New book reveals football in Nigeria started in Calabar

Wiebe Boer
Author, Wiebe Boer, speaks to Channels TV about his new book, A Story of Heroes and Epics: The history of football in Nigeria. The book reveals the first city in Nigeria where football started, and the rise of the game in the colonial Nigeria.

Interviewer: Yes, we’ve got Dr. Wiebe Boer with us. He’s the author of this book, the history of football in Nigeria. Thank you for coming.

Wiebe: Thank you very much.

Interviewer: It’s rare to see a book about the history, and very interesting too, history of football in Nigeria. Some of the things that come to mind right away is; how did you come about writing this book?

Wiebe: Right. Well, okay. It’s actually a pretty long story so let me quickly summarize. I was actually born and raised in Nigeria. I was born in Jos and grown up in Taraba, in Plateau. So, all my life, I obviously was observing and felt the passion in Nigeria for football.

Interviewer: Do you speak pidgin?

Wiebe: I, speak am. (Speaks Hausa).

Interviewer: You must have caught a lot of people unawares.

Wiebe: Sorry

Interviewer: When they hear you speak.

Wiebe: Absolutely, yeah. The okada man that I asked for directions one day, when I asked him in Hausa, he almost fell off his bike.

Interviewer: (Laughs) I know that look.

Wiebe: Yeah. So, I grew up with that passion and so when I went to grad school, I really wanted to write something that was important about Nigerian history. When I went to grad school, for the first few years of grad school, I was in course to ask any Nigerian I met in the world, what is something positive, nationally unifying and historical and the only answer – football.

And so I used that as the explanation to my professors and said I want to write this story of this completely foreign practice of football, which is not even in any major Nigerian languages, there’s no word football, there’s no indigenous word for football. Football is completely foreign.

And how, in such a short time, it became something that was so … to national identity and union, that people across the length and breadth of Nigeria would say that it is the one thing we have that unites us, so that was the story I tried to write.

Interviewer: But isn’t it within a short time? I mean going back, I see that you talked about how football came to the country, (its) value among other sports. Football was the one that grew.

Wiebe: The first recorded game of football that we found was in 1904. So, it’s only a hundred and fifty years old, and was actually June 15, 1904, which is almost exactly one hundred and fifty years ago.

It was in Calabar. Students from Okwaro training institution. It was a secondary school founded by missionaries which are still there and the opponents were sailors from the British ship called the HMS. The boys from Hope Waddell actually beat them 3-2.

So, it tells that if they could hardly beat them, it tells that they’d probably had played for a while, it’s just that, that was the first time. But, basically, football started in Calabar in Nigeria.

When the capital of the seven protectory of Nigeria moved to Lagos in 1906, then a lot of the officials went to Lagos and took football with them there and then it spread.

It was already being played in Zaria in 1906/1907 and then it really spread around the breadth of Nigeria. What was interesting though was that sports like cricket and polo, were the ones that were promoted by the colonial senior officials.

It was the missionaries or the more junior officers that played football because of the socio-economic association of football with the lower class people. It wasn’t the high class sport. And even the fact that Nigerians took football instead of cricket or polo; it was actually a form of colonial protest.

Interviewer: This spread because all you needed was a ball and a field?

Wiebe: Exactly.

Interviewer: But what was, how did it get to become a national sport?

Wiebe: Well, that’s the story that the book tells us. In the 1920’s, it became very organizing in Lagos in particular and the few other places in 1930’s and 1933 actually, they formed the Nigerian football association.

Even though that our badge says 1945, the first meeting happened in 1933 and once that was organised, it really helped to organise again across Nigeria.

By world war two, football was fully popular already. Nnamdi Azikiwe, Nigeria’s first indigenous governor general and president had series of clubs across Nigeria called the Zips Athletic clubs. He took the best 11 of those clubs. He went to every major city and played with his team against local teams to raise money.

After the games, he would give speeches with the colonial officials next to him and he’d be talking about the wars, democracy with independence and so, football was already used as a way of protest for independence.
Wiebe Boer [Channels TV]

In 1945, the colonial governor, Arthur Richards, instituted the governor’s coven. It was the first national competition and it’s now the federation challenge cup or whatever, the same cup that has continued since 1945. That (was) now the opportunity for a truly national competition for Nigeria.

Initially it was just in Lagos but by the early 1950’s Kano won it. A team from Plateau lost 11 finals in a roll. They finally won in 1999. It was that competition then (that) really took it national, and it was the fact that you know someone from Lagos could be competing and getting someone from Nigeria that started creating that sense of national identity.

Interviewer: But at that point, you said that Dr. Azikiwe was the organizer for games to raise money for the war at the time but it’s kind of different now. What happened at that time? In terms of when these organizers came to raise money, why did that culture continue?

Wiebe: Remember he was actually doing this as a sort of way to cover the fact that he was actually protesting colonially, so, the fund raising was a cover for that.

Interviewer: But we had other colonial fathers who played some form of role too in football as well?

Wiebe: All of our founding fathers played a role. Actually, one of the things the book traces as well, cause it shows that even if there are divisions politically, there was one thing that all of them; whether it was Azikiwe, Awolowo, Ahmadu Bello, Tafawa Balewa all of them, all of them played a role of some kind in developing the sport of football.

Either in their own parts of the country or the country as a whole, you know, sponsoring different tournaments, playing various roles. Like Tafawa Balewa, the first Prime Minister was actually the chairman of the referees association.

Ahmadu Bello had a competition that he called the ‘Governor’s cup’ for the North. All of them had that kind of association with football because they saw both the power of football to bring people together.

Interviewer: You know this is quite deep and very interesting material here. How long did it take you to, where did you find these materials?

Wiebe: Most of these materials actually came from when I did my job from the university which was in the early 2000, basically a long time ago.

In that period, when I went to the university, they had basically every newspaper published in Nigeria, from 1860 till now. So, I went through every single page, through every single newspaper from 1860 to 1960 about Nigeria and obviously got all the materials from there.

I also spent time in the (library) at Oxford which has all of the personal papers of all the colonial officials and so when you are basically looking at the letters that they wrote and their personal diaries, you actually see what they did outside of the office and that’s where you learn a lot about cricket and football.

But then, most importantly, obviously the research in Nigeria and you know we had national archiving in Ibadan, Lagos and Kaduna and those archives actually had a lot of wealth in our materials.

Our history is actually all there, it’s all documented waiting for people to use it. When I would go to the archives, they’d be so excited because no one was actually coming to look at what was there and so I think anyone out there that wants to look and see the story of Nigeria, the material is there you just have to go use it.

Interviewer: Why do you think that football hasn’t developed as much as people would have wanted? Because even in countries where they play football they’ve got their traditional team of forty years old but we don’t have any.

Wiebe: I think the problem is most of the domestic club teams are owned by states governments and because of that, they are used for different reasons and I think the popular investment of the local game has gone down.

If you look at the great teams of the past, Enyimba, these teams had radical supporters and I think we need to bring that back. I think the football federation is actually doing a lot to turn the game to that type, domestically, but I think as Nigerians, we also need to stop spending so much time supporting Arsenal or Chelsea but support our own clubs.

Interviewer: Okay let’s come back to where we are today. I know everybody’s talking about the world cup and we are going to the world cup. You’ve looked at those games that we’ve played?

Wiebe: Let me just start with, this time, I think the most important thing around is that we’re organized. In 2016, when the team was struggling to find a flight to Brazil and got there six hours before, all of that is gone.

You get a sense from when they are in camp, the players are relaxed.

They’re not worrying about bonuses, or worrying about how they’re going to fly to their next location, everything is taken care of and very organized, even the plans for the friendlies were already released in January and it’s been followed to the team.

Everything actually happened as planned. So that part of it, I think the distraction of football is improved such that the players only have to worry about their performance on the pitch. They’re not worrying about money and all that so I think once all that is taken away, I think the players can focus, that’s 50 per cent of the journey.

The other is, I think the team is a good solid team, I think (the coach) has built a nice mix of home grown players and some players that have been raised and have grown up in different systems.

I think he has blended that together, so you have a mix of Ethiopian approach and the African approach and I think he as blended that well but I think the one thing we do have to realize, as a country is that we don’t have that many big stars.

Victor Moses is the only player we have that plays regularly for a top Ethiopian side. The rest of the players are either playing for a lower level team as in you know they’re not the top teams or they’re mostly on the bench.

So, in light of that, we don’t have that hand full of five, six superstars, we have one kind of that and the rest of them very talented players. Our success is going to depend on how well they play together and how much they gel well as a team.

I think the good thing is stability that has been created, it means that that gelling has happened and you see that the coach, you know, he kind of picked a group of players and he stuck with them

Interviewer: You know people identify with Nigeria as a team that went to Atlanta and then US welcome matches, so they think that to them that’s what they know about Nigeria’s style of football, you know the way (they) played, the speed that Nigeria had that time.

Was there a football philosophy at that time?

Wiebe: I never really saw it in the archive materials for or in the interviews with the players that there was a specific kind of Nigerian philosophy that has a play. I think at all times, there was this sort of focus on, is it a bit stylish? Is it a bit, you know the speed and all that was always there but there wasn’t, this is the Nigerian way of playing that we saw, the passion was there but not necessarily that this is the Nigerian style that continues till today, I didn’t see that.

Interviewer: So, is that something you think we should have considered because when we have different coaches, they seem to come with their style of philosophy and just give us good football without saying this is the way we want to be identified as how Nigeria plays.

Wiebe: I think at the end of the day, every coach basically still comes with the same results. I mean, the speed and the style I think and if you take that away, the team won’t just function anymore.

I think for Nigeria, we want the team to win but we also want them to win as stars and yes, if they can emulate (what) the 94 and 96 and 98 teams did, then I think they can. I think this is going to be a fun world cup.

Interviewer: Is that to put us under pressure?

Wiebe: I don’t know. I think it’s giving the right type of attention and you see the excitements around the jerseys, creating a buzz, that’s exciting. I think the flip side of that buzzer is the jersey.

If you saw the first half of the game, it’s like they thought it was a Black Panther jersey. All they had to do is put it on and they would become super players. It’s exciting to see the excitement on Nigeria. Globally, Nigeria generally has a negative reputation and this is one where I think it’s really good to see the world like something Nigerian.

Interviewer: About the match we played and particularly, about this team now and the style, which style do you think suits us because in that game, when we tried the first half, we saw how it went. We slipped through. We saw how it went as well. Is that style for this particular team?

Wiebe: I think my own concern is with whatever we play that has an untested goal so I’d put a little more investment on defense and I don’t know if that means it’s going to reduce the impact of them playing but I think that’s something that the coaches are taking into account so probably, having four defenders is important at least in the beginning while they grow in confidence and change at half time.

Interviewer: some say this is the future for the future, others think well, if they are this young why not go in there and get us beyond the group stage while some just think why not just enjoy the match.

Wiebe: I think it’s an excuse when teams say this is a team for the future. By the next tournament, those guys will be gone and you’d have a new set of young players and we said that in 2002 that this was the team of the future and they didn’t even qualify in 2006, so I think this is a team of the present.

You have the kind of experience of Mikel which is really good and what he brings and then you have guys like Moses and Iwobi and these are all guys who grew up in the Ethiopian system leads and they have that tactical means and you blend that with the some of the younger guys who kind of came in recently. You’d get a lot of excitement.

I think this is the team of the present. Let’s hold them accountable for something special now, I don’t want to wait till 2022.

Interviewer: What do you think or how far do you think Nigeria will go in this world cup?

Wiebe: My prediction for the first round is, Nigeria will advance. I think Iceland is an over hyped team, I think everyone knows that now, they’re not surprised.

Interviewer: What about Argentina?

Wiebe: You saw how they were without Messi, we beat them so bad that (they) fainted. You know Messi, he’s in his late 30’s and he’s had a long season. By the third game of the first round, they are so dependent on him. He makes trouble when he plays.

Interviewer: So when you said we don’t have so many stars in this team and then talk about Iceland, not that we are underestimating them.

Wiebe: It’s been over a year. I think our only difficulty is goal in position. So, I think that’s the one question but the rest of the team have pretty much been together for a year.

Interviewer: Who’s our best goalkeeper now? Isn’t it Uzo who’s there now?

Wiebe: I think he is but he’s not tested he’s one worth six caps. He obviously doesn’t really play in the league, he’s 19 so am hoping that he’s played well considering that. I think that’s the one question mark, so we need a solid defender.

Look I mean, I think the coach saw something hmm there was always a little bit of hesitation there and I think they weren’t just completely confident so I think they found Uzoho.

Interviewer: Okay it’s going to be interesting getting to the quarter finals but…

Wiebe: Minimum.

Interviewer: Minimum finals, okay we’d like to see that as well. Let’s enjoy the match tonight. Very interesting having you, Dr. Wiebe Boer, the author of the story of heroes and epics, the history of football in Nigeria. Very interesting book. Thank you for having us and well done.

Wiebe: Thank you very much.