I am not just a sports TV presenter and reporter; I am an avid sports fan with a passion for all sports, especially football and tennis.
For the first time, I attended a major sports event as a fan and didn’t have the encumbrances that come with having to shuttle between press conferences, teams training, colour-piece shoots, one-on-one interviews, editing and sending through the reports. This time, thanks, in part to Star Lager, I experienced the tournament – the FIFA World Cup o! – from an entirely different perspective and it was awesome.
After the draws in December 2017, we all agreed that Nigeria got a very tough group, but the fan in me was optimistic that we would navigate the high tides and come through the group-stage storm, and I travelled to Russia with that buoyancy. I met some Nigerian fans and we sang and danced on the morning of June 16th as we waited to travel from St. Petersburg to Kaliningrad. We were over one hundred fans and we looked imposing and intimidating until we got into the Kaliningrad stadium.
Attendance was clocked at 31,136 and it felt like I was the only Nigerian in the stadium. If I didn’t have friends and colleagues with me, I would have sworn I was the only Nigerian there. It was a sea of the checkered red and white of Croatia in the stands and we felt it. I looked to my right and spotted the Nigerian Supporters Club. They looked even less intimidating than I felt. They didn’t have their drums and trumpets so we couldn’t even hear those familiar tunes that could penetrate even the loudest of opposition chants.
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Every time Nigeria made a good move and we screamed in encouragement, the Croats responded with whistles to drown our voices, and boy, did they succeed! We all know how that match ended.
The Volgograd Arena was host to 40,904 football lovers and the stands were practically blue. I looked around and thought it was going to be another night of barely hearing myself, as I saw sprinkles of green that were barely noticeable. However, the Icelanders were a bit more docile than the Croats.
Even though Nigerian fans were totally outnumbered, our voices were heard but it was mainly because the Icelanders were quiet in parts. We heard the Naija traditional chants of ‘Inside the net”, “over the bar” and “All we are saying, give us one goal”. After we scored, our fans mocked Iceland by imitating the Viking Chants and we were heard. I felt some hope as we looked forward to the match against Argentina.
The St. Petersburg Stadium is one of the most beautiful stadia I’ve ever been in and was the perfect venue for a battle between two great footballing nations. From the outside, it was all the Carolina blue and white of Argentina. Those fans are loud! They know how to support their team. They were young and old men and women with their little boys and girls. It was unbelievable! I have never seen anything like it! I had some friendly banter with some La Albiceleste fans. I took a few pictures depicting that the Super Eagles would finish them off on the pitch but each of them laughed and asked me to remind them of when we’d beaten them in a competitive match. They were right, of course, because they ensured our elimination from the tournament.
My focus is on the support those Argentine players had in that stadium. I do not have the exact figures but from where I stood, they made up at least 98% of the 64,468 fans in attendance. They sang for ninety minutes plus the injury time. They had this particular song that ends with “Messi, Maradona”.
I don’t speak Spanish but I definitely recognize those names, even when I hear them in a Spanish song. That tune has stayed with me because I heard it in the city when I went sightseeing. I heard it at the fan fest a day before the match when I went to watch Portugal against Iran. I heard it when I went into the supermarket to buy roasted chicken. I heard it everywhere!
After that very painful defeat, I ran into Sound Sultan, Tuface Idibia and his manager, Efe Omorogbe. We talked about the lack of support for the Super Eagles and we had our opinions on why we don’t have the same level of support for our beloved team like the Albiceleste. Efe and my friend Akin Ariyo were of the opinion that we do not have a football culture in Nigeria. Efe pointed to the fact that the fans from the South American country travelled with their little kids. They all sang in unison. They are taught from a very young age to religiously follow their local team.
For me, I believe that it goes beyond that. I agree that our football culture isn’t strong as it was in the 1980’s but I also believe that poverty and low-income rates in the country have a lot to do with it. How many Nigerians can afford to save and pay their way through to a FIFA World Cup? It is an expensive venture.
What facilities are available to the low-income earners that make up the majority of our population? It seems like only the extremely rich can afford to travel for these tournaments. Rich folks like the Senate President, Bukola Saraki, who flew into Russia to watch Nigeria beat Iceland, returned home and flew back to Russia to watch the match against Argentina. Oh to be a rich man!
I often ask myself if the presence of fans really matter to the players? This is a question I have asked footballers and I have received mixed opinions. However, I would like to hear from the average Nigerian fan. Why do you think the Super Eagles lack fan’s support at major tournaments? Why do you think the fans of Croatia, Iceland and Argentina in Russia outrageously outnumbered us?
Chisom is a Sports TV Presenter, Producer and Analyst.
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