Football made in Nigeria | A short story by Uzor Maxim Uzoatu

Editor’s note


Obi Nwakanma in a Vanguard essay in 2008 notes the achievement of Chinua Achebe‘s Things Fall Apart. Achebe, according to Nwakanma, a Nigerian poet born in 1966—eight years after publication of a novel since translated into 50 languages—helped a continent claim its memories and helped restore a people. Achebe’s father was an early agent of the Church Missionary Society, founded in London in 1799. He was, in Nwakanma’s words, a “native informer.”

In the short story below, published in English for the first time, Uzor Maxim Uzoatu sketches the culture clash between colonialist and colonized, between mission worker and missionized, in football terms. The story was translated into French as part of the 2010 collection Enfants de la balle (JC Lattès).

Uzoatu details the football-immersion project of an outsider, Coach Clemence, whose zeal resembles that of Charles Tennyson in Victorian times. Of British imperialist Cecil Rhodes and fellow agents of empire, Tennyson said, “They taught the world to play.” Scholar Wiebe Boer, himself a child of missionary parents and a product of Nigeria’s secondary schools, observes that “none of Nigeria’s major indigenous have precolonial words for the game of football.”

The Western obsession with institutionalized play causes historians to record the day of the first organized game in the country, 15 Jun 1904, when students from Hope Waddell Training Institute in Calabar played sailors from HMS Thistle. Uzoatu assumes a native origin—that Nigerians, in fact, played the game before it became “sport.” “It entailed any number of men or women running about kicking any roundish object,” he begins. With an offhand mention of female players, Uzoatu posits how organized football may have pushed indigenous tradition backward. Boer in his research finds that Nigerian football administrators followed English colonial policy of preventing women’s access to association grounds or referees.

Uzoatu in this gently comic fiction suggests a more nuanced understanding than that of missionaries and railroad workers and other sporting evangelicals “bringing” a game to the uninitiated. To be sure, “sports were as important as guns and the Bible in British colonial rule in Asia and Africa,” Nancy Fix Anderson concludes in The Sporting Life: Victorian Sports and Games (2010). But Africa and Africans have claimed their own narratives. In terms that Nwakanma uses of Achebe, Uzoatu helps “restore to the African world the ornaments taken off her waist from those who have robbed her.”

Uzoatu, who sends a picture of himself playing against Yakubu Mambo (the Super Eagles’ No. 10 in the 1970s), employed football as cultural exegesis as far back as 1979. This was when Uzoatu’s play Doctor of Football, under his direction, premiered at a high school in Anambra State. It is once again being produced around the country. In the subtext to the two-act production Uzoatu asks of Nigerians, “Do we believe our own traditions?” Or, “Do we believe what others say about us?”

The football doctor, a mysterious healer with specialty in sport, begins the work with a spirited soliloquy, updated to include a reference to Octopus Paul. The doctor is a virtuoso in the evasive arts. But he does not lack insight. He tells a young boy:

[P]eople should have faith in the charm made for them before it can be effective. … Magic alone will not make a ball not shot at goal to beat a goalkeeper. I always tell the children coming to me to work hard before they can be able to beat their opponents. Hard work is the magic.

The “never-ending game” to which Uzoatu refers may be this dispute over who gets to tell the game’s story.


I thank Uzoatu for graciously sending this story as well as a 2010 edition of Doctor of Football.

Umuchu Lagos, 1989 Christmas tournament. The author stands in the rear, third from right.

by Uzor Maxim Uzoatu

We played the game. It entailed any number of men or women running about kicking any roundish object. We had no special name for the game. Then the man from overseas came. He brought balls and boots and talked of football and soccer. Like most white men Coach Clemence came to Africa with a mission—to discover the beautiful game of football.

Coach Clemence came with many rules and regulations. And we all got hoarse complaining that he was complicating a simple game with his many rules. The bounce of the ball was beyond the ken of most of us. Kicking with boots put us in all kinds of trouble: the ball flew everywhere but the goalposts. It was all so cumbersome, like teaching a man to use the left hand in grand old age.

“Keep the ball on the ground!” Coach Clemence hollered, daring the noonday sun as he ran from one goal to the other correcting us. “The birds in the sky do not play football.”

We suffered at the hands of this man. He made us run endlessly round the field building up what he called stamina. After the marathon running, kicking football was well-nigh impossible. Even so Coach Clemence insisted that we must play football. There was nothing like impossibility in the man’s dictionary. You cannot play the man’s game unless you have sapped all your energy running like a madman chasing after dry leaves.

“Who ever heard of the footballer with neither skill nor stamina?” Coach Clemence asked rhetorically while pushing us ahead to more suffering. “You lot deserve special places in the Football Hall of Shame!”

To give him his due, Coach Clemence led by example. He ran all the rounds with us and played ball like a maestro. He could keep the ball up in the air for an entire day, juggling masterfully as though the ball were tied to his boots. And he could whack a shot at goal. The goalkeeper once flew into the net together with his thunderously wheezing shot. And the man cried like a baby, ending his football career just as abruptly.

The first competitive match we played was against a team of some tourist friends of Coach Clemence. It was a massacre. We somewhat stood fixed watching the soccer wizards from London do all the scoring. They ran like the wind and danced past our ears like mosquitoes. They were more slippery than catfish in water. Neither skill nor stamina was on our side, a total mismatch. Coach Clemence had to stop the match after thirty or so torrid minutes to save us from further punishment. Even he had lost count of the number of goals scored against us.

“I quit,” my elder brother said to me moments after the game.

He was gasping for breath, dying for oxygen. It had been his job to mark the fleet-footed left-winger of the tourists. My big brother, big and proud fellow that he is, was dusted on the corners of the field by the flying little wizard on the left wing. The wee ball player drew circles round my brother, dribbling, taunting and scoring. After the humiliation my brother picked up his climbing-rope and returned fulltime to his trade of tapping palm wine. All the entreaties from Coach Clemence could not get my brother back on the field.

“I can’t afford to spend all my life chasing the wind,” Brother Okoro said. “My younger one is still there and he may yet catch the wind.”

“You can’t afford to throw in the towel so early in your career,” Coach Clemence pleaded, staring fixedly with imploring eyes on my brother Okoro. “You can still make the grade and earn tons of money as a football professional.”

“It is a man who is alive that can earn money,” Okoro replied, unmoved. “Do you know how many times I died in that field?”

“The beginning of every act is always difficult,” Coach Clemence said, patting Okoro on the shoulder. “Once you have mastered the art, all the suffering you took would look glorious in hindsight.”

“White man, I have played my last match.” The finality in Okoro’s tone could not be missed by Coach Clemence. “There is even no sense at all in fully grown adults running all over the place chasing an inflated balloon!”

The exit of Brother Okoro was an open wound felt by all our teammates. He was a natural wag who softened our suffering with his many jokes. In his absence everybody looked upon me to take up the mantle of team clown. I was a profound failure on all counts. One statement assailed my ears everyday: “If only your brother Okoro had been here …”

We played some other matches. We lost all the matches. The score on each occasion was scandalous. Coach Clemence had the same words for us after every defeat: “You learn from losing.”

After one particularly humiliating defeat, a game in which half of our players scored own goals, one rugged man walked into our fold. Some said he had been a coup-seasoned soldier while others said he was an expired politician. Nobody was sure of anything about the man. A pudgy and crafty old stager, he was gap-toothed and his goggles were darker than midnight. He spoke quaint English that edged Coach Clemence’s for incomprehension. He at first introduced himself as our Team Manager. In the next practice session he appointed himself Defence Minister, explaining that he had all the answers for all our defensive frailties. Next he called himself Sole Administrator. Coach Clemence could not hide his amusement as the strange fellow by and by took the titles of Head of State, C-in-C, Life President etc. The title Presido fitted him like a cap.

“They are my people,” the man said to Coach Clemence, pointing at us as we sat head bowed. “I know their psychology.”

In the football field he spoke to Coach Clemence in English while he talked to us in the native tongue. Some of his words to us were actually full-throated insults directed at the white man.

“Don’t mind the white monkey,” the man said, pretending to be serious. “May he dissolve under the hot African sun!”

“What’s that?” Coach Clemence asked quizzically after we had burst out in laughter.

“Oh I was telling the boys to rise up to the magnitude of the British Empire,” the man replied in grand English elocution. Then he turned to us and asked in vernacular: “Can this white nobody give birth to a black somebody?”

We continued to laugh much to the puzzlement of Coach Clemence.

“Don’t mind the native morons,” the man said, reverting to English. “They are laughing at my lack of knowledge of the local lingo.”

Coach Clemence was none the wiser but would not be distracted. He upped the ante by taking us into the classroom to teach us football. He mentioned many incomprehensible figures and numbers: 4-4-2, 4-3-3, 4-2-4 etc. He drew many lines on the blackboard and plotted many graphs. He pointed and directed through arrows and curves. We got more confused by the minute. The classroom lessons continued interminably. If there was anything worse than being defeated woefully on the field it was being made to sit through the dreary lessons in the classroom.

“My people cannot get the hang of this teaching of football inside the classroom,” our self-appointed President challenged Coach Clemence.

“Without a sound theory there can be no good praxis,” Coach Clemence explained.

“How can somebody do on the blackboard what is played out there in the football field?”

“Presido!” We all rose in salute of our President for asking a question that we had all individually wanted to ask.

“Football is a game of the head rather than of the feet …”

We all shouted, interrupting Coach Clemence.

“In that case,” Presido was saying, “the game would have been called headball instead of football.”

Yes! We were all screaming in support of the thesis of our darling Presido, a true man of the people.

Coach Clemence shook his head and announced the end of the day’s lesson. He then said that the British Embassy Staff Club had challenged us to a football match. Presido instantly volunteered to produce FIFA-graded match officials and a record crowd for the special match.

“This match I take as your command performance,” Coach Clemence said, dismissing us for the day.

The football stadium was a wild forest of people and spirits on the august day. The pep talk of Coach Clemence minutes before the match dwelt much on the anticipated style of our opponents. He talked of the speed and accuracy of British football and asked us to watch out particularly for the overlapping runs of the full-backs. He mentioned a certain footballer of yore called Terry Cooper who by overlapping turned into a menacing demon for all opponents of England.

“We know what you mean,” said Presido, interrupting as usual. “Overlapping means that somebody comes as a missionary and then overlaps as a colonial master!”

“Don’t mix football with politics,” Coach Clemence said.

“Don’t listen to the white man,” Presido said to us in the native tongue. “When we get into the field we shall play our style.”

“Our style is home-grown freestyle soccer democracy played with military boots,” shouted our dancing goalkeeper who had for some time been taking some private lessons at the insistence of Presido.

The match was not yet a minute old when the British left-back, overlapping, scored. He would have scored again in the very next minute but for the agility of our goalkeeper. Now instead of putting the ball into play according to the rule of the game our goalkeeper ran the full length of the field and threw the ball into the net of our opponents!

“The overlapping goalkeeper!” roared the crowd.

“Unprecedented! Fit for the Guinness Book of World Records! First in history!” I heard so many exclamations.

The referee looked at his assistants and at the excited crowd and then pointed to the centre of the field, thus counting our goalkeeper’s caper of a coup as a goal. The British Embassy Staff Club players were dumbfounded. I could not understand what was happening. The referee was asking the Embassy boys to restart the game, but they refused to. Suddenly our goalkeeper picked up the ball and ran all the way to score again. The referee blew a blast on his whistle, jumping up in excitement like Presido and the crowd. The overlapping goalkeeper scored many more times, and the spectators could no longer be controlled for joy. They encroached into the field, passing the ball to us with their hands and feet. It was a melee. Nobody could leave the field of play. I looked in the direction of Coach Clemence but his place had been taken by Presido. And how Presido enjoyed the game! He actually came into the field to score a handful of goals with his hands and feet and head. How he gloried in “our style” of total football! He jumped and screamed and laughed, urging us on with his hands and feet and mouth. And we obeyed him, playing with all parts of our bodies and scoring with every section of our anatomy. It was indeed an original never-ending game.

© 2010 Uzor Maxim Uzoatu. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

About the Author

Uzor Maxim Uzoatu was born in Nigeria on December 22, 1960. He was the 1989 Distinguished Visitor at the Graduate School of Journalism, University of Western Ontario. He is the author of the collection God of Poetry. In 2010, his play Doctor of Football will be produced across Nigeria. He was nominated for the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2008.

Comments (3)

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  1. Peter says:

    Uzoatu shows how fiction is often more entertaining than fact.

    Clemence (Westerhof?) bears a resemblance to Nathan Price, the evangelical Baptist missionary in Barbara Kingsolver‘s Poisonwood Bible.

    Are ‘overlapping goalkeepers’ the key to the Super Eagles’ future success?

  2. Nonso uzozie says:

    This is real art.

  3. Lshunter says:

    “Football is a game of the head” – well, I always tought its a feet they are mostly using to score, but its true that sometimes its head. Perhaps in Nigeria it works the other way around.

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