From London to Lagos, Exploring the Premier League's African Appeal

David GoldblattContributor IMay 23, 2017

Andrew Esiebo

It is 8 a.m, and we are sitting in the crush of traffic headed for Victoria Island. The radio blares: "It's Monday, and it's a huuuuuuuge week in the EPL."

The journey had begun at 6.45 a.m in an effort to beat the traffic, and because we are still just moving, that counts as beating. Lagos—a city of 22 million people with the infrastructure of a town a fraction of its size—demands early starts, planning ahead and lots of room for manoeuvre.

The DJ moves on to the first of the day's quizzes, a 1,000 giveaway if you can answer three consecutive questions on your Premier League team and, with just seven seconds to answer, "noooooooooo Googling."

How did it come to this? That Nigeria, which once boasted the strongest league in sub-Saharan Africa, with a long and rich history of club football, should start the day wondering in which game this season Manchester United's Jesse Lingard got two assists?

I spent the week catching up with some of the country's fanatical Premier League fans to find out about their passion for English football.

    

Andrew Esiebo

THE RED KNIGHTS

Olumide and Ope, both in their early 20s and both in new Manchester United shirts, meet me at Bar Enclave—all peeling plaster walls and old plastic chairs. But it is buzzy, basic and has a huge television tuned to the Premier League.

As kids in the late 1990s, both were entranced by United. It's their team still, but as Ope puts it, only half-joking: "The EPL is like a religion. It can really affect your mood. The thing with the Premier League is that I would watch Stoke vs. Leicester or Sunderland vs. Bournemouth." Sure, they would watch El Clasico, too, but Osasuna vs. Malaga? Forget it.

Five minutes before kick-off against Everton, there is a loud bang, the fans cut out and the bar falls into darkness. The mains power, never available for more than an hour or two a day in Lagos, has been turned off. For a moment, the space is lit by the light of a dozen cellphones. Then the diesel generators laboriously whirr into action. The lights return, but it is another five minutes at least before the DSTV feed is rebooted. This is the norm.

Andrew Esiebo

Everyone confirms that they rarely watch a game on Nigerian TV in Lagos without encountering a power problem at some point during the 90 minutes. With the same weary inevitability of the generators, the crowd at the back of the room descends into a noisy argument as to why: why a country like Nigeria cannot create a functioning public power infrastructure. It is a topic rich enough to keep them going right through the game.

Olumide and Ope are resigned to this kind of inconvenience: "You can't count on the government for anything. You have to do it yourself." It is precisely this kind of enforced entrepreneurialism that led to the foundation of SociaLiga that they both help run.

In 2015, a conversation among a Twitter group of young EPL fans in Lagos concluded that it would be good to play some football as well as watch it. Given the paucity of alternatives—"there really isn't much to do in Lagos, just nightlife and a few beaches"—they wanted to create a social space in which to network with their peers, flirt and raise some money for charity. So they made it happen.

SociaLiga now has a men and women's 11-a-side league, a basketball league and one-off multi-sports days like their Socialympics. They put on food and music and party, drawing up to 2,000 people to their events, mainly to watch its roster of EPL-inspired clubs: Manchester United fans created the Red Knights, Southampton fans the Saints, Manchester City fans the Citizens.

Andrew Esiebo

The whole thing turns a profit, which they give a big chunk of to local charities. Professional clubs in the lower reaches of the Nigerian professional leagues would be pleased with such crowds and delirious with their balance sheet.

"We model everything on the Premier League," Ope explains. "We have a pre-match buildup, edited highlights on the website, post-match interviews and proper statistics."

Olumide added: "We have the same structures as the Premier League, too—a media department, sponsorship people, a board of administrators, and a player and club registration scheme."

In the final minutes of the game, Zlatan Ibrahimovic scores a penalty: 1-1 and relief for Olumide and Ope.

So, what is it about the Premier League? Is it the style of play, the sound of the crowd, the competitiveness of the league? Yes, it's all of those things, but Olumide is clear: "It's the branding. ... It's just so professional."

    

Andrew Esiebo

THE BLUES

Bar Blue Ivy, one of a selection of Lagos venues favoured by the official Chelsea supporters group (Nigeria), with a selection of Audi SUVs and Mercedes vans inside its well-secured compound, is the viewing spot for their home game against Manchester City.

The boys—and they are all boys—are in a calm but confident mood: Spurs would not catch them, the defeat at Crystal Palace was a blip and good for the league because who wants a procession, and Eden Hazard would rise to the big occasion against City.

By no means the Nigerian elite, they seemed a pretty good cross-section of Lagos' small but growing professional classes. Sulaiman, who founded the group, works as an accounts officer for a second-division Nigerian football club. Adekunle is a banker, Kamal is in insurance, Leonard works as a researcher at a radio station. Funny Bone is one of Lagos' leading stand-up comics. Henry runs his own import-export business, and the besuited Demo Lanre is the principal partner in a consultancy.

Andrew Esiebo

A few know of Peter Osgood from the 1970s, and someone has been reading up on the infamously gritty 1970 FA Cup final against Leeds, but for most of them, Chelsea began with the arrival of Nigerian midfielder Celestine Babayaro at the club in 1997 and then the satellite broadcasts on which to follow him.

Henry had detoured, starting out with Arsenal, but was entranced by Mourinho in his first stint at the Chelsea: "I thought, let me pitch my tent with him."

We settle down for beers and pre-match discussions while Demo Lanre updates us on the Chelsea gossip from his array of electrical devices: "I suppose I do three or four hours of research a day."

Andrew Esiebo

The others admit to voracious appetites for Chelsea social media. Most have a matchday ritual and a favourite bar in which to watch the game; all have strict rules of non-interaction with wives and girlfriends while Chelsea are playing. In the aftermath of their 5-0 thrashing of Everton last year in which Hazard had scored twice, Sulaiman named his newborn son Eden.

The clock is on 80 minutes. Hazard has risen to the occasion, scoring two fabulous goals to City's one. Chelsea just need to see the game out. The lights go out with the familiar snap-bang of the mains power shorting. The TV dies, the generators whirr into action, the screen starts to boot up, but we all know that the game will probably be over by the time we are reconnected.

Lanre searches for a stream online in vain. Adekunle saves the day. A friend of his working in finance in London is at Stamford Bridge and is streaming the game on Facebook Live, albeit from the top of the Matthew Harding stand. We quietly gather in a tight crowd around the tiny phone screen watching the even tinier figures of the players buzz around the pitch. On the final whistle, cheers, high-fives and hugs.

Andrew Esiebo

    

THE GOONERS

On the wall of his small flat, there is a gilt-framed banner of Emeka Onyenufuro looking sternly into the distance. Along the bottom, it reads "Founder of Arsenal Nigeria." Sharp-eyed visitors to the Emirates might remember that it used to hang outside the stadium. With the same earnest gaze on his face, Emeka tells me how in 2005 he set up and obtained recognition for Nigeria's official Arsenal supporters club, and how for more than a decade, he has dedicated himself to its expansion.

"Monday to Friday lunchtime, I'm working in my job [as a manager in the power industry], but from Friday afternoon to Monday morning, it is all Arsenal."

As well as maintaining the group's digital presence and fielding endless enquiries from its 10,000 members, Emeka regularly tours all of Nigeria and much of West Africa, connecting new supporters' groups and taking their issues and concerns back to the club.

All the marketing surveys suggest that, for the moment, Arsenal are Nigeria's favourite team. Why? Emeka thinks that arrived via the Nigerian star Kanu, but fans have stayed because the club has given so many African players a slot and because they play the kind of passing football Nigerians crave.

Andrew Esiebo

His connections, however, go back further, to the pre-Premier League era of George Graham and "boring, boring Arsenal!" He inherited the club from his father, a military officer and football fan, who made regular trips to the UK and would return with VHS tapes of Arsenal on British television. In the absence of live games, the tapes fed his hunger for the team.

He has been on the road for Arsenal from Cotonou in Benin to Accra in Ghana, from Cote d'Ivoire to Niger. In Lome, the capital of Togo, he has seen that every Arsenal game is preceded by a city-wide cavalcade of fans on bikes and scooters in club colours, whipping up the atmosphere.

He has been with the fans in Okene in Kogi state in Western Nigeria, where December 28 is deemed Arsenal day and celebrated by thousands in their club shirts. At a meeting in the northern Nigerian city of Jos, no less a figure than the then-vice-president of Nigeria, Atiku Abubakar, signed up for membership; he can still be seen, of a weekend, at the Emirates.

Andrew Esiebo

I ask him where are all the Arsenal fans are this year; I genuinely haven't seen a single club shirt on the streets of Lagos. More sombre than ever, he tells me: "This has been the most difficult of seasons for Arsenal fans."

What message does Arsenal Nigeria have for the club, I ask? He curtly dismisses the "Wenger Out" brigade, reminds me of the coach's transformative power, defends the board's sensible investment strategy and bemoans the absence of leaders like Tony Adams, Ray Parlour and Patrick Vieira.

"There's no one who can really get them on their shoes," he says. It is 35 degrees outside and nearly 100 per cent humidity. We can hardly hear each other over the whirring of a thousand diesel generators in the neighbourhood, but we could have been in north London.

Andrew Esiebo

    

THE SPURS

Founded just two years ago, the official Nigerian Tottenham Hotspur supporters' club is a microcosm of the country's complex social and footballing diaspora. The WhatsApp icon on the Nigeria Spurs group has been burning a hole in my phone screen all week.

If Chelsea could just drop a few points, if Spurs could beat them in the FA Cup semi-final and rattle them, then maybe Spurs could close the gap at the top of the EPL. Hundreds, sometimes thousands of messages a day carry a rising digital tide of optimism, and not just from Nigeria but from Britain and America, too.

Gathering before the Watford game in a small hotel near the airport, I find a couple of the guys are relatively recent converts, students and young grads who found their way to Spurs via DSTV and Gareth Bale, but more representative is Hakin who grew up in Hendon—the same north London suburb as my mother's family—and who, like me, is old enough to have a fondness for Gary Mabbutt, captain of the 1991 FA Cup-winning side.

Andrew Esiebo

Then there is Duton, an architect from Lagos who, if you closed your eyes, really could still be from Edmonton, a very comfortable neighbourhood on the northern fringe of London. He recalls being at boarding school in Cornwall in 1981, the only person on the street running and screaming as Spurs won the FA Cup.

Akin Kongi, who founded the group, went to school in London in the 1980s and early 1990s where his father was a regular at White Hart Lane and he got the bug. Back in Nigeria, in the era of DSTV, he thought he was the only Spurs fan in a sea of Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United. It turned out that his golf club was home to a group of "hidden" Spurs fans.

A BlackBerry Messenger group was born, then a WhatsApp group and now they are the official supporters club. His work "on the business side of the entertainment industry" takes him to London and, of course, to White Hart Lane: "It's one family there..."

Andrew Esiebo

All agree that the main draw of Spurs is that they play football "the right way." Quoting Danny Blanchflower to a man, they all claim that "football is not about winning, it's about glory." Like Spurs fans everywhere, they see themselves as connoisseurs of style and the last bastion of true attacking football values.

Dele Alli's opening goal confirms this. To everyone's delight, another three follow in quick succession. Do they know about the club's Jewish heritage? Does it mean anything in Nigeria, where there has never been an established community of Jews? Yes, everyone's aware of the connection and the Zyklon-B gas hissing that Spurs fans are sometimes subjected to. To the former, they are indifferent; the latter deeply puzzles them.

Tocsin, who amazingly has made the trip by coach all the way from Ibadan more than 100 miles away, loves Spurs.

Andrew Esiebo

Like some of the other members of the group, his route to Spurs was also a reaction to other fans and a statement of difference. "Huh. The people who think they are big men because they support United ... I don't roll with the tide."

It has been a lonely path: "For seven years, I was the only Spurs fan in Ibadan. Now there are two."

It has also been an expensive one. To ensure it is the Spurs game on the TV in the city's viewing rooms, he has to outbid other fans who might want to watch other games. In extreme cases, to ensure a minimum audience at the bar, he says: "If I have to pay 10 people to be there to see Spurs, I do."

Such is the life of a Premier League fan in Nigeria.