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Football Can Save Nigeria’s 2015 Elections!

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Super Eagles

Those who have ears let them hear. Those that have eyes let them read this. The late legendary coach of Liverpool FC, Bill Shankly, once said: “Some people believe football is a matter of life and death. I am very disappointed with their attitude. It is more important than that”.

How can football be more important than life and death?   There is something about the game and the passion it evokes that defy logic.

History has it that countries have gone to war over the result of a football match (Honduras and El Salvador in 1969); wars have been temporarily halted to allow fighting soldiers to watch a football match (when Pele visited Nigeria with Santos FC of Brazil for a friendly match in Lagos during the Nigerian Civil war in 1968); sworn bitter enemies have set aside their political differences as their national teams engaged each other in a World Cup match, (USA versus Iran in 1998); a football match has been used to broker the reunification of two nations at war (North and South Korea fielded a unified team during the World Youth Championship in 1991). There are many more of such incredible stories.

Indeed, about 4 billion people watched the 2014 World Cup in Brazil on television. Throughout all of the keenly contested matches of the global event there were no recorded riots or crisis of any major kind. Teams played against one another, matches were won and lost, and on every occasion the ‘combatants’ shook hands, exchanged shirts, and sometimes embraced each other as they walked away from the theatre of ‘battle’ with either rueful or cheerful faces, mourning their loss or celebrating their victory.

Either way, it was the clearest demonstration of sportsmanship!   That spirit is the string that threads through the game of football. It is the cushion that absorbs the pressure and tension of even the extreme rivalries that threaten that the world would end should one team lose.

The world never ends. The prospect of crisis that often threatens to disrupt the peaceful conduct of big matches most times fade away as soon as agitators see that the playing field of the competition is level, the umpires are impartial.   Those are the panacea for avoiding crisis. It is such integrity that makes football the simple, beautiful universal game that it has become. It is what makes winning and losing, the two basic and inevitable ingredients of competition, acceptable to everyone.

Without the spirit of sportsmanship football would never have survived the tensions created by the desire of every team to win!   As I think of football and the spirit of sportsmanship that drives its success, I can relate to the national elections taking place this weekend where the tension generated by the desire to win at all costs is driving the country to a dangerous precipice.

Nigerians must take a cue from football and avoid the approaching political tempest.     Once the people see that the rules of engagement are clear, that the process is transparent and the umpire is unbiased, open and fair to all, as in a football match, no matter how high the stakes are,  or the level of tension, Nigerians will walk away from the polling boots either licking the wounds of defeat or celebrating the elixir of victory,  without any crisis.

Even with the present atmosphere that is pregnant with the fear of the consequences of one of the parties losing the elections, which is inevitable, ONLY the integrity of INEC and the transparency of the process will douse the fears and tensions, and make Nigerians to accept the final verdict. Last night I followed the news of the signing of a peace accord between the two major presidential candidates.

What struck particularly was that at the very end of the ceremony the two gentlemen, incumbent President Jonathan and main challenger General Buhari, with broad smiles on their faces hugged and embraced each other at the prompting of mediator, General Abdulsalami Abubakar.   It was an image that must have resonated all over Nigeria. It reminded me of 1977.

A pall of  tribal conflagration hung over the city of Lagos as it prepared to host two rival football clubs representing two powerful tribal movements in Nigeria, both reeling from the aftermath of the Nigerian civil war. The clubs were to meet in an African club championship match that pitched them against each other at the semi-final stage.

The first leg, played in Lagos, had been hard fought and tension soaked, and had ended in a goalless draw. The second leg was going to be decisive. It would resolve once again the unwritten and silent  ‘superiority’ battle between the Igbo and the Yoruba in Nigeria after the war.

The tension was so high that on the eve of the match, the then Head of State of Nigeria, sensing that a major ethnic crisis could erupt as a result of the match, directed that it be moved away from Lagos, to a neutral ground in Kaduna.

In order to douse the tension that had built to a critical pitch between supporters of the two clubs involved, Daily Times, the most influential national newspaper at the time, on its front page one day to the match, printed a picture of 4 of the key players from the two rival clubs – Rangers of Enugu and Shooting Stars of Ibadan – standing side by side, holding hands and laughing broadly into each others eyes!   The picture contrasted very sharply with the razor-sharp tension and cries of war should either side lose that had gripped Lagos in a vice.

That picture was a perfect shock therapy. Supporters that had been baying for blood were deflated by the smiling friendly faces of the hugging ‘combatants’ depicting clearly that the match was not a do-or-die event, or a life and death affair, but of something much more!   Bill Shankly’s statement decades earlier about the power of football now had a meaning, and found practical interpretation.

Every contest, like football, is a mere celebration of the human capacity to excel through competing. It would be disastrous if life were reduced to just those – winning or losing.   The best part of competition is taking part, celebrating the process once it is fair, and embracing the result in the true universal spirit of sportsmanship!   Football demonstrates this week after week in various open spaces, grounds and stadia around the world, with very few exceptions.

Those of us in sport are very familiar with this tradition. We are fed and nurtured on it. We compete and fight to win always, but also to accept defeat gracefully when we are beaten. We are used to the cycle.   In 1977, the match finally took place. Tension was high. Kaduna was full to the brim with supporters of both clubs that had descended on the city from every nook and cranny in Nigeria.

The umpires had no choice but to be neutral. The match ended in another goal less draw and had to be settled by penalty kicks. Eventually, Rangers International FC won!   That night, even as supporters of Shooting Stars FC mourned their defeat, and Rangers FC supporters were ecstatic about their victory, the rest of the country celebrated what had been a great football contest.

For the records, for putting up a gallant fight in that match and still ‘losing’, each member of the Shooting Stars FC was rewarded with the gift of a brand new Volkswagen car!   The meaning was clear: you do not have to come first to be a winner!   That’s why this day, as Nigerians go out to cast our votes, what is critical is not about who wins or who loses, but about the transparency of the process and the integrity of the umpires.

That’s what will douse the tensions and make Nigerians walk away from the polling boots, no matter who wins or loses, ‘celebrating’ the final berthing of true democracy in our country, the product of a terrific and keenly fought ‘match’ between the PDP and the APC!



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