A big miracle that my campus fellowship, The Light of Christ Community (LCC), did for me, was that I was forever cured of my addiction to soccer both as a player and a follower. I grew up with football. I lived, ate, breathed soccer. I lived in the neighbourhood and that was the only sport of choice for obvious reasons. No equipment required. It’s simple to start. All you need is a ball. The players will supply themselves (oh that’s why it’s called the neighbourhood; never short of people). Our balls come in different shapes, grades (oranges, plastic balls, rubber balls, anything spherical) and sizes. The goal post could be two sticks or some stones. The marking of the field is in our minds, even the 18-yard box. So I played football all my life until I got into the University of Benin (UNIBEN). In UNIBEN I used to go to the sports complex to play but the level of play was high and intense. When I discovered that my fellow players were hoping to be noticed by the coaching crew of Bendel Insurance, the local football team in the national league, I abandoned them. I came to UNIBEN to school and not to play soccer🤣
Today when I tell people I can play football they never believe until I get on the pitch. I don’t blame them; I do not have the size nor the gait of a footballer. To complicate matters I wear glasses (and usually play with straps in the order of Edgar Davies) and I look “well-fed” these days but there is nowhere I am that I do not make the team (humble bragging)😆. I currently train weekly with a football team that I belong to. Believe it or not, in the past 7 years, I have captained my department’s football team to football glory both as a winner and runners-up. But do not be fooled by it as I have no future in the game. Age has caught up with the man.
Growing up, I watched every home match our local professional team, Calabar Rovers, played from 1988 to 1992. My dad is a journalist and had unrestricted access and so I was always on the tartan tracks of the field. There I met all the greats of the best Super Eagles team Nigeria has ever had. From Finidi George, Felix Owolabi, Ajibade Babalade, Williams Opara to Ike Shoronmu. Whenever their teams visited, my dad always made it a point of duty to introduce me to them. Finidi played for Rovers so he was the local hero. Same with the late John Okon Ene. Christopher Edem and Andrew Aikhuomogbe were in the Under 23 Dream Team and their coach James Peters comes from town from time to time to visit them while they play. Imama Amapakabo was the numero uno goalkeeper. Those days he had jerry curl hair and sometimes Clemens Westerhof would come to watch them play and the stadium would be agog that Westerhof is around. It was great and lovely. This was on the local scene.
On the international scene, I started watching football from age 6. I did watch Mexico ’86 World Cup and would run commentaries. I was nicknamed “Maradona” after the tournament because I kept talking about him. I was enthralled by his skills and leadership on the pitch. I was so good that a guy gave me 50 kobo upon impressing him with my football analysis. I couldn’t use the money because it was too big for me to spend. I kept it in my school bag for up to a year. My dad later saw the money in my school bag and gave me the beating of my life because he felt I stole the money despite the explanation I gave him.
I watched Champion’s League matches even before they became popular. Then it was only the champions of each league that played. The first Champions League match I watched was the 92/93 finals between AC Milan and Marseilles. The underdogs, Marseilles won courtesy of a corner flicked in by Abedi Pele and a header from Basile Boli. Didier Deschamps was the captain of the team.
I knew transfer fees and dates. I remember once when Gianluigi Lentini of AC Milan had the highest transfer fee in 1992 ($13 million). Unfortunately, he had an accident that impaired his vision, sense of balance and he became a different player after the accident. The accident affected his chance to make it to the 1994 World Cup. It made such a big headline across the globe. This was long before the days of the internet.
Those days whenever Nigeria lost a match, I would be sad to the point of tears. Many adults would try to comfort me. Some of them nicknamed me “Mr Nigeria”. The saddest for me was the Canada ‘87 team U-17 that we lost to the Soviet Union due to dubious refereeing. I recall Oladimeji Lawal beating everyone and he was about to score. The referee blew for an earlier foul that was committed against him. It made no sense. Nigeria lost on penalties. Cruel.
I had a board kept outside our house and I used to update it with all manner of sports statistics. People would gather to read it but never knew who used to write it. The local coach of the village club, Ikot Ansa Rocks, was my co-contributor. His name was Sabato, a waffi man that was very popular with everyone. So you see I had a rich background in sports. I was told that I had a career in Sports Writing. The late Bassey Koma, my dad’s colleague fuelled that dream. I held unto it.
Everything changed in 1998.
As the World Cup ’98 drew near, I was following up with the updates. I would walk up to UNIBEN Main Gate to read up on the latest. The biggest news that broke out before the World Cup was General Abacha’s death, June 8 1998. Also at this time, I was getting more involved in fellowship with some responsibilities. Fellowship times were conflicting with many of the matches. I didn’t like that. But I kept at it.
The first test came. Nigeria was to play against Holland in a friendly. Jero Shapore, our dependable defender was injured and I wanted to see how the team would cope without him. Then it was time for fellowship but I couldn’t leave the TV screen in Hall 4. I watched the first half and then summoned the courage to leave. I got to fellowship and realised everyone was there. Yes! Every single soul that was supposed to be there was there. Of course, I was late. I think that was the first day I ever came to fellowship late. I felt sad. Everyone was seated and enjoying God’s presence while I walked in late. I felt as if I had let God down. I was the only one that was late to fellowship that day.
Get this in perspective, those guys and gals, also loved the sport and were ardent followers. Let’s be honest, those days we had no other sports to follow or be involved in except soccer. Yeah, we watched boxing, wrestling and athletics but soccer was the undisputed sport of interest. In effect, they all abandoned to watching that match to come and be in God’s presence. That was the realization that dawned on me. “My eyes became neat”.
After fellowship, I sat with myself and decided that nothing shall separate me from the love of God. Not football. Not anything. I couldn’t explain it but that was it between me and football. I lost passion for following the game the way I used to. To crown it all, Nigeria lost 1–4 to Holland. Today, I still follow soccer by just reading the updates and watching highlights. That is very far from who I used to be. Thanks to LCC.
By Japan / South Korea 2002 World Cup, my interest in soccer was manageable. How did I know? Because of the time difference, the matches were played in the morning, during church hours. Choosing between watching the match or going to church was not even a decision to make. What a mighty deliverance !!!!
My sons today get very surprised when my adopted team, FC Barcelona loses and I carry on. I tell them that the players are paid and I am not. I cannot cry more than the bereaved. Also, it is just sports. I had a church meeting during the last World Cup finals between France and Croatia. As such, I did not watch the game — nothing spoil. The earth has not melted courtesy of my not watching the game.
Get me right, I have nothing against soccer, I still watch and play, but it has no hold on me. I have absolute control over what I do with soccer.
I’m glad that happened in 1998. Today people don’t even know I watch football. The first day I played in the company, it made company-wide news. Unbelievable. People get surprised when I give them updates and statistics and sometimes argue football facts with me only to check it up on the internet and apologize. I only laugh. When I see people breaking their heads over Arsenal, Man U and Chelsea, I only tell them that they are replicating what their parents did with Rangers of Enugu, Iwuayanwu Nationale of Owerri, IICC of Ibadan, Udoji United, Stationery Stores of Lagos, Abiola Babes, Leventis etc. Some of them do not even know what I’m talking about. I always tell them to ask their parents, who would be in a good place to explain it to them.
Once I was lost….now I am found.