The choice of Kaduna for next month’s Africa Cup of Nations qualifying game against Chad has drawn strong reactions, but it could prove a shrewd decision in the short-term.
Gbenga Okunowo’s comments this week have amplified the debate in the public sphere as to whether or not the national team should have a permanent address. The former Barcelona defender spoke up in light of the NFF’s decision to have the Super Eagles play their first Afcon 2017 qualifier against Chad in Kaduna.
The team has hoboed around in recent times, pitching tent in Calabar, Abuja and Uyo recently. None of these grounds are without a caveat though: claustrophobic Uyo is always routinely packed out but has a turf like the surface of the moon; Abuja is a capacious mansion without a soul, although this has much to do with the demographic of the city; Uyo is a modern edifice but has in a short time accumulated enough negative associations to last a generation.
There is a nice, sewn-up congruity to having a sort of cultural home for a national team, that one venue that is consecrated hallowed ground. Every home game then becomes a (bi-)monthly festival, ending with the sacrifice of the opposition before the baying masses in the stands, usually with some highfalutin political suit in attendance giving the figurative thumbs-down.
This is somewhat removed from reality though; various national associations in recent times have made it a point of order to wheel the national team around the country, the point being that the novelty of the occasion piques the local interest sufficiently to have the ground packed out. Former World champions Spain provide a fine recent example, even accounting for the latent political and nationalistic undertones, there is a sense of a roving circus: “Witness the greatest show the world has ever seen, ladies and gentlemen! Coming to a stadium near you!”
It would seem this is an even more appropriate course in a variegated society such as Nigeria, with its inherent lack of inclusiveness between ethnic nationalities. The only real way to make the Super Eagles ‘Nigerian’ – if it were possible to distil that identity into something patently meaningful – would be to give everyone (within the ambit of possibility) some sort of feel. The national team is after all one of the few things we all rally around in unison, other things being equal.
Worth considering also is that there is a sense of history, of cachet that only notable victories in a stadium can bring. Each ground has a unique soul, intangible but pendent and gravid, heaving with hope and sighs, joy and tears. Nigeria has one real claim to an iconic footballing shrine, and it rots in decrepitude to this day – the National Stadium in Lagos.
The right penalty box is where Segun Odegbami, the Mathematical one, swivelled on a sixpence to punt past Algerian goalkeeper Mehdi Cerbah in the final of the 1980 Nations Cup. The left goalmouth is the one that regurgitated Victor Ikpeba’s penalty against Cameroon in 2000. If ever there was a stadium that could bear the weight of 170 million dreams without caving in on itself, it is the citadel that the late Sam Okwaraji guards with grim, but ultimately futile determination.
Building another stadium up to the same level takes time, and raises the question: where should it be located? Lagos is apt for its all-encompassing, cross-sectional representation of the nation; it has acquired objectivity by heterogeneity, and consequently a Frankenstein mish-mash of a soul that makes it fierce to look upon, emitting a fear-inducing roar on matchdays. No other city in the country provides this.
So while it would be ideal to have a Wembley-style temple to return to, it is not a realistic possibility at this time. The more specific grouse may be the choice of Kaduna for the Chad game, but consider for a while that this is a stadium that holds no recent bad memories for the national team, and is guaranteed to provide a full house and the atmosphere to go with it.
It is in this regard that football fans in Northern Nigeria have the edge over their Southern counterparts: they are less likely to be apathetic to the Super Eagles. The national team is in a lull presently, and no one is quite sure what to expect with the return of Stephen Keshi. With his association to recent poor performances, siting this game in the South, where the Big Boss has not presided over a win since 2013, could have seen disappointing turn-out.
If Southern supporters are a reluctant, uptight girlfriend, requiring careful coaxing and promises of eternal bliss, then Northern fans are – all right, you get the idea. Simply put, the choice of Kaduna will ensure the one thing the Super Eagles have not had a lot of recently: unbridled, unmitigated support for 90 minutes. At their lowest point, they could certainly do with it.
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