I’m sure a few will read my last sentence and wonder what I’m talking about. It’s simple. We lost, not because we were unlucky and not because of some FIFA conspiracy to ensure that Argentina gets to the latter stages of the competition ahead of Nigeria.
Nigerians have a way of always conflating issues. We qualified for the World Cup and were already in Russia participating in the competition when the men who think cows are more valuable than humans struck in Plateau. But, suddenly, it became a case of ‘We must lose to Argentina, so that we can face up to our problems at home in Nigeria!’ Well, we duly lost and have all fallen back to earth. Hard.
But the thing is it is perfectly reasonable to mourn the loss of our fellow citizens in Plateau and still wish our country wins in a sporting competition like the World Cup. Winning or losing in a World Cup has nothing to do with the state of the nation, even if the state of our football has a lot to do with our national leadership.
I’m sure a few will read my last sentence and wonder what I’m talking about. It’s simple. We lost, not because we were unlucky and not because of some FIFA conspiracy to ensure that Argentina gets to the latter stages of the competition ahead of Nigeria. We lost because of remote and immediate causes. The remote causes were the bases for the immediate ones, which, at best are the reasons some ‘experts’ are bandying around now. For instance, there are those who are saying the manager, Gernot Rohr lacked ideas, that he didn’t know how to close a game that we were less than five minutes away from getting the right result, which was a draw. They are talking about his substitutions. Why Ighalo? Why not Iwobi? They are talking the penalty that never was, the misses and so on.
These are just the immediate causes of our loss, but they were germinated by remote causes operating even before the first ball was kicked. Yes, Nigeria had the chance to get the right result on the day, but rather than think of it along those thin lines, we must look squarely at the reasons we cannot give ourselves an assurance of success to a great extent, the reasons we have to depend on some kind of luck, the reasons we are always underdogs in these engagements, the reasons we play like underdogs and lose like underdogs. These are the remote causes and they are the things we must first address before we can give ourselves a sure chance.
The main and all-encompassing remote reason for our loss to Argentina is the same reason we’re experiencing such killings as the killings in Plateau. It’s a combination of poor intellect, poor vision and poor politics in our leadership. I mean, think about it. Over 200 people were massacred in cold blood because the government says there were clashes between herdsmen and farmers over the alleged loss or rustling of cows. This is the standard government template of interpretation of the problem whether in Benue, Taraba, Adamawa, Yobe, Zamfara, Plateau or anywhere else. Forget that when they make these accusations, you know that cows are not coins you can hide in your palms or pockets. Yet, we are told a few villagers rustle hundreds of these cows and in no case do we get to see their traces. All we see are mangled corpses of villagers killed in supposed swift and brutal justice by these cow owners – women, children, men and beasts, all butchered. So, let’s suspend disbelief and for the sake of argument accept the government version of things.
However, immediately we suspend disbelief and accept this government narrative and then begin to analyze the implications of such an acceptance politically, economically and socially, we invariably get reminded of the fact that we Nigerians are the worst investors in government. Yes, accepting this government story means we are clueless because what this shows is that we do ourselves no favours with the kind of leaderships we are electing every four years since 1999. I mean, we are supposedly electing people into public office to solve basic social problems and create an environment for peaceful coexistence and economic prosperity for the country and its citizens through laws and their implementation, but none of these governments since 1999 has lived up to that mandate. Worse still, for this class of demons we have elected since 2015, adding salt to injury is their forte. Their traditional failure is not enough; they are now investing in mayhem and citizens’ massacres to eternally protect a class of citizens at the expense of others.
Meanwhile, the problem is basically economic needing economic solutions, but we have politicized it and then ethnicized it as a conflict between “Fulani herdsmen” and various other agrarian ethnic communities all over the country. Rather than create a situation where farming and cow breeding should complement each other economically and provide jobs and opportunities for people, we have created a situation where one must kill the other to survive as a business or as a way of life. I mean, we have a country where certain ethnic groups are good at certain things, so why not create healthy competition amongst them through the creation and encouragement of regional or ethnic comparative advantage? If the Fulani is good at animal husbandry and cow breeding and trading, why not create conditions that would modernize the trade for them and whoever else is interested in the trade, rather than allow them to run roughshod over the farmers’ crops to the extent that it’s now resulting in regular massacres in a modern state in the middle of the 21st century? Why should cow trade cost these many lives? Why should it result in so much property damage? Why must it tear up of our communities?
If those we have elected were doing the things we elected them to do, by now there would have been an economically sustainable solution in place that would have benefitted everybody and engendered peace. But no, President Muhammadu Buhari wants to show he is the head of the Fulani worldwide and the protector of their heritage, so no matter what barbarism a section of them commits in the name of fighting for cows, Buhari would mobilize all the security forces to look the other way! He will do so while he publicly makes their case. I mean, how can a president supposedly paying a condolence visit to those who’ve lost hundreds of people to herdsmen killings, admitted to openly by Miyetti Allah, be talking about rustled cows and a few dead herdsmen while blaming political opponents who he says are trying to do nasty things to win the next election? He is a cow breeder himself, so how many people has he killed to keep his herd? How does he expect fellow citizens of a multicultural, multiethnic country to look at him when he talks as though he really does not care for the wellbeing of all? But, again, it’s a function of lack of ideas; some would say plain wickedness.
It’s not rocket science. The rearing of cows for sale is a legitimate economic activity that should be supported by everyone, but based on rules of free trade. Government cannot be saying they want land from states for grazing or for ranching because it is not their business, it’s private business. What government can do is make the environment attractive for investment while doing away with destructive and unproductive practices, cultural or otherwise. First, we cannot continue to allow open grazing in any part of the country in the 21st century, especially where the animals in question are not just reared domestically. This is clearly not sustainable anymore. Once reared commercially, the animals have to be in ranches. We must be abreast with best practices worldwide; we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Government cannot give out ranches to anybody; rather, anyone interested in the cow rearing business should invest in it like a proper business. Government can give incentives to local producers of animal feed, subsidize it as they subsidize fertilizer and encourage cow breeders to patronize them, rather than letting cows roam around on farms all over the country, leading to this regular killing of people up and down. Business owners can acquire land like any businessperson for the business of ranching. They can do so individually or as collectives or cooperatives and government can invest in training the technical expertise they need to build the physical infrastructural elements of the business and again hire them out on a subsidized basis to business owners who take advantage of government’s willingness to help. If this is done, in no time, we will have beautiful, productive ranches dotting the whole place and millions of citizens making money through the whole value chain. We will harvest good, quality and healthy meat at affordable prices nationwide, rather than dead citizens!
The analogy with our sports generally is obvious and more obvious is the relationship between our failure in football and our politics. The primary remote reason for our failure is that our nation has failed to invest in its talent pool to produce the right result. Mushin Local Government in Lagos State has twice as many people as the population of Iceland, but Iceland is ‘shaking tables’ at the European Championships and at the World Cup after triumphing via tough European qualifiers. Yet, we, a nation of almost 200 million people, are just happy to stroll through African qualifiers and go to the World Cup to make up the numbers. There’s a reason countries like Germany, England, Argentina, Spain, Brazil, France, the Netherlands and so on are on top of the game. There’s a reason these countries cannot contemplate losses in international competitions and why when they compete, everyone makes them favourites. The fact that England invented football has not guaranteed them to be the best footballing nation. To be the best, you have to do the basics.
In England, every village has at least one football club, while cities have many. All clubs have the opportunity to compete in all national competitions by merit; but to attain competition levels you compete in regional and local competitions, all sanctioned by national football authorities with government and private sector support at every level. FIFA only says government should not interfere with the running of football, it didn’t say government should not invest in football; it didn’t say government should not encourage investment in the game as part of its youth development or sports development policy. So, the English have got that to a tee. The football industry has 20 Premier League clubs, 72 Football League and 68 National League clubs. All of them are compulsorily invested in schools and community programmes nationwide. Imagine the effect of that on fitness and youth development alone. Now, take a snapshot of its economy at the highest level and you will see why in the 2016/2017 season, the English Premier League alone generated £4.5 billion. We are talking 20 clubs with all of them setting their own personal revenue record. Sometimes, we are surprised by how much players are paid, wondering where the money is coming from to pay these millions of pounds in wage bill, but the fact is that revenue growth is outpacing the growth in wage bill. For instance, no club in the Premiership reported an operating loss this past season. Even the Championship, which is the second tier competition in England, remains the biggest second tier competition in world football with revenue outstripping even some of the top leagues in the continent. It is therefore no surprise that in that same 2016/2017 season, only the professional league in England raked in £1.9 billion in taxes for government.
In Europe, the festival of football success is not limited to England. While English league clubs revenue was €5.3 billion in the season under consideration, the other big four leagues in Europe didn’t do badly. Spain raked in €2.9 billion, Germany €2.8 billion, Italy €2.1 billion and France €1.7 billion. Turkey leads the next five with €734 million, followed by Russia at €701 million, Netherlands 451 million, Portugal €366 million and little Scotland with €211 million. Meanwhile, African players in Europe are a huge part of the reason these leagues are making so much money, not only because they ply their trade there, but also because their participation attracts a huge fanbase in Africa. Almost 300 million Africans follow the Premier League.
So, how are they making this money? Just by doing the basics and building on these. First, you have to invest locally in the business of football by protecting the talent base and nurturing it. Our talent base is not in Europe where our best are professionally plying their trade; our talent base is Nigeria. If you cannot invest in football playing and training infrastructure at the schools, youth, community and local levels, you cannot get any result at the senior level. True, we might produce few exceptional talents who get picked up by big European clubs to play club football in Europe, but that will never grow Nigerian football. What will grow Nigerian football is a respectable league at home. What we have today is a joke and it is because the right investments have not come in and no one is bothering to think about the possibilities it can provide for the nation. The thing is the stars are aligned in our favour right now and it’s been so for some time; the world needs an African football superpower and we are the best-positioned African country to produce that. But we are still napping!
For reasons best known to it, the Buhari government has scrapped the National Sports Commission (NSC). Whatever the problems of the Commission, they are yet to tell us exactly why it was scrapped two years ago and how they hope to address the problems one must assume they have identified which must have led them to do the scrapping. But there is the National Institute for Sports (NIS). What is its mandate? What has prevented it from producing a good blueprint for football development in the nation leveraged on the popularity of the game nationwide and the abundance of talents? What exactly do they need to produce this and sell it to the private sector, so we can make the same progress others are making in this area? Where are the coaching schools and where are their products and what are they doing to develop the game? Where are the football academies? What is being done to grow the game from the grassroots level? What support are people taking private initiatives in this area getting from government? What prevents our government from sending our sports administrators to Europe to go understudy their football business model and then come back home to apply whatever they have learnt adaptably to our conditions?
When we attempt to answer these questions honestly, what would immediately become obvious is that we are adopting the same negative attitude to sports development that we have eternally adopted for economic development. We have the raw material, but rather than develop it, we allow others from outside to come, take it and make business from it and pass it back to us as mere consumers. The other day at a Commonwealth meet in the UK, our president was busy thanking Nestle, UAC and those multinational trading concerns in Nigeria for standing by us even during the Civil War, but what does he expect? Does he expect people making money from a consumerist society by merely trading our own products back to us in processed forms to walk away at the sight of blood when they are making a killing? When at the same forum he was celebrating Shell for promising to invest 15 billion dollars in Nigeria, he thinks Shell cares how much damage it’s doing to our environment and ecosystem in its pursuit of profit? What does it take to harness our own material and human resources and see how we can do things with them and around them to add value for our own benefit? Why are the government and private sector ignoring the goldmine that is football?
We must attack the problem from the micro level. If we are really serious, if we want to compete with the rest of the world, we need to start from the grassroots. Inter-schools competitions at the primary and secondary school levels must be resuscitated with real interest. For instance, the Principals Cup competition in Lagos secondary schools has been revived, but it’s obvious that it’s yet to get its old groove back. Throughout the nation, there are competitions of that sort that need to be revived, introduced and robustly supported. These were competitions that have produced some of our own world-class footballers, so they must be reprogrammed to be the primary assembly lines to produce and nurture our talents. For instance, establishing a scholarship programme around them would be a good starting point.
We must work towards a situation where each club in the league creates a decent football home and builds a worldwide fanbase for its product. The football home is the club stadium, which earns them match day revenues for a start. From that base, they’d be well placed to gain financially from sales of broadcasting rights, corporate sponsorships and other commercial deals. If there’s any lesson to learn from the World Cup, the fact that the Nigerian jersey sold out in record time should tell us the potential of our local league from merchandising. But how can that happen when top clubs do not even own their own stadiums? When clubs own their own stadium, they put themselves on a platform to earn big from the game because they have a home, run by them like a business with the aim of attracting fans and other patrons all year round. Where governments own stadiums, you don’t get clubs investing in them or looking to make money from their facilities. It’s even worse where governments own clubs with players suffering the same poor conditions that other government workers suffer. Indeed, state-owned Nigerian clubs are notorious for not paying footballers. In 2015, Taraba United players protested many months of being unpaid by sleeping outside the state governor’s office for several days. The year after, they were back after twelve months without pay. How do you expect a footballer to train every day of the week and give his best every weekend in a competitive game when he’s not paid? Why would young people not find any way, legal or illegal, to leave our shores with the hope of pursuing their dreams elsewhere if they have to suffer without pay?
To keep the talent at home, we must develop the local league and make it competitive with the rest of the world. Governments and the private sector can help top clubs build and own their own stadiums by giving them soft loans for such developments. As far as the revenue opportunities are there, it will be a win-win for everybody. The private sector is all about making money, but if they do not see the opportunities well mapped out for them by public policy in this regard, they will not pour in their money. Every year, we hear the news that Aliko Dangote, an Arsenal fan is keen to buy the English club, but why hasn’t someone put in front of him a blueprint that will show him he can make the same or more money from investing properly in football at home?
As I keep saying, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. I’ve given examples of European leagues and how they’re making hay. The same applies to South American and Asian leagues now. No one wants to be left behind. Indeed, in Africa, countries like Algeria, Egypt, Tunisia and South Africa are trying to make real business out of football and they’re succeeding. Apart from learning from Europe, I will recommend that Nigeria learns from South Africa because its model better guarantees success in Nigeria, not only because of the fast way it’s developed, but for its sustainability and prospects. Since after it won the African Cup of Nations in 1996, four years after Apartheid was toppled, South Africa has never looked back.
The South African Premier League is one of the very best in Africa. It’s all down to how the league has made the product attractive to big business. When a league offers real value, the money follows. First, they made it attractive and affordable to the ordinary working-class fans who feel happy attending the games and enjoying themselves while out there without any fear of violence because investments have properly been made in stadium security. The spectacle attracted broadcasters and with an audience to leverage, the league became easier to market. With each club competing to make its brand better in order to get more fans and get better deals to win bigger glory, the business synergy between all stakeholders becomes itself an investor’s dream.
The South African league has also invested a lot in organization. While the Nigerian league is bedeviled by questionable refereeing and chaotic fixture lists and the North African leagues are wracked by fans violence, the South African league sets the standard in organization continent-wide. League fixtures and schedules are arranged in such a way as to get the maximum value from the television deals because these are huge sources of revenue for the clubs. Indeed, they are miles ahead of the rest in terms of how effectively they’ve monetized the product. For instance, in 2015, Kaiser Chiefs as the South African Premier League champions received $836,000 while their Nigerian counterparts, Kano Pillars received only $86,000 for their title win. In the same season, South Africa’s PSL paid out a total prize money pool of $2.4 million while Nigeria’s NPFL paid out $433,000.
Cultivating the passion of fans in any league remains a key challenge, but the organizers of South African league have, by investing in organization and stadium security, ensured they win the trust of the fans. This makes it possible for fans to freely express their passion and see the value in supporting the football business. So, derbies and special matches between competitive teams with rival fanbases have become money-spinners. For instance, the Soweto derby between Orlando Pirates and Kaizer Chiefs is global as it’s watched by fans in Europe, Middle East, Australia, Latin America, New Zealand and the Caribbean and so on. Keeping fans interested is what earns the gate-takings, better media deals, corporate sponsorships and good merchandising prospects with sales of clubs’ memorabilia. Clearly, it’s the great work done by the South African Premier League that helped win the World Cup hosting right for South Africa in 2010. Nigeria with its population, known talent base and potential fanbase should be making a kill in Africa, but, regrettably, we are still groping in the dark.
We are an authentic football-loving nation and its potential to help build and heal our communities is obvious. Imagine the unity we all felt when Ahmed Musa put in those two goals against Iceland. Imagine watching players from different parts of the country and different ethnic groups standing upright in world competitions belching out the national anthem. Imagine the emotions we always feel for 90 minutes watching them trying to bring glory to their country and not to themselves. Imagine if we begin to put in the right investments at home to invite the rest of the world to ply their trade in Nigeria. We have the best weather and our people can create the best atmosphere, so what is there not to love? If we open up our opportunities in this area, there is no doubt that the best African, South American and even European talents will join ours here at home to build our own football business. Many young people are beginning to love the game and many worldwide are looking for new opportunities to showcase their talent. Opening up a viable football market in Nigeria will meet their needs. Most crucially, it will help in establishing us as the football superpower that we can be.
So, we should not cry and wail when we lose to Argentina or any of the big soccer nations because they have already done their homework and are entitled to reap the reward in the field of play. All we need to do is do ours too. The political campaign season is here and politicians are already running around promising heaven and earth. Have we had any election where youth and sports development was a serious campaign issue? Have we seen anybody challenge those seeking votes on what exactly their plans are for our football or any other sport? You cannot reap where you did not sow. If we want football glory, we must prepare for it. As it is, nobody in the Presidency, Ministry of Sports or the National Assembly or at the state level anywhere is thinking about it. They all look at football as some kind of pastime that deserves no serious consideration because it’s just something only wayward young people engage in. They think winning and losing in international tournaments is all about luck. Like everything in our nation, sports administration is a hotbed of corruption with no proper oversight or proper mechanisms for evaluating performance or results with the aim of doing better. How can anything good come out of this when our mentality is not right?
In conclusion, let’s all continue to mourn the loss of our fellow citizens in Plateau and elsewhere. Let’s continue to put pressure on our governments at national and state levels to get a grip of the problem. We are tired of platitudes. We need to see real actions in terms of apprehension of these murderers and putting them on trial with the hope of keeping them away from circulation for a long time. We have to see government address the immediate and long-term problems of victims and survivors, including helping to rebuild their communities and providing the necessary security assurances going forward. It’s a measure of how much government has failed Nigerian citizens everywhere that there are people who would read me now and snort disapprovingly that these are mere wish lists that no one in government will attend to because they’re not interested. Of course, based on our history, they’d be right. In the long run, the sustainable solution to all these killings is the realization that there are economic opportunities the state can help facilitate from all this for the benefit of everyone, so we all can coexist in peace and prosperity. As for the football, its problem is just another expression of failed and failing leadership, just like the killings we are witnessing. Solutions to the two problems highlighted here can only come when we elect the right people into office. If we elect real patriots and visionaries into key offices, they will see the potential the nation has in the two problem areas highlighted and mobilize themselves and the rest of the nation to provide the right solutions along the lines suggested. 2019 is here and it’s in our hands. With your one vote, you can choose to exchange ten men, women and children for one cow while Argentina continues to poop on our heads or you can choose to change the direction of the country for the better. It’s in your hands.
NB: Though I’ve talked about this soccer development problem purely from men’s football angle, this is deliberate. Female soccer worldwide has always grown at the back of the men’s game. It’s got its challenges too in Africa, nay Nigeria; but, relatively, we can say Nigerian female football is healthy. Nonetheless, for it to also become world-class, it has to grow along the same lines espoused above as part of the game’s development at home generally.