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

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.

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