The announcement that Arsenal FC will be in Abuja this year, already shows that we might be in for even crazier times.
“Buahahaha!!! See ur dead boys. Eyaah, I know say you no go fit chop for one week after this one. Hahahaha! Useless manure”.
That was a friend’s Blackberry message to me on May 12, 2012 when Manchester United lost the Premiership title to Manchester City after that last second goal against QPR turned everything around for Sir Alex Ferguson and his boys. I support Manchester United and I for one, was completely in shock initially at the fact that QPR had left the upset of the season for the final day. But I have seen way too many football games to get excited. I flipped channels between both games like a mad man and wanted to hear the final whistle before starting my bragging session. Well, we know how that went.
The English Premier League (EPL) isn’t only popular in Nigeria. In fact, South East Asians are equally or probably more passionate about English teams than we are. The commercialisation of the league has been a huge success and many other countries with arguably more exciting players and teams, still look to England to learn what they have done and how they got it right. Games sell out, not just on TV but also on the stands. Stadia are packed regardless of what team is playing, and it’s even crazier when a Premiership team takes a pre-season tour to Africa, Asia, or the USA. It’s hard to see teams from any other league that enjoy such followership around the world besides La Liga’s Barcelona FC and Real Madrid.
These English teams have also not failed to identify where their fan base is as they continue to tap into it. Manchester United and Portsmouth FC were in Abuja and Port Harcourt in 2008 during their summer tours. I was at the game in Abuja and can still remember the chaos at the gates to get in. For a 60,000 capacity stadium, it was obvious that some people would have had to lap each other, while others sat on the pitch for the stadium to contain everyone. If that was bad, the excitement that followed the announcement that Arsenal FC will be in Abuja this year, already shows that we might be in for even crazier times. Nigeria supposedly has the largest number of Arsenal fans outside of the UK. That tells the story.
But none of the above comes close to what Nigerians saw on the weekend of May 19 when Chelsea FC won the UEFA Champions League for the first time. Chelsea fans are usually the butt of jokes for having the most fans from ‘the streets’. Apparently, every okada rider, bus conductor and area boy is a Chelsea fan and wears a fake Chelsea jersey with pride. They have come close to being European champions a few times before and it was obvious that finally winning the title was a big deal. But the sights and sounds that followed in Lagos (and I’m sure most of Nigeria) were both interesting and depressing for me.
I saw bonfires on the Apapa-Oshodi Expressway, fireworks in Ikeja, and a full on street party on Lagos Island, all with my own eyes. Reports were even scarier with stories of unruly and sometimes violent roadblocks in some areas, binge drinking, and eventual deaths as reported the next day on the pages of newspapers. Even more interesting was the fact that things did not end on Saturday. Late on Sunday evening, as I drove past Apongbon, a crowd could still be seen gathered at the foot of the bridge in their Chelsea jerseys, chanting, and dancing in a circle.
Now truth be told, this deadly passion for English football, is not an exclusively Chelsea fan behavior. There was the sad story from two years ago when Barcelona FC beat Manchester United by 3 goals to 1 and a United fan drove a bus into a crowd of Barcelona FC fans celebrating somewhere in Eastern Nigeria and killed a number of them just to register his displeasure at his team’s loss.
I look at all of these and wonder if we are not starting to weep more than the bereaved. At least, I cannot remember hearing of a single death experience in North London, the home of the winning Chelsea FC team.
I’m all for everyone being free to support whoever they want to support in whatever country. I also am not in any position to force anyone to watch Nigerian Premier League games. But I think we all should be a little worried when, for example, Africa’s richest man Aliko Dangote proclaims in Forbes Magazine that his favorite team in the world is Arsenal FC. Or when the governor of Lagos State continuously speaks of his love for Manchester United. These, without a doubt, are two out of many Nigerians who are in a position to turn things around for the local league here; yet it’s already obvious where their interests lie.
I like the EPL a lot. I will also continue to watch it for a long time to come. But I believe it is time for us to have a rethink on a few things. When do we go from enjoying the experience, to learning from what we enjoy and remotely trying to apply it here? When are clubs back home going to start realizing that football is serious business? How much longer before we understand that our local league needs these investments we keep begging for around the world? When will we learn that no club in the world is worth anyone’s life, especially not a Nigerian’s?
Obviously, there is a huge gap that needs to be filled. Nigerians already love football. Nigerians will also easily pay to watch good football. This already means that a relatively good Nigerian Premier League won’t be a hard sell. But then again, who really wants to sell a product to a customer that would kill at every opportunity? We are all obviously guilty both as administrators and fans and it is definitely time to fix up. No one else will do it for us.
Rest in Peace Rashidi Yekini.
Editor’s note: Op-ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija.