We played the game.
It entailed any number of men or women running about kicking any roundish object. We had no special name for the game.
Then the man from overseas came. He brought balls and boots and talked of football and soccer.
Like most white men, Coach Clemence came to Africa with a mission – to discover the beautiful game of football.
Coach Clemence came with many rules and regulations. And we all got hoarse complaining that he was complicating a simple game with his many rules.
The bounce of the ball was beyond the ken of most of us. Kicking with boots put us in all kinds of trouble: the ball flew everywhere but the goalposts.
It was all so cumbersome, like teaching a man to use the left hand in grand old age.
“Keep the ball on the ground!” Coach Clemence hollered, daring the noonday sun as he ran from one goal to the other correcting us. “The birds in the sky do not play football!”
We suffered at the hands of this man. He made us run endlessly round the field building up what he called stamina. You cannot play the man’s game unless you have sapped all your energy running like a madman chasing after dry leaves.
“Who ever heard of the footballer with neither skill nor stamina?” Coach Clemence asked. “You lot deserve special places in the Football Hall of Shame!”
The first competitive match we played was against a team of some tourist friends of Coach Clemence.
It was a massacre.
We somewhat stood fixed watching the soccer wizards from London do all the scoring. They ran like the wind and danced past our ears like mosquitoes.
We played some other matches. We lost all the matches. The score on each occasion was scandalous.
After one particularly humiliating defeat, a game in which half of our players scored own-goals, one rugged man walked into our fold.
A crafty old stager, he was gap-toothed and his goggles were darker than midnight.
The title Presido fitted him like a cap.
“They are my people,” the man said to Coach Clemence, pointing at us as we sat head bowed. “I know their psychology.”
In the football field he spoke to Coach Clemence in English while he talked to us in the native tongue. Some of his words to us were actually full-throated insults directed at the white man.
Coach Clemence upped the ante by taking us into the classroom to teach us football. He mentioned many incomprehensible figures and numbers: 4-4-2, 4-3-3, 4-2-4 etc. He drew many lines on the blackboard and plotted many graphs. He pointed and directed through arrows and curves. We got more confused by the minute.
“My people cannot get the hang of this teaching of football inside the classroom,” our self-appointed President challenged Coach Clemence.
“Without a sound theory there can be no good praxis,” Coach Clemence explained.
“How can somebody do on the blackboard what is played out there in the football field?”
“Presido!” We all rose in salute of our President for asking a question that we had all individually wanted to ask.
“Football is a game of the head rather than of the feet…” Coach Clemence was saying.
“In that case,” Presido interrupted, “the game would have been called headball instead of football.”
Yes! We were all screaming in support of the thesis of our darling Presido, a true man of the people.
Coach Clemence then said he had arranged a special match with the British Embassy Club as our command performance.
Presido instantly volunteered to produce crack match officials and a record crowd for the special match.
The football arena was jam-packed. The pep talk of Coach Clemence minutes before the match dwelt much on the anticipated overlapping runs of the British full-backs.
“We know what you mean,” said Presido, interrupting as usual. “Overlapping means that somebody comes as a missionary and then overlaps as a colonial master!”
“Don’t mix football with politics,” Coach Clemence said.
“Don’t listen to the white man,” Presido said to us in the native tongue. “When we get into the field we shall play our style.”
“Our style is home-grown freestyle soccer democracy played with military boots,” shouted our dancing goalkeeper who had for some time been taking some private lessons at the instance of Presido.
The match was not yet a minute old when the British left-back, overlapping, scored. He would have scored again in the very next minute but for the agility of our goalkeeper. Now instead of putting the ball into play, according to the rule of the game, our goalkeeper ran the full length of the field and threw the ball into the net of our opponents!
“The overlapping goalkeeper!” roared the crowd.
“Unprecedented! Fit for the Guinness Book of World Records! First in history!”
I heard so many exclamations.
The referee looked at his assistants and at the excited crowd and then pointed to the centre of the field, thus counting our goalkeeper’s caper of a coup as a goal.
The British Embassy Staff Club players were dumbfounded.
Suddenly our goalkeeper picked up the ball and ran all the way to score again.
The referee blew a blast on his whistle, jumping up in excitement like Presido and the crowd.
The overlapping goalkeeper scored many more times, and the spectators could no longer be controlled for joy. They encroached into the field, passing the ball to us with their hands and feet.
It was a melee. Nobody could leave the field of play.
I looked in the direction of Coach Clemence but his place had been taken by Presido.
Presido actually came into the field to score a handful of goals with his hands and feet and head, jumping and screaming and urging us on.
And we obeyed him, scoring with every part of our body.
It was indeed an original never-ending game, soccer, Nigerian style.