7 Minutes with China: Bring back the Passion

A few Sundays ago, I saw pictures and videos from the late game at Ibadan between Shooting Stars and Remo Stars.

I saw them on the WhatsApp Status update of League writer and photojournalist, Tobi Adepoju. My reaction to that post was, “Ibadan people still dey watch football?” and his response was “Yes oh. Crazy fans!”

But it is not just in Ibadan that we have seen a massive turnout of fans. Doma United have been a good example, then of course, Kano Pillars who never disappoint. Down south has been here and there as the people do not really care, but something happened in Uyo two weeks ago.

Last weekend, after we saw relegation-threatened Akwa United win in Jos against Plateau United, then Rangers win in Aba against Heartland, and then Bayelsa United go to Lafia to get a result against Lobi Stars, Kelechi Onwudiwe posted in a WhatsApp group, NPFL Undiluted, “Anybody can say anything they like, but you see this NPFL, na the very LEAGUE BE DAT”

And this statement took me back to a few Monday’s ago when I was in Uyo for a League game.

Watching football in Uyo

The League na we own

So, I was in Uyo three weeks ago to see the game between Rivers United and Ghana’s Dreams FC. I decided to stay back the extra day because there was a big one between the home side, Akwa United and Enyimba in the League.

As I got out of my hotel room, I had started the process of booking a ride when saw the tricycles, known as Keke pass me by and then a commercial motorcycle came along and I remembered the old days. I cancelled the ride I had already booked and hailed a motorbike (Okada)

As I jumped on the Bike, the man asked where I was going to and I said, “The Stadium.”

He asked, “Match dey?” and my response was, “Enyimba dey come Uyo,” was my reply, and all of a sudden it took me back thirty-something years ago to when I used to go to the Port Harcourt Liberation Stadium, now Yakubu Gowon Stadium to watch Sharks and Dolphins play their league games. We did not say a club was in town for a game, rather will say a club is coming, even if it was just a few hours to kick off.

The Akwa United versus Enyimba game in Uyo to me was more than just a football game as it took me back in time.

Frenzy at the gates

I saw a bit of frenzy at the stadium gates, even though it was nothing compared to thirty years ago. Back then, we would take motorbikes from Garrison, in Port Harcourt, heading to the stadium at Elekahia. To even get a bike would be a thing of struggle as we would have scores of people scrambling to get on the few available bikes. It was as though there was rumour of an impending war and people were struggling to leave town, but no! We were just going to watch a football match. Those who couldn’t wait for Bikes started their brisk walk to the stadium or even started jogging. The thing was that if you got to the stadium anything after 2 pm you were late. And it was a 4 pm kick-off. Just let this sink in.

In Uyo, as I approached the game I noticed two motorbikes. They each had four people in it, plus the rider. And there were two ladies, one in each bike. So, two motorbikes ferried 6 people to the stadium, and they were all young people, probably between 20 and 30. They were the generation that watched the European Leagues in the comfort of their homes and bars.

Then I cast my mind to the stadium girls in Port Harcourt back in the day. We all knew them. They were front row in every game, cheering the players they were probably dating. The thing about these girls was that as soon as these players left at the end of the season to new clubs, they began to date the new set that joined the clubs. Do these stadium girls still exist? I haven’t noticed them much in Port Harcourt. Maybe it is because the Stadium Rivers United play their games is not even in Port Harcourt, or maybe, I have not been looking.

Seating in clusters

Me at the post-match conference, asking a question

Another thing that never ceased to amaze me thirty years ago and I saw in Uyo was the behavior of Nigerian football fans regarding seating at the stadium. This was a big stadium and there were so many empty seats, but the fans chose to cluster in small areas, some even sitting on walk ways and being stubborn about it.

Everyone was clustering in the VIP area. It was filled up, but people still wanted to sit in it.

A well-dressed Enyimba fan, in a white kaftan sat next to me, but in front of the exit gate. The attendant asked him to move somewhere, calmly explaining that opening and closing the gate would be distracting for him, and it could even hurt him. I was there and it was said in the nicest of ways, but the reaction was harsh, as though the fan was spoiling for war.

“If this gate tear my shirt eh, you go see wetin I go do you?”

“Oga no be matter of fight. Comot for here go sit for another place. Here na road. People go pass here. E go disturb you.”

But the Enyimba fan kept on spoiling for a fight, and actually hoping there would be a fight. Thank goodness it did not degenerate to that. And he did not move. He sat there all game long, having to shift and adjust his body anytime people passed through that gate. The thing is that there were lots of empty seats right in front of us.

Kanu, Uche and Nwaneri

Can you spot Obinna Nwaneri, Okey Uche and Nwankwo Kanu?

Just beside me, another issue was brewing. Four former Super Eagles players (one had won the AFCON, one who had won the CAF Champions League, three had won the Nigerian League, and one had won the UEFA Champions League) just walked in, took their seats and were then ejected by stewards. These men were Nwankwu Kanu, Okechukwu Uche, Obinna Nwaneri and Ifeanyi Ekwueme.

A steward went to them and calmly said only Nwankwo Kanu and Okey Uche can sit there, but the other two had to leave. A few fans who saw the scene protested, telling the steward that they were all former Super Eagles players who have featured at the AFCON before, so they should be respected, but the steward stood his ground saying only Kanu and Uche could sit there.

He claimed that the area was reserved for commissioners and House of Assembly members in the state.

I smiled as I looked up behind me to observe what was going on. This was Nigerian football in its purest form. The home team will do these things to unsettle the away team, this has been happening since I watched my first game in 1989 at the Sharks FC Stadium.

I heard Kanu lean towards Uche, and I guess they agreed that they would all move, rather than stay back with their two colleagues thrown out, so all four of them moved to the lower terrace where they found space to sit for the duration of the game.

The limping referee

As part of the entertainment served us by the league on the day was an Assistant Referee 1 who was getting all his calls wrong.

Then Kingsley Olisa who was seated somewhere in the stadium put a call to me pointing out that I should watch the AR1 Who was killing the game.

At half-time, he located me and two of us alongside Henry Nna saw what was already obvious. The referee had a bad leg and was limping all through. So, how on earth did he get the nod to officiate in one of the biggest games in the league? How?

The Drama

The drama pitch hit the rooftops and Enyimba, though they lost that game 3-1 did not stop pushing for a goal. Then, the usual happened. There were no balls left pitchside, apart from the one used to play the game. This is the oldest trick in the book, created by desperate home clubs since the 90s, perfected in Aba from 2003 and now being used against Enyimba, the kings of this move, here in Uyo. It was all amusing for me as I enjoyed every bit of what was going on.

Then one of the Akwa United coaches, Bassey Akpan lost his cool and was sent off by the referee. He walked up to sit behind me, but did not stop cursing. He was cursing the referee, cursing Enyimba, and even cursing some of us who tried to calm him down. He was acting as though he placed a bet on that game that his side wins or he be castrated. And we all know a man is not a man without his Weapons of Mass Destruction.

It was a good game, all-round

Eventually, the game ended and Akwa United won 3-1. While Enyimba were pushing for an equaliser at 2-1, a quick break gave the home side a chance to score a third.

I saw the sea of heads leaving the stadium. It is a stadium that seats about thirty thousand people, and maybe five thousand turned up to watch the game. You may think this was a poor turnout, but when you consider figures in the Southern part of Nigeria, then it was massive.

I saw a lot of the younger generation at the stadium. I saw Annabel Ikio, a Port Harcourt girl currently in National Service at Uyo at the stadium and she had a group of friends, male and female with her. There were maybe, about 8 of them. They looked like Youth Corps members, and I believed she had dragged them to the stadium. Did they see enough to bring them back?

The game did not disappoint, even though the home side was battling relegation and the away team was chasing the title. While Enyimba did their passing and expansive style of play (Finidi-Ball), the idea being to pass their opponents to death, Akwa United just sat back and played off the counter. It is always good to see a Nigerian team pass the ball well and this has been happening since the 80s.

There was Monday Sinclair and the tiki-taka high press Sharks FC side from 1987 to 1995, and I kid you not, this was before any of you ever saw Pep Guardiola and Barcelona do it, and Sharks did it better. There was Joe Erico and his Jogo Bonito at Lagos NEPA FC in the 90s. Then there was Argentine Alex Dominguez and Ranchers Bees in the late 80s. Move the hands of the clock forward and one will not forget Ladan Bosso’s Wikki Tourist team in the noughties (surprised?), then there was Abdul Maikaba at Wikki Tourists and Fidelis Illechukwu at MFM. So, the Nigerian League has had a history of fine ball-playing sides, but it was still a thing of joy to see the Enyimba players speak to the ball, and in Monday Sinclair’s words, “Dem dey tell the ball wetin to do for them.”

There are not many games in the Nigerian league with this kind of experience, but this is one thing our clubs need to focus on.

We all know their focus is the three points which they have promised their bosses, but they need to understand that the reason why they have not been able to keep the fans is that, those paying to watch games know that what they see is more or a quest for three points than any other thing. We need to bring back the fan experience. What is the entertainment value of the games? What do the fans take home with them? What do they even see that will make them return?

With home boy, George Essien

But I guess I am just over reaching. Those in charge of the league are in it for something else. I should go and sit down with my passion for football. And back to the quote from Kelechi Onwudiwe, “Anybody can say anything they like, but you see this NPFL, na the very LEAGUE BE DAT”

I know this, most of the football writers know this, the players and coaches know this, but do the club and league administrators know this?

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