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

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.

Acknowledgment

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.

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