BY BANKOLE WELLINGTON
Many years from now when, by God’s grace, my children are old enough to understand, this is exactly what I plan on telling them about my experience while watching my very first world cup game live: “On a bright Summer night in St Petersburg, our Super Eagles played with more heart than our Leaders have shown in 50 years. And I was proud to see it.”
See, I’m kind of a faith-over-facts type of sports fan, and I suspect that to a certain measure, a lot of us are. We know the facts. We know that Argentina are by far the better team. We KNOW that Leo Messi is on almost every list of the top 5 greatest football players of all time. There’s a reason that their country is currently 5th in the FIFA world rankings, and to find Nigeria, you’d have to scroll all the way down to 48th. On paper, we know we probably never stood a chance. Coming into that game, in every position on the pitch, the gulf in talent was, to put it mildly… significant. Case in point: we have never ever in our footballing history, EVER had a striker as lethal as Sergio Aguero. Argentina had the luxury of bringing him on as a substitute late in the second half. But I plan on teaching my kids that in this life, despite seemingly insurmountable odds, you should dare to dream anyway.
And that’s exactly what most of us want, isn’t it? The opportunity to just…dream. To dream that maybe you can punch above your weight and be successful at it. Most people aren’t lucky enough to be recipients of glory in this rat race called life, so we project that innate desire onto the teams we support. And so the Nigerian team dreamt that we could do it, and we worked our asses off to make that dream come true. What we lacked in footballing pedigree, skill, and training… we almost entirely made up for in HEART. There were over 66,000 people in that stadium; between the Argentineans in attendance, and Messi’s global fanbase of billions, it looked and felt like 99% of the people in the crowd were rooting for Argentina. You could hardly sport a green jersey, and that’s not because it’s sold out. It’s because there were only a couple hundred of us, versus tens of thousands of them. The Super Eagles were playing in an Elimination Game, against arguably the Greatest player of all time, his top 5 ranked team, and over 60,000 people screaming and heckling our every kick of the ball.
But we played and we defended, we clawed and we FOUGHT. Yes, we lost, but we went down swinging and played with all the heart we could muster. And honestly? So did Argentina. Messi and co weren’t just going to roll over and die, in what would have probably been their most embarrassing world cup outing of all time. They were going to fight. And as I said in one of my numerous social-media-crazed-fan-videos, Nigeria didn’t come just to mark the register. We came to PLAY. Both sides went at it for 90+ mins, and for 86 of them, we were even. In the end, the better team won – because at this level, the truly great ones are able to capitalize on the slimmest of moments to separate themselves and secure victory. But the losing team was equally gallant in defeat. Both sides gave it their all. One side won, but both sides played with heart.
These days, I’ve found that my wife and I spend just as much time praying for our future children, as we do worrying about the kind of world we’d be bringing them into. There’s so much darkness, sadness, and pain in the world, you know? Here’s a laundry list of things that have happened in the past month alone: Two globally successful celebrities hung themselves. Then a woman in Lagos allegedly also committed suicide, by jumping into the lagoon. Yesterday, an undergraduate student from Lagos State University attempted to do the same. Plateau state in Nigeria has JUST been hit with two fresh sectarian attacks…over 200 people were slaughtered in cold blood – the latest in a very long line of mass murders over the years. Add the frequency of killings in Zamfara, Benue, Taraba and you’ll find that Nigeria has started turning into the Murder Capital of World, for a country that’s not at war. There is NO justification for the mass murder of innocent human beings, and yet, it just seems to keep happening, moving from state to state. It’s happened so frequently that we’ve become completely numb to it. We don’t care anymore. It’s now just another headline. And if that wasn’t bad enough, Nigeria has just overtaken India as the Poverty Capital of the World. And with all this, all we ever do is tweet #hashtags… #prayforPlateau, #prayforBenue, #prayforNigeria… etc. We say stuff like “our hearts go out to the families of the victims”, but we actually have very little heart left. Because we’ve gotten used to hearing about the brutality, so we just adapt, tweet or retweet a picture and a prayer, and we move on.
It’s not just Nigeria, either. Most Nigerians envy the quality of life in places like the USA – but let’s take stock of where America is at right now. I have a hard time reading the news because it seems like it’s almost always bad. School shootings in the good old US of A are as frequent as Boko Haram bombings in Northern Nigeria. Reports in the media have been awash with images of sweet, innocent children of immigrants, uncontrollably crying their eyes out, because the American Government has coldheartedly separated them from their families and kept them in cages like animals; one can’t help but wonder at the kind of emotional scars and resentment that has been deposited in their hearts. And speaking of humans-being-treated-like-animals, look no further than the recent #JusticeForJunior hashtag on twitter – read about this teenager from the Bronx, whose only crime was bearing a small resemblance to someone that some gang members had a problem with. So what did they do? Five of them dragged him out of a corner store, and beat and stabbed him to death in the street. An innocent 15-year-old, who just happened to look like the person they meant to harm. The store owners saw 5 guys dragging him out of their shop, and chose to look the other way. He came back bleeding his life away and pleading for help, and they pushed him back out, locking their doors and telling him to go to the hospital. The people passing by on the street also looked the other way; the ones watching from their apartment windows, saw him being beaten and stabbed to death, and figured that it was more important to record the entire episode on their cell phones than to intervene, or at least, use the same damn phones to call for help. He died in a pool of his own blood, trying to run to a hospital in time to save his life, because no-one in the community cared enough to lift a finger. And this is all before we recount the numerous horror stories of women being sexually assaulted in the #MeToo movement, the innocent minorities being assassinated by the same American Police Officers who have sworn to serve and protect them, or by the numerous young people on the streets of Nigeria who have been brutalized, extorted, maimed and killed by barbaric members of the SARS police force.
So you know what I plan to tell my kids? I’m going to teach them to be passionate – and to have a Big, Fun-Loving, Kind HEART. It’s fun to be passionate about sports… I mean, there’s already so much evidence online showing just how CRAZY I get about my sports teams. I’ll tell them that it’s okay to be that way, and to be a faith-over-facts kind of sports fan. It’s fun, and life is too short to not have fun. But it seems like some of us are almost subconsciously waiting for our teams to mess up, just so they can hurl insults at them, tell them what a disgrace they are, and project all the anger and pain from our real lives on them; forgetting just how hard it is to break out of the dire circumstances that come with being an underprivileged Nigerian to make it into the National team. Do you know the work, the sweat, the tears, the sacrifices, the sheer determination it takes? Do you know how hard it is to even be able to make a living as an average Nigerian? I’ve got news for you. If you were blessed enough to watch the game on a flat screen TV in the comfort of your home, or at a bar somewhere… you’re not the average Nigerian. The average Nigerian lives on less than $2 a day. Some aren’t actually sure where their next meal will come from.
Some Nigerians, however, thought it was okay to go online to Ighalo’s social media to leave insult after insult, ridiculing him and other players, simply because he had a bad game. Which one of us has never had a bad day at work? Or made a series of regrettable mistakes? Luckily for us, we don’t have our bad days in front of millions of people who are actively rooting against us. And even afterwards, we get to learn from our mistakes quietly, in solitude, and resolve to do or be better. Whereas, Ighalo and co have to hear about it from thousands of comments, some of which represent the very worst of human behavior on the internet. I heard that when he turned off his comments on social media, some Nigerians went and found his WIFE to harass, threaten and bully her as well, as if she’s ever kicked a ball for the team. In what amounts to the greatest misplaced anger I’ve ever seen… we have let thieving politicians and businessmen who have made away with billions, running our economy into ruins go blame free; we have turned a blind eye to all the killings, beatings, oppression and injustice in our countries, and instead poured all our bitterness, criticism and venom out on footballers, their wives, and referees.
So I plan to teach my future kids that in sports, and in life, it’s incredibly important to try and give your absolute best in trying to win. Unfortunately, sometimes, your best will just not be good enough. But even on your worst day, it’s not the end of the world if you don’t get it right… as long as you give your all, and you do it with HEART. I plan to teach my kids, that in this increasingly dark world, it’s so much harder to be an optimist, but it’s so much more fun. It’s better to actively choose to care about others. It’s better to choose happiness over hurt, and it’s better to be kind than to kill with criticism, or violence. It’s better to build up than tear down, and hard as it might be, it’s better to be a beacon of light, and to look for a silver lining on the darkest of days than to spread more darkness.
I’ll tell them that on a bright Summer night in St Petersburg, our Super Eagles gave so much more heart than our Government, Country, or World has displayed in years. And that to me, will ALWAYS be something to be proud of. Because if there’s anything this world desperately needs more of, at this time in our history, it’s human beings with a little more heart.