Nigeria, Football and Religion

Nigeria may have failed to make an impression at the FIFA Women’s World Cup in Canada, but two members of its contingent at least, succeeded in attracting attention to themselves in the short time they spent in Canada. The interest they generated, however, had little to do with the football they travelled a long way to showcase, but with religious belief.

On the day Super Falcons battled Sweden to a 3-3 draw, I met a Nigerian journalist who complained about Edwin Okon, the teams’ coach’s religious ways and what she perceived to be his apparent lack of knowledge of Nigerian opponents in the competition.

The statement didn’t quite sink until June 11 when I attended the Super Falcons press conference at the Winnipeg Stadium. There, I found out that, true to the journalist’s words, Okon was much more at home with religion than football. On two occasions during the session, when the Nigerian coach was asked by foreign journalists about his game-plan or familiarity with his opponents, he tactically parried the questions, saying in one instance that talking about his team’s plans would amount to letting the “cat out of the bag.”

The first question went thus: “What do you know about Australia? Anything in particular that sort of worries your team?”

Okon replied: “I have said it before now. There’s no team in this competition that’s a pushover.  All we know as Nigeria is just to come out and do what we are supposed to do against any team, not only Australia because if they are not good, they won’t be at this level. So, no team is a pushover. Australia is a good team. Nigeria is equally a good team. There’s no team at all that’s a push over.”

Perhaps seeking better answer, another journalist asked the coach:

“Edwin, what worries you most about the Australian team?”

Okon retorted: “This is the same question like the one I’ve just answered. It’s the same question.  As you are worried about Sweden, US, France, it’s the same thing for all the teams. They are all good teams. If they are not good, I’ve said it they won’t be here at this level. So, you as a coach you just have to go back home and prepare your team to face or beat anybody in the pitch. If it worries you so much, you won’t be able to deliver. So, you just have to relax as a coach and think of what to do in the pitch.”

However, Okon was in no way coy about God’s help or influence on his team, as the following interaction shows.

“Coach, Australia and a lot of teams have referred to Nigeria as unpredictable. How do you feel about the tag?”

Okon responded: “Yes, nobody can predict the Nigerian team. Only one man up there can predict the team of Nigeria, which is Almighty God. He’s in charge of the team. So, if you read it A, he gives you B, if you read it C, he gives you E. That is Nigerian team for you because they are fully determined and fully equipped with the power of the Almighty Father.”

Taken up further on the issue of prayer and God, Okon added: “In Nigeria, once we add God to anything, we are very serious about it and we don’t joke with it once the name of God is mentioned. So the morale of the team is very, very high because the name of the Father, God is being mentioned. The players are aware of this, everybody in Nigeria is aware of this.”

On the match against Australia, Okon said: “The battle is 50–50 and whoever the father God wants to come up to that level (will win) and I know we Nigerians are looking forward to that victory come tomorrow.”

Focusing on the jinx that has trailed the Super Falcons at the World Cup, such that the team has failed to advance beyond the group stage since 1999, Okon said, “I think, with the Almighty Father on our side, we will break that jinx this time.”

On the table with Okon that day as he fielded questions from journalists was Francisca Ordega, the Super Falcons attacker. Asked to preview her team’s match against Australia, the Washington Spirit forward replied: “We are gonna make our nation proud. We are preparing well and we believe with God on our side, we’re gonna make it happen tomorrow.”

One other journalist sought to know the motivation behind the Super Falcons singing and dancing that precede their matches, to which Ordega gushed: “It boosts our morale. It gingers us. We believe in God. We are all Christians or Muslims. We are one. Muslims, Christians, we serve the same God. When you sing and dance, you feel the passion of God, you see everything just turning around. Dancing is our hobby. And, not just dancing, we sing and give praise to God because He is all and all.   We believe in Him and He’s the one who keeps us going”. Perhaps not satisfied with Ordega’s explanation, Okon added for effect: “It’s a tradition for Nigerians that we must praise God with high spirit; high tempo.”

While Okon and Ordega’s assertions that day may have re-emphasised the universally held belief that Nigeria is a deeply religious country, it surely gave the Falcon’s gaffer’s critics something to rant about.

Gowon Akpodonor, a Nigerian journalist, in an article, Technical Blunders Bane of Super Falcons, wrote that “Okon’s declaration that God is closer to Nigeria than people from other parts of the globe did not go down well with some Australian journalists at the venue. It became an issue”, he said, adding that  “while Okon was doing his calculation and pre-match analysis on ‘drawing board’ and banking on angels in heaven to win the game for Nigeria, his Australian counterpart, Coach Alen Stajcic and his players were busy carrying out studies on Super Falcons’ pattern of play.”

In a follow up article, Akpodonor quotes an official of Falcons as saying: “Okon relied only on angels in heaven to do the work. No, we have told him severally that God helps those who help themselves, but he kept preaching God would win the game for us. I am not saying that one should not have faith in God, but the truth is that a coach has to perform his duty well before God will help you.  Nigerians are not the only ones who serve God, so, this idea of preaching that God will win matches for us should be discouraged.”

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