the bottled water, abi? I asked myself, but in my thoughts though. I didn’t want to be heard raising hoopla over pure water when an important match was going on. The attendant weaved himself through the small space in the bar and disappeared behind the counter to fetch my order. I settled down to watch the match. I took the ‘one chance’ available in the bar so that means I was seated very close to the door and occasionally the gusty harmattan wind would blow the swinging door made with barbed wire woven like a net back and forth. The door would dig into my back, making me shift uneasily, but I didn’t care. It was seventy three minutes into the match already. I had barely settled down when my eyes caught the buildup to what seemed promising from the Nigerian squad.
At the table on my far right, I noticed a man sit erect on his chair, with a bottle of Gulder clutched on his right hand. His left hand rested on his chin nervously and his eyes were drunken red. At the centre of the table sat quite a number of empty bottles, seven or eight at least. They were a mix of Gulder, Star and Guinness. He was in the company of four other men, all huddled around the small table, eyes transfixed on the television. He appeared to be the only one taking a shot at the drinks, at least for now. The others were more in tune with the match, but he looked more nervous too. As Sunday Mba took the ball and dribbled, the man moved his head from side to side as if his view was obstructed by something. Meanwhile the TV is hung on the highest point of the wall in the small bar, so you had to raise your chin to watch and my neck was already strained. But the man kept extruding his head from side to side like a long-necked mother hen unnerved by the approach of kites above her domain. Then came what we had all been expecting. Sunday Mba kept the faith and knocked the ball clean past the keeper into the goal. Wild cheers erupted in the bar. We all stood to cheer the Super Eagles.
“Chei, Sunday, Igbuomu oo” the man said in Igbo, jigging himself around with pride. He was still standing after the rest of us had settled back on our seats.
“Nyem Nwainu, give me a bottle of wine” he barked, throwing his weight around and with his right hand, shoved the half-full bottle of Gulder aside. He was in celebratory mood. I too was.
“Come around please” I waved to the attendant. He came round very quickly. This time he had a spring to his steps that I can only put down to the excitement over the goal.
“Yes, Oga? He said on coming around.
“What do you have?
“You mean food?”
“We have Santana, amala, semo, and eba” he reeled off the names of the staple food in stock. “And we have uha soup, vegetable, banga, and onugbu” he finished, stepping back a bit to watch me make up my mind.
“Ehm, do you have nkwobi?” I asked
“Good, I will go with that” I said, smiling.
“Is that all Sir?
“No, also give me a malt drink to go with it”
“Ok Sir” he said enthusiastically and navigated his way through the crowded room full of suddenly talkative football analysts. The once quiet bar had come alive. There was no angle of analysis I didn’t hear. The man who for joy had abandoned the bottle of Gulder was now sipping his glass of red wine and talking loudly and over his mates. When they substituted Victor Moses for Joseph Yobo in the dying minutes of the match, he was vehemently in opposition.
“Chinekemee” he bellowed. “This people want us to lose this match, okwa ya?” his hazy eyes blaring with emphasis and his hands raised in remonstrance.
“I trust Stephen Keshi” his mate across the table assured. “The boss knows what he is doing. He is the best coach in the world”
“Ngwanu” the man replied. “He better know what he is doing oo” he said warningly.
My Nkwobi arrived barely minutes before the final whistle, but that didn’t matter. What mattered was that after many years of disappointment, I was enthusiastic about Nigerian football again. The last time I commented on Nigerian football was in 2004 during the AFCON of that year. The BBC Radio had interviewed me live on air after reading my comment on their website found here http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/3444973.stm . The problem with Nigerian football was the gradual chipping away of talent, merit and hardwork through poor management, cronyism and factionalization. In the 2000s we lost the competitive edge in football to smaller nations like Ghana, Cote D’ivoire, Mali, Cameroon and even South Africa. Just imagine. We were unable to build on the knowledge and lessons learned from the golden years of Nigerian football of the 80s and 90s. This knowledge gap ensured that we groped around in obscurity for so long until the FA made a strategic decision to bring in Samson Siasia. That singular decision, for me, was the most pivotal in turning Nigerian football around. Although Siasia was too disciplined for the Nigerian terrain often bedeviled by politics, sectional interests, and patronage, his accomplishments within the short period of time he steered the rudders of the ship provided a springboard for Stephen Okechukwu Keshi. Siasia and Keshi were part of the golden generation of Nigerian football. It is this experience that we currently see translated into tangible reality at the performance level. My colleagues in the bar asserted that Keshi is the best coach in the world, at least for today, Sunday, 3rd of February, 2013. Abi no be so? The truth though is not farfetched. Tacit knowledge is difficult to translate and transfer without direct contact and comingling. Keshi and Siasia brought to the table the experience and know-how of the 80s and 90s which saw Nigerian football blossom. It is this know-how that we should seek to cultivate and mature. I am happy we have realized that our solutions are not often with foreign coaches. Creating a culture of continuity and passing the baton ensures that know-how is fostered and transferred tacitly from generation to generation just like Brazil, Argentina and Italy all do at the football level. Is this not what Japanese, Korean and Chinese manufacturing have perfected? -passing knowledge from age to age and ensuring that those who come into custody of this knowledge can choose to refine and contextualize it to fit current trends. While Siasia was too patrician, upright and Victorian in outlook, Keshi has some panache, effervescence and quintessence necessary for operating in the conundrum called Nigeria. Remember, he was Nigeria’s skipper for many years. He understudied Westerhof and knows the game and the politics. These two are important and inseparable. I watched the post-match interview and was enamored hearing Keshi speak French with relish-he had coached Togo and Mali National Teams in the past. Keshi brings a lot to the table, whether we go beyond the Quarter Finals or not. In the 2000s, there was a discontinuity, a disconnect and a dying away of a distinct football style and culture developed in the 80s and 90s. Our past successes were not leveraged but today, we can see a renascent Nigerian football, a resurgent Eagles, and an expectant nation ready to believe again. The winners tonight were not Emenike and Mba who scored the two goals that helped Nigeria advance past Cote D’ivoire. The winner is not even Stephen Keshi, who in my estimation actually made this happen. The winner is Nigeria, the football loving nation and the most populous country in Africa and the black world.
As I finished my nkwobi and headed home, leaving behind the bar, I could still hear my friend in the bar lecturing with garrulous intensity, all who cared to listen, about how Nigerian football had come of age.
“Let me inform you” I heard him boast “Nigeria is not mai mai. We will beat Burkina Faso or Togo, if we meet them in the next round” he finished. I could imagine him lunging forward and reaching for the glass of wine on the table. I pity his wife, because by the time he gets home he will be so stoned and wasted to say goodnight to the poor woman and the kids. I am sure of one thing though, there will be no quarrel in the house this night.
Dr. Paul Ihuoma Oluikpe lives in Abuja, Nigeria and works for the Central Bank of Nigeria