Nigerians are rarely as united as when significant sports events come around. It’s an old argument, but it rings true today. And, during those periods, we demand of our sports stars what we often excuse from our leaders: quality over representation. There is no federal character in our sports teams; neither are there religious specifications. When we play and compete, we are genuinely One Nigeria.
Beyond the positive effect this has on our national psyche, it is also a potent visualisation of the Nigerian Dream. Very few of our sports legends were born to an acclaimed or wealthy Nigerian family; even fewer thrived because of where they came from.
This opportunity to succeed by talent regardless of your background is something that sports teach Nigerians. It is as close as we come to true social mobility.
While every Nigerian has a theory for why the country is struggling, ethnic distrust and the lack of belief in a meritocracy are two big culprits.
Issues surrounding federal character and ‘turn-by-turn’ politics continue to dominate and affect our identity as a people, while the belief that Nigeria only exists for a select few drives citizens to despair and destructive acts. These points reinforce the fact that we are not united as a country, yet. Even as political figures offer different visions of unity, sports provides a unique platform.
How can sports help?
There's only one country when Nigeria plays; the different kingdoms that predate the country are subsumed. We celebrate the achievements of all the players, regardless of their state of origin. Prolonged success—and celebration—of this kind begins to form a thread of shared identity and consciousness.
We see it in other countries. Kenyans and Ethiopians compete in long-distance running events while the Russians once dominated gymnastics. These instances may not seem important at first glance, but when properly cultivated and developed, they can create an effective platform for examples of national pride. Hence, at the height of the Cold War, the Americans and Russians used sporting propaganda to show their dominance as a nation. And it’s why politicians continue to leverage the political capital of sporting success.
We see this idea play out in different settings, such as in the economic impact of sporting success. Research suggests that countries achieve better economic performance after sports victories, perhaps because consumers patronise more home-made goods out of a sense of national pride.
Sport is one domain where hard work, talent and a bit of luck pay off. Even after accounting for the politics involved in getting into sports camps and so on, the reality is that you will not succeed if you are not good. In a country where everything is for sale, sport is the great equaliser as there is some talent that you cannot buy.
In a country with high levels of income inequality, distrust between the population and leaders, and a sense that the only way to thrive as a Nigerian is to be outside Nigeria, sports shows us a better way.
Only a fraction of the Nigerian population would actually be able to succeed directly through sports, but there are two important spill-over effects. The first is that just having an industry that is visibly seen as meritocratic and can stand as a beacon of social mobility would be a powerful vehicle of belief for many Nigeria. The second is that by harnessing and developing sports within Nigeria, we can create an ecosystem based on the right values that is then able to employ many more people: coaches, physios, bookies, etc.
Nigeria can harness this determination to do well and create platforms where it can help budding athletes and promote national unity through sports. Let's take success at the Men’s Football World Cup as an example. The last three titles were won by France (2018), Germany (2014) and Spain (2010), but while we may marvel at Kylian Mbappe’s performances or the extra-time strikes by Mario Gotze and Andres Iniesta, preparations for those victories began a long time before glory.
France earned their 2018 World Cup title through years of developing its teams through La Clairefontaine, arguably the world’s most famous football academy, while Spain’s 2010 victory was a product of their La Masia academy, the only real threat to Clairefontaine’s dominance. Meanwhile, Germany introduced incentives to bolster its youth system in the early 2000s and was rewarded with dominance at youth level in the latter part of that decade, culminating in the 2014 World Cup triumph.
Although Nigeria’s success at youth level has been marred by age cheating, there is no doubt that the country has the talent to compete, provided investment is channelled into the sector. Directing investment towards sports camps can also provide opportunities for youth susceptible to negative life choices, such as terrorism and gang violence, and giving them a chance to thrive in a different environment. It also helps direct energies in a more positive direction, something that can only work well in a multi-ethnic country.
Admittedly, most of the examples cited are of male participation in sports. That is something that should change. The Super Falcons have dominated female football in Africa, so empowering grassroots mobilisation, investing in the domestic league and supporting efforts can go a long way in helping gender relations in the country. It also provides another avenue to combat unhelpful stereotypes and address pressing issues concerning gender roles.
There are a plethora of tournaments that Nigeria will take part in, and an increasing number of potential future stars that will strive to represent us. Nigerians and Nigeria can be better off if we invest in sports and utilise its unifying appeal. After all, if we can create a generation of heroes who serve our fatherland, then we may truly become a nation bound in freedom, peace and unity.
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