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A Story of Heroes and Epics: The Story of Football in Nigeria


Author: Wiebe Boer

Publisher: Bookcraft, Ibadan, Nigeria, 2018

ISBN:  978-978-8457-96-1 (PB) 978-978-8457-97-8 (HB)

In Nigeria, football is everywhere. From dusty fields to grand stadiums, from street corners to boisterous bars, the game is played, discussed, debated and supported with a fervor reserved for little else. But there was a beginning, a time before it became the national sport which has played a vital role in the creation and development of the Nigerian national identity. A Story of Heroes and Epics is an in-depth examination of this history and a narration of the people, places and events that acted to promote the game to its level of popularity in Nigeria.

A book about the history of football must accomplish two things. The first is the gathering, organization and verification of the historic facts of football history- a daunting task given the appalling lack of documentation of Nigerian history. The second is the telling of these facts in a way that brings the stories to life. These events, when they happened, were moments of excitement and exhilaration. A book about them then must not be a dry recitation of facts, but narratives brimming with life.

Thankfully, the author achieves both expertly.

The book begins with a look at the origins of football in Calabar, where Presbyterian missionaries introduced the game to secondary school children. The first recorded organized game happened in 1904. From there, football found its way to Lagos, carried by the flux of people who headed to the new capital of the Southern Protectorate. In Lagos, Frederick ‘Baron’ Mulford steps to the fore of the narrative, with his work popularizing and organizing football earning him the names ‘Baba Eko’ and ‘Father of football.’ The book then takes a jaunt to Northern Nigeria where a similar story plays out, and from there, details of the game’s growth in Warri, Enugu, Ijebu Ode, and beyond are revealed.

The history covered, the book then delves beneath the surface to offer a detailed analysis of the effect football has had on shaping the Nigerian nationality. The history itself was an impressive feat, but for the reader, this is where the book becomes a smorgasbord of intriguing revelations.

Football was introduced by British missionaries while sports such as polo and cricket were introduced by the colonial officials and military officers. The British promoted these other sports to Nigerians, but it was football which caught on and spread like wildfire. Polo became a sport reserved for the Nigerian and European elite. Cricket (thankfully- some might say), eventually lost its popularity. Football, more than any other organized sport, was cheap and easy to set up. All you needed was a ball and an open field.

Another gripping insight comes from learning that these sports were introduced and promoted as a means of promoting British values. One must appreciate the irony of the game then being hijacked by Nigerians and pressed into service as both a means of anti-colonial protest and a nation-building mechanism.

The story of the spread of football in Nigeria, how it grew from Calabar to permeate every corner of the country, is told with deftness. Reasons for this rapid dispersion are traced to inter-school and inter-regional matches. Colonial institutions also played a vital role in the prominence of football. Employees of the Nigerian Police Force, the Public Works Department, the Nigerian Railway and the non-commissioned officers and men of the Nigerian Regiment took the sport with them wherever they were stationed across the country.

Dr. Wiebe Boer then gives attention to the rise of football as an organized sport. By the 1930’s football had already grown to be a national obsession and various leagues and tournaments were being organized. In 1933, the Nigeria Football Association (NFA) was established with the goal of supporting the development of football associations across the country. As an organized sport, football became the most prominent and important sport in Nigeria. A surprising leader of this movement was Nnamdi Azikiwe, a star player in the Lagos league and at Lincoln University, who established a network of athletic clubs in Lagos and around the country.  During World War II, he organized two football goodwill tours across the country to raise money for the war effort – while also giving lectures about democracy and independence.  The roles of other of Nigeria’s founding fathers in the development of the game are also highlighted, including Obafemi Awolowo, Tafawa Balewa, and Ahmadu Bello. The establishment of the Governor’s Cup by Governor General Arthur Richards in 1945 was the final piece that transformed football into a truly national affair. The cup played a huge role in fostering community spirit and a recognition and acceptance that Nigerians were part of the same nation.

And Nigeria would need this solidarity, as the next step was for the country to join the international football community. Wiebe Boer chronicles how this happened, and the role football played in shaping Nigeria as an emerging nation. Nigerian soldiers stationed in India and Burma during World War II first brought international attention to the potential of Nigerian football through success in the military leagues.  This was followed by a tour of England in 1949 during which the Nigerian national team enjoyed some success against lower level league and semi-professional English teams. The team included Captain Etim Henshaw of Marine, Tesilim ‘Thunder’ Balogun who would later play for Peterborough and QPR, and Titus Okere, who returned to England in 1952 and became Nigeria’s first professional player.  John Dankaro of Takum (now Taraba State), a tin mining executive and star of the league in Plateau Province, was the only team member from Northern Nigeria.

The book then traces various Nigerian teams as they competed on the international stage and the enormous excitement and interest that followed the teams who were seen to be representing the entire country. The journey, of course, had its ups and downs, climaxing in a particularly nasty clash with the Ghanaian team.

The history of women’s football in Nigeria is not left out as Dr. Wiebe Boer takes a chapter to trace its origins and rise. Nigerian female footballers have come a long way from being treated as side novelty attractions to being successful on the international stage- even more so than the male team!

In Nigeria, football is an important game. And this is an important book.

First, it is history: a thorough examination of the history of this sport in Nigeria and how the game has shaped Nigerian pride and consciousness.

Secondly, it is a reminder that national pride and love for this great country are things that can and should be intentionally cultivated. We are never stronger than when we let ourselves forget the lines of religion, tribe, language and ethnicity that divide us.

Thirdly, this book serves as an inspiration to us all. Extraordinary stories lie in our past, and if we do not seek them out and tell them, they will be lost forever.

Everyone should read this book. Avid footballers, casual fans, public servants, school students… Everyone. There is no doubt that anyone who reads this book will benefit immensely from the insights and knowledge set forth so lucidly here, and marvel at the thrilling and exhilarating stories that had heretofore gone untold.

A book about football in Nigeria has been written, and it is indeed a story of heroes and epics.

The post A Story of Heroes and Epics: The Story of Football in Nigeria appeared first on BusinessDay : News you can trust.

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