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TRUST US TO BUNGLE IT

By NBF News

I have never been more dispirited about the state of this country than I was on Thursday last week. In fact, melancholic is the word. Nigeria had played Greece in the ongoing World Cup tournament in South Africa, and we got a 2 - 1 drubbing. If you follow sport, even moderately, you will know that Nigeria went into that match with high hopes and expectations. After the performance put up by our players against Argentina on June 12, a game they narrowly lost by a lone goal, nothing could have stopped Nigeria. Greece was no soccer world power, we had beaten them at USA '94, and all the odds favoured us. But we were stopped dead in our tracks.

Or rather, we stopped ourselves. By the typical Nigerian way of doing things. We bungled it. Fluffed it. It was a blunder, self-butchery. Only Nigeria could have done such thing. It has become a national trademark, our stock-in-trade. It's a nation of botchers, muddlers, bunglers. And it flows right from the top.

Elections? We're master bunglers. Governance? No better muddlers than us. Soccer? Blunderers, and no mistake. We're masters in the killing of hope. 'All hope abandon, ye who enter,' wrote the Italian poet, Dante Alighieri. He must have been talking of Nigeria. A country 'by disappointment everyday beguil'd' (apologies William Cowper, the English poet). Nigeria, why are we so blest?

I had done a draft of this piece before Nigeria played South Korea on Tuesday. For me, the outcome of that match would not matter in one way or the other. And I was justified at the end of the day. In a game they needed to win at all costs, and one in which they had promised to die if need be, our representatives played as if they were drunk on lager beer. Was it because their coach was called Lagerback? Maybe. They put every foot wrong, even before the yawning, empty net of the opponents.

What is the trouble with Nigeria? Great writer and essayist, Chinua Achebe, says it is leadership. I agree. Our fish is rotten from the head, and the entire body is affected. Stinks. We are now a people without spirit, without spunk, without verve. And in no other area do you see this more than in our soccer.

Early this week, renowned football administrator, John Mastoroudes, said Nigeria would still qualify for the second round because of the 'Nigerian spirit.' According to him, 'we have to invoke the Nigerian spirit, that special spirit that springs in all Nigerians when they have their backs to the wall.' But is there anything like a Nigerian spirit any longer? I know of the American spirit, fervour for motherland that wells up in every Yankee. I know of the Ghananian spirit, the Camerounian spirit, the Ivorien spirit. But the Nigerian spirit?

Cameroun lost to Japan and Denmark, but with their heads held high. It was more of tough luck for them in both matches. The Ivoriens drew with Portugal, and lost 1 - 3 to Brazil. They were not disgraced. But see the show of shame we put up against Greece. During the opening game against Argentina, we did not believe it was the same scrappy, wobbly team Shuaibu Amodu had taken to the Nations Cup in Angola earlier this year. Something positive seemed to have happened to the players. In other countries with spirit, the tempo should then go several decibels higher in the next match. But not Nigeria. Against Greece, the Amodu boys were fully back in action, warts and all.

I don't agree with Mastoroudes that there is a Nigerian spirit. Well, maybe in election rigging. Corruption. Kidnapping. And other anti-social acts. But that positive spirit, which makes the American, the Ghananian, the Camerounian, the Ivorien, want to die for motherland on the soccer pitch, we don't have it. Not at all. And why should we? It flows from the head downwards. If the leadership in any country is uninspiring, colourless, without any flash of inspiration, it will show in every facet of national life, soccer included.

When Sani Kaita kicked that Greek player near the groin in the 33rd minute, and got sent off, the icing was merely put on the cake. The nail was rammed into the coffin. Although we were leading by one goal, it was the most dismal, lack-lustre performance our national team could ever put up. Trust Nigerians, we are master bunglers. Yes, does it not flow from the top?

The commentator on DSTV, the station where I watched the match, described Kaita's action as pure folly. Understatement. It was daftness. Idiocy. Silliness and stupidity. It was simply kaitastrophic. Kaita is a professional, not an amateur footballer. Even the crudest amateur knows that such act is visited with instant dismissal, not to talk of someone who plies his trade in international circles. Oh, Kaita, Kaita, whatever came over you? Well, you were behaving true to type. You are national of a country where things are bungled. Elections, bungled. Governance, bungled. Soccer, bungled. And Kaita, realising the repercussions of his action, flopped on the field, and spread his hands in wonderment. Boy, you asked for it, and you got it.

Kaita got us angry, very angry. But I'm glad he showed remorse. He wept, sat in sackcloth and ashes, and refused to be consoled. I forgive you, young man. Go and sin no more. You were only being a typical Nigerian. It was the Nigerian blood in you that smelt. A nation where the leaders bungle everything, cannot expect any better. Some people have imputed ethnic and religious interpretations to your action. I don't agree with them. You were only being Nigerian. But be sure to sin no more.

When a team is reduced to 10 men, they become like a scorched snake, which becomes more ferocious and venomous. In countries with spirit, when they have a player sent off, it is like performance enhancing drug. They become more difficult to beat. We have seen it many times, even in this World Cup. But with Nigeria, it is the recipe for the entire team to collapse like a pack of cards. It is the ingredient for them to begin to run aimlessly and fly awkwardly from pillar to post, like the jabulani ball. Oh, lager beer (or is it Lagerback) does something to people.

Maybe we should rather have sent the Super Falcons to represent us in South Africa. Then we would have made history as a country where the women have balls, and the men have none. Nigeria, when will your deliverance come? When is your day of emancipation? I may be depressed, dispirited, melancholic today, but I won't give up hope. Someday, the rot would stop, and Nigeria will take her proper position. Among countries with spirit. But for now, we are spiritless.