Arsenal, Premiership and All That

By Olusegun Adeniyi

Last Sunday, for the fourth time in a row, Manchester City Football Club won the English premiership title. And because of that, ‘enemies of progress’ have not allowed some of us to rest. Even more annoying is that many of the noisemakers actually supported teams of little consequence in the title race. But in Nigeria, there are lessons we can all learn. Not only about the season that just ended but also about football generally and the way we run our country. But I will get to that later. Especially considering the issue of ‘colonial mentality’ that is often peddled by those who do not understand why many of us are obsessed with foreign leagues.

Thanks to my brother, Femi Edun, I was last Thursday inducted as the 80th member of an exclusive WhatsApp group of ‘Gooners’ comprising accomplished male professionals (SANs, renowned medical practitioners, oil and gas executives, company owners, academics etc.) who support Arsenal football Club of London. The youngest is a 29-year-old techie and the oldest a professor of 89. Put together by Sola Adepetun, a respected lawyer who specializes in oil and gas, most members are in their late 50s and 60s and many trace their fan history to their schooling in the United Kingdom. The fact that discussions on the forum are restricted to sports with “posts on politics, economy, religion, advertising, birthday greetings and other wishes” no-go-areas, particularly appeals to me. And it’s been fun since I joined.

In the days preceding last Sunday’s final set of matches, there were optimistic posts by members who were predicting their wish. For me, expecting Manchester City to lose their final match at home to West Ham bordered on the delusional but not a few were on that train. Some of the posts give validity to what one ‘bad belle’ guy wrote on his X (formerly Twitter) handle: “I think Arsenal is a social experiment created by government to see how long people can support a team before going mad.” That guy deserves a prison term! But it is also interesting that now that the premiership has been lost and won, motivational speakers have taken over on most Arsenal platforms.

We are being reminded that Liverpool waited 30 years between championships and that Manchester United has also been waiting for the past 12 years. “Arsenal is indeed in its 20th year. But we are closer to winning than any of you except perhaps Liverpool that has done its period of purgatory,” one football philosopher argued before this clincher: “So, don’t laugh – unless you are a Man City fan – and with 115 charges against them, even their future success is uncertain. Notice I didn’t even bother with Spurs. They built their beautiful stadium for Beyoncé concerts not for winning titles!”

As I have previously written, football evokes emotions and passions that are difficult to understand by those who do not follow the game. Shortly before the commencement of the 17th FIFA World Cup held in South Korea and Japan in 2002, respected British sportswriter, Simon Kuper wrote that football arouses “collective passions that are matched by nothing short of war.” In the piece, ‘The World Game is not Just a Game’, published in New York Times on 26th May 2002, Kuper argued that unlike almost any cultural phenomenon, football is distinguished by its political malleability. “It is used by dictators and revolutionaries, a symbol of oligarchy and anarchy. It gets presidents elected or thrown out, and it defines the way people think, for good or ill, about their countries…”


Kuper is right on the power of football. With one sublime twist or turn, footballers can make us forget our hunger, thirst, and sometimes even our financial predicament. I once referenced the example of Hernan Crespo, one of the best football strikers in modern times who narrated how the late Diego Maradona’s genius transformed his family. He said their father never talked or betrayed any emotions, so everyone learnt to keep to themselves in the house. But everything changed on 22nd June 1998, during the quarter final match between Argentina and England at the 13th FIFA World Cup in Mexico. According to Crespo, who was eight years old at the time, the moment Maradona scored his incredible solo goal against England, his father broke into tears and started hugging everyone. Crespo said he had never seen his father like that before and it was on that day he decided he would play football and strive for excellence if only to make his father happy.

The treatment meted to former England Skipper David Beckham after the 1998 FIFA World Cup provides another example of what football can do to people. In the group stage match against Columbia at that tournament held in France, it was Beckham’s free kick that earned England the qualification for the first knockout round. But in the match against Argentina, then Argentine fiery midfielder, Diego Simeone, (current manager of La Liga Club, Atletico Madrid) committed a cynical foul against Beckham. In anger, Beckham kicked Simeone who went down as if he was hit by a truck. And the trick worked. Beckham was sent off by the referee. England went on to lose a match they had controlled up to that moment against a bitter rival. The next day, the banner headline in The Mirror newspaper was: ‘Ten Heroic Lions and One Stupid Boy’. A church even put a banner outside its premises which read: ‘God forgives even David Beckham.’ 

Now to the main issue. Following the conclusion of the 2023/24 English premiership season won by Manchester City, Ike Imo, a legal practitioner and writer, sums it up this way: “The real winners are the creators and managers of the English Premier League. These are the men and women who have branded a common product (football) and successfully sold it all over the world in such a way that people from New Delhi to Kinshasa (not forgetting Chicago and Riyadh), identify themselves and their daily aspirations and success, with it. It’s brilliant marketing to make a young lad in Enugu forget to eat his dinner because his favourite team (Chelsea) lost a match at Stamford Bridge. I’m almost certain that the English Premier League probably ranks as one of the biggest exports that Britain still has left to offer to the world.”

This then brings me to the question often asked: Why is it that those of us who love the game cannot recreate the same situation in Nigeria? I interrogated this question on 24 August 2006 in a column titled, ‘Killing the Beautiful Game’. Before I conclude, let me share what I wrote 18 years ago.


On the last day of the football season anywhere in the world, there is usually some high drama. But here in Nigeria, you also witness the bizarre and the unexpected. That was exactly what happened last week Wednesday (16 August 2006) in Oron, Akwa Ibom State when the curtains fell on the 2005/2006 football season. The match was between promotion-seeking Akwa United, a professional Division One team and Calabar Rovers. In practical terms, for Akwa United to gain promotion into the Premiership, winning their match would not just do; their competitor, Bussdor United of Port Harcourt, also had to lose or at least play a draw. Because of the wide goal difference, any other result would consign Akwa United to Division One for another season. Except of course they could score 13 goals within 90 minutes!

Expecting a team that had not succeeded in putting 12 goals into the net all season to now score 13 goals in one match would be expecting a miracle which rarely happens in modern competitive football games. But in Oron, the unexpected indeed happened. Within a few minutes of a most scandalous match where the referee and the 22 players on the field were acting out a macabre drama, the ‘Diego Maradonas’ in Akwa United scored 13 unreplied goals!

Available reports indicate that the match was bought and sold in Akwa Ibom State Government House. If what happened was, however, just a one off, one would not be worried, but it is not. Our football is being run by a bunch of unscrupulous men who have conspired to kill the domestic league by fixing results in boardrooms and effecting such decisions on the field of play. Since Nigerians are no fools, it is equally no surprise that nobody watches football matches here anymore. We are now all hooked to SuperSport for Spanish La Liga, English Premiership, and Italian Serie A. No matter how much we all love what Pele has appropriately dubbed the ‘beautiful game’, no sensible person will waste his time watching a match whose result had already been predetermined.

For those who may not be interested in football and, there are some strange people like that, the real message here is not about sports but rather the culture of dishonesty and lack of any sense of shame that permeates the entire system. What played out on the field in Oron was a parody of what is fast becoming the norm in our land where the ethics of hard work and integrity are being jettisoned for quick-fix deals. No nation can develop with such a culture that tends to promote, indeed celebrate, fraud and mediocrity.

Two years ago, also on the last day of the league, Kano Pillars and Bendel Insurance were jostling for the third position in the League that would earn the winner a WAFU Cup qualification. Bendel Insurance were playing Lobi Stars of Makurdi in Benin while Kano Pillars were playing Gombe United. The two matches ordinarily ought to be played simultaneously. Indeed, the two matches started at the same time but ended almost two hours apart because in Benin, a 90-minute match was allowed to drag for four hours and at the end, the objective was achieved. First, the match was abandoned at half-time and about an hour after the one in Kano ended with the result already known, the Benin match resumed. By a simple arithmetic, Bendel Insurance needed five goals to displace Kano Pillars from the number three slot and by the time the match, which commenced at 4p.m. finally ended at 8pm, the five goals were conjured without a single reply from their opponents!

To understand the gradual decline of Nigeria despite abundant human and material resources, one needs only to study our football that at some point in the past held so much prospect with abundant talents. Not too long ago, most of us that now describe ourselves as ‘Gunners for life’ or ‘Red Devils’ or those who are ever afraid to ‘Walk Alone’ used to have local teams which we were passionate about. There were Leventis United, Bendel Insurance, Abiola Babes, Iwuanyanwu Nationale, Rangers International, IICC Shooting Stars, Stationery Stores, Raccah Rovers, Ranchers Bees and several others. But all teams bright and beautiful, the NFA killed them all!

That things are upside down in Nigeria football is all too evident but what worries me is that we are all behaving like ostriches, burying our heads in the sand. Yet this is the only aspect of our national life where all 11 national players on the field for Nigeria could come from the same Arochukwu village and we would all see them as representing our country. It is the most unifying factor in Nigeria today but also the most mismanaged. The culture of corruption is so pervasive that even with our abundant talents, those who run our football do not believe matches can be won on the field of play. It is only in Nigeria that a referee would be whispering to players to “fall inside the box” so he could award dubious penalty kicks; it is only here that the International Transfer Certificates of players are traded like GSM recharge cards while officials openly auction results of matches not yet played…


Although the foregoing was written 18 years ago, nothing much has changed in recent years. On 14 July 2022, for instance, the Mail of London carried a report on how the Ogun State football Cup final for that year was concluded with a bizarre penalty shoot-out after the match ended goalless. “For one of Ijebu United’s spot kicks, the Remo Stars goalkeeper stands on his line and remains perfectly still” the newspaper reported. “He then appears to allow his opponent to direct a fairly tame penalty into the bottom corner. Things got even more bizarre when a Remo Stars player stepped up to take a penalty and then blasted his effort sideways, with the ball flying off the side of the pitch. He then held his hands on his head in an apparent effort to make the miss appear genuine.”  

Although the newspaper also reported that the Nigerian podcast host, Ibukun Aluko, who broke the story later claimed that the Remo Stars squad had deliberately missed their penalties to protest officiating in the match, that in only confirms the rot. “Remo Stars would eventually go on to lose the penalty shootout 3-0, with Ijebu United lifting the cup. Whatever the reason for the misses, you’re unlikely to ever see a more bizarre penalty shootout,” the Mail wrote. 

Where do we go from here? I believe there are a few things we need to do. One, we must bring private sector participation into the management of our football. The challenge is whether that would happen under the current structure that is sorely lacking in both professionalism and integrity. But that is also why the government must come in. We need a wholesale reform like it was done by China in 2015 with a plan that targets the schools as foundation for the game. As a part of the Reform Plan, the set-up of domestic football management in China was also changed. That must also happen in Nigeria.

I am not an expert on football but Nigeria has an abundance of such people. The current Minister of Sports, John Enoh, has shown a willingness to make a difference. I hope he reaches out to such stakeholders. There is so much to gain from reforming football in Nigeria. Meanwhile, to all the Arsenal fans in Nigeria, please ignore all the naysayers and noisemaker: Next season is for us!

Still on the Mariga Wedding

Following my column of last week on ‘The Betrothal of Mariga Orphans’, I received messages from several respected people saying whatever may have been the merit of my arguments, they were based on the wrong premise. The Niger State House of Assembly Speaker, Abdulmalik Sarkindaji, who proposed to sponsor the mass wedding of 100 orphaned girls, I was told, intervened out of altruism. I have been availed videos of the interviews granted by the Speaker on the issue where he explained that the whole idea came from religious and traditional leaders in Mariga local government area, the constituency he represents and had twice served as chairman.

According to Sarkindaji, a number of girls who lost their parents to banditry wanted to marry but lacked the needed resources. By tradition, the bride is required to take items like furniture, kitchen utensils, boxes, clothes and other things to the groom’s house. “They initially submitted the names of 210 girls to me and I told them there was no means for such. So, we cut it down to 100 names. They told me that I would bless the marriage and I told them I cannot attend every marriage, so they should do it in a day, and I would grace the occasion,” Sarkindaji said. “That is the reason for the event. I had wanted to grace the occasion, but I won’t do that again since helping my people has become a crime.”

Certain issues have come to light. One, the girls do not fall within the bracket of the Child Rights Act because they are adults and of marriageable age. Two, there is also no problem about consent. Three, I understand that the rigorous process adopted to prune the list eliminated those with doubtful claims. While I still do not believe that marriage offers any enduring solution to socio-economic problems, the girls have made their choice. And we must respect their decision.

• You can follow me on my X (formerly Twitter) handle, @Olusegunverdict and on   

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