By Chris Anyokwu
Global attention is now riveted on the Mundial happening in the Gulf nation of Qatar. 32 nations, all of them, football-mad countries, are slogging it out in the desert nation of 2,998,264 citizens, the current population as of Thursday 1, December, 2022. Such is the boundless joy of the 32 lucky countries represented at the World Cup that almost every other order of business in their respective countries has been put on hold – governance, political skulduggery, trade and commerce, academic activities, even mandatory visits to the hospital – have been temporarily suspended.
It is as though the only thing that matters in life is soccer! The media have gone into overdrive with intensive and extensive advertisements of the matches themselves and ancillary activities that go with football such as travel, tourism, hospitality, and gastronomy. Also sport betting companies are out-foxing one another as they seek to wheedle and coax get-rich-quick members of the public to stake their savings on the outcomes of matches. Accordingly, armies of unemployed youth and others are staking everything they have got to make a killing during the on-going soccer fiesta in far-away oil-rich desert nation of Qatar. To be certain, people are putting all on the line this time around including their children’s school fees, house rent, money in the bank and even borrowing to bet … And as the lucky ones smile to the bank to “cash-out”, the vast majority of the unlucky ones rue their missed chances, their hard luck. Mother Luck is now the god of the moment and blessed are her devotees!
In Ghana, for instance, the country is experiencing its worst economic hardship in generations. People ride their bicycles for kilometres to where they can find electric power to charge their handsets and their transistor radio sets in order to be able to listen to football commentary, especially when The Black Star, Ghana’s men’s national soccer team is playing. The country under current President Nana Akufo-Addo is undergoing civil unrest owing to insupportable socio-economic crises. But so long as their beloved Black Star is out there strutting their stuff, thereby putting smiles on their faces, the people are fine. Argentina, a global soccer behemoth, is not faring any better. Argentina’s President Alberto Fernandez appears clueless in dealing with a combustible cocktail of rising inflation, past abuses, citizens’ demand for freedom of expression, judicial independence, impunity for the AMIA Bombing, indigenous rights and children’s rights. Recently, a fan from Argentina was quoted as saying that he would want Argentina to win the World Cup for the sake of their retiring idol, Lionel Messi, who has never won it and at the same time didn’t want the nation to win the tournament because it would mask all the socio-economic and political issues wracking Argentina at present.
What do we say about Cameroon? Thank goodness, Cameroon is at the World Cup but back at home, Paul Biya’s dinosaur-like ancestral hegemonic stranglehold coupled with the crisis of legitimacy and succession politics has brought the country to the precipice. A man who became Cameroon’s President since 6th November, 1982, Biya who can hardly walk unaided (sounds familiar?) is still holding on to power as if it were his birth-right. And the rest of the world continues to innovate, to modernise and to broaden the frontiers of technologized living but Cameroon stagnates in the bog of prehistoric value and lifestyles. The youth are held back by the superstitious taboos of the ancien regime. Thus the country is a little better than a basket – case as we speak. But the national soccer team, The Indomitable Lions has defeated almighty Brazil and that counts for something, right? Yet Cameroon has crashed out in a blaze of glory from the Mundial. Back to life, back to reality! Against the backcloth of the on-going Russia’s war on Ukraine, the U.S.A. and Iran had taken to the field of play to flex their military muscles by another means. The murder of 22-year old Mahsa Amini, for infringing hijab rules is still causing a lot of unrest in Teheran with lethal crackdown on dissidents and protesters. And Iran accuses the USA as the mastermind of the civil unrest. Long story short, the American team defeated Iran at the Qatar World Cup, further infuriating the Islamic Republic of Iran. A fan lost his life for celebrating the American victory. It does not get more bizarre than that. Talk about the fraught tango between sport and politics! Germany’s early exit from the tournament seemed to mirror the sense of ambivalence in Europe towards the Qatar World Cup. FIFA’s President Giovanni Vincenzo, Infantino had launched a broadside against the racism and ethnocentrism of the West, calling them out for their relentless and unremitting criticism against the modernising efforts of the Arab world, typified in the main by Qatar in its determined effort to host the World Cup, the first in the Arab world. This tectonic shift in global geopolitics has sent jitters down the spine of the West which love to fancy themselves as the be-all-and-end-all of civilisation.
England’s search for healing after the Euros heartbreak continues in the Qatar World Cup. Their team, The Three Lions, is trying to suture the broken heart of a racially-charged nation amid political and socio-economic crises: cost-of-living crisis, mounting energy charges, etc. The all-important question, as always is: will the Cup come home this time around? Memories of the 1966 World Cup glory are fast dimming with the dying-out of the heroes past. Gareth Southgate, England manager, like most European national team managers, is trying to forge a composite, closely-knit, well-oiled soccer-machine in the Three Lions of England, with the likes of Marcos Rashford, Bukayo Saka, Raheem Sterling and Jude Bellingham, all black players, mixing it with the other white players, a fitting kinaesthetic metaphor for the rapidly multi-cultural and multi-racial nation. Chronically overhyped beyond realism by their media, the England team is always brought back to earth by grim factuality on the field of play. Hence, the “Homecoming” is a dream deferred, again and again.
Let us come back to Qatar. Qatar secured the hosting rights on 2nd December, 2010. It took the tiny oil-rich desert Islamic nation about 12 years to provide all the facilities required to host the world. The cost of the World Cup in Qatar has been put at around $200 billion. Besides, among the facilities Qatar put in place include a brand new metro system, a modern shipping port, an expansion of its main airport, the Hamad International Airport at Doha, arguably the finest airport in the world, and the construction of a planned city north of Doha. Eight stadiums were also built, seven of them from scratch! Even then, as earlier noted, critics and implacable naysayers, mostly European ill-wishers, griped to no end about Qatar’s poor human rights records, staggering energy costs, and the winter climate, among others. Sadly, over 500 people died building these facilities but the authorities said that their families have been duly compensated. But how do you make omelette without breaking eggs? Beauty is born of great pain. Through incredible feats of engineering and architectural nous, the Qatari have been able to transform the hellish heat of the Gulf Desert into the salubrious and bracing coolness of an earthly paradise. The 974 stadium, constructed with old shipping containers, will remain an eternal testament to human ingenuity.
In our own dear native land, Nigeria, it’s all dry, dreary and dispiriting on all fronts, what with the proliferation and the horrendous deployment of small-arms and munitions in the hands of enemy nationals; farmer-herder conflicts continue to claim and consume lives and property with no hope of abating in sight; the Southeast, especially Enugu, has remained a hotbed of kidnappings, banditry and terrorism, thanks to the so-called Unknown Gunmen (UGM) and similar renegades.
INEC offices and infrastructure are regularly being burnt down and destroyed ahead of the 2023 presidential election. Former INEC boss, Prof. Jega has claimed that desperate politicians are behind these criminal acts. But who will bell the cat? The masses continue to weep and wail and gnash their teeth because of economic hardships: they grapple with perennial fuel scarcity, epileptic electric power supply, skyrocketing commodity prices, high cost of transportation, unpaid wages (cf: ASUU’s withheld eight-month salary arrears), mass exodus of medical consultants, Brain Drain in the Nigeria University System (NUS), lack of basic social amenities – roads, water, healthcare, housing, power, and even foodstuffs! Government has spent billions of naira changing the colour of the naira and called it naira re-design. However, politician and social critic Omoyele Sowore, speaking on Channels Television’s Politics Today argued that the CBN spent the sum of N218 billion to redesign the naira. He lamented that the funds should have been given to ASUU to revamp our public universities for the benefit of the poor impoverished masses.
Although Nigeria is not at the World Cup currently going on in Qatar, yet the soccer-crazy people have their hearts in Qatar. They are pitching their tents with other African countries such as Tunisia, Morocco, Cameroon, Ghana and Senegal who are at the Mundial flying the collective flag of the continent. Some are rooting passionately for Latin American and European countries that are featuring their clubs’ heroes. Heroes such as Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Mbappe, Harry Kane, Gabriel Jesus, Vinicius Junior and Gavi of Barcelona command cult following across the world. Hence, Nigerians are supporting soccer superpowers such as Brazil, Argentina, Portugal, England, France and Spain. And with sport betting providing them the only source of survival amid the yuletide fevers, Nigerians welcome the distraction of soccer from the postcolonial hellhole that their country has become.
Chris Anyokwu writes from University of Lagos