The atmosphere at “CC arena” was tense filled to the brim with anxious fans sitting sandwiched like sardines. Sweats streamed down the faces of spectators as the standing fan by the corner helplessly blew hot air. The odour was apparent; a mix of dry sweats and stale breaths. With, a few minutes to go before kick-off, more fans thronged in despite the apparent lack of seat. For Gozie the manager, it didn’t matter as he made brisk business ushering them in and motioning to the seated to make room. “Make una dress o. Abeg, una no dey una parlour o”, he yelled out as some of us groaned at the discomfort. Well, not like our inconveniences mattered to him. For all he cared, we could sit on each other’s heads as long as we cared to watch the live game and had our hundred naira fee.
Not to be mistaken, the arena was no more than an open space covered in tarpaulin, held together by wooden columns and ropes. Above were interspaced cartons running across as ceilings which made for additional layer and beneath, wooden benches neatly arranged in rows and columns for the spectators. Different football related posters adorned the walls alongside a white-board where fixtures, time slots and fee were written boldly. In front sat three CRT TVs that had surely seen better times broadcasting the same game so viewers wouldn’t have to crane their necks from different angles of the room. Packed outside were motorcycles of all sorts, apparently by a number of the spectators gathered within the arena. The flock of male dominated viewers could easily be split into three categories: the neutrals that had just come to enjoy a good game of soccer and to whom club affiliation meant little; on the extreme, diehard supporters of either clubs; lastly, fans of other clubs who for the hatred of any of the sides had come to cheer the other. Also, the makeup of the crowd was of mixed ethnicities as far as their looks and accents could tell. This was surely a reinforcement of a widely accepted view that the round leather game represents one of the finest examples of our display of national unity.
The arguments preceding the game flew in all directions. It seemed unique in a sense and the reason was not farfetched. Chelsea FC (the Blues) and Manchester United (Reds), two English super weights were clashing in the League cup for the second time in a space of 3 days on the same ground, home to the former. The last clash over the weekend had ended in controversial circumstances which pitched the football club against the referee Mark Clattunberg. As if 2 red cards to the Blues were not enough, Manchester United had gone on to win the game by 3 goals to 2. Prior to that weekend meeting, Chelsea, current European champions with 2 Nigerian players in its team had gone into the game with its fair share of pride to maintain: European champions; league leaders, unbeaten in the domestic league in the current season; and even more, unbeaten in its home-ground by the visitors in over 5 years. So, even though this was a league cup, the European title holders vis-à-vis its fans seated in CC arena felt they needed to redeem their pride and avenge the weekend loss to the Reds.
The game began and as usual, I could hardly make out the commentary as self-proclaimed analysts and commentators drowned out the sound coming from the TV. Behind me sat a notable Chelsea fan in a corner that was clearly dominated by supporters of the London club side. His facial lines gave him away as someone in his late thirties to early forties. He stood out with his Chelsea paraphernalia: jersey, scarf, key-holder, head warmer, gloves. While some referred to him as “egbon”, most used the term “coachie” in apparent regard for his knowledge of the game or profession. Either way, he was a popular figure at the arena.
Emotions ran high as the game progressed with “coachie” steering the wheel of affairs with comments at key moments. Following a defensive error by the Chelsea defender Romeu, Manchester United were one goal up prompting a debate in the room. “Cech na mad man”, coachie shouted. “Na Romeu fault”, another retorted. “Wetin him they guide? Him be Mikel”, He added. That was in apparent reference to the defender’s action before the ball was taken from him. “How e take be Romeu fault? Cech no see say him dey surrounded”? “Abeg, make I hear word”, coachie responded in what was slowly degenerating into a heated argument between fans of the same club. “O se joor Romeu, God bless you”, a Manchester United fan called out in between the debate spiting the Blues.
Chelsea drew level few minutes to the end of the first half courtesy of a penalty and the atmosphere for once calmed going into the half-time break.
The second half produced another drama as the visiting side capitalized on a slip from David Luiz the Chelsea center back. Coachie was furious. “I hate this Luiz. The guy too dey bee (anxious)”.
At another point during the game, a ball was launched into the Chelsea half catching the central defender in a one-on-one situation with a Manchester United attacker. Sensing a possible slip, coachie yelled out, “this one go act film o”! That was a metaphoric reference to the possibility of the defender making a mistake. “Kick am go throw-in. Na wa o”! Fortunately, the incident though passed by with no tragedy as the defender held his ground.
At 3 goals to 2, the game seemed to be slipping from the Home side as the 90 minutes approached. At this point, the game assumed a video game-like situation with coachie directing the order of play: pass the ball; give Hazard; return; see am; open your eyes; whine am; bury am… Injury time came and the home-side was in desperate need to save the game. Coachie was on his feet with little regard for other viewers behind him whose views were clearly being obstructed. He yelled out gesturing with his arms, “Float the ball”; in reference to playing the ball high up into the opponent’s 18 yard box. “Light am”; to indicate that the player should take a shot. And when it seemed like decisions didn’t go Chelsea’s way, his shouts became, “Mau U ojoro. FeeDeePee (PDP)”; in reference to bias or rigging from the match official.
The resilience of the home-side paid off as a well converted penalty kick sent the game into extra time. At this point, coachie started dancing azonto.
Extra time proceeded. The Nigerian playmaker Victor Moses understandably worn out from over 90 minutes of play failed to convert a clear chance at goal infuriating coachie. “Moses eeee, my grand-mama go score that goal”, he yelled out. “Dem say coach no dey give you chance to play. Shebi now, you don see ball play, you no fit play”. Another time, Moses lost the ball and coachie bellowed out again, “commot Moses, commot am abeg”; in reference to the substitution of the player. When I made the point that the team had exhausted its maximum number of substitution, he responded by saying, “make referee give am red card”. I exploded in laughter.
Minutes later, Daniel Sturridge, the Chelsea striker was the culprit as he displayed some selfish play. “I hate this guy. Abeg, make the club sell am”, coachie blurted out in utter frustration. Yet, when the same striker scored, He was the first to say, “I too like this guy”. At this point, I was laughing uncontrollably.
After over 120 minutes of play, the tension soaked match ended 5 goals to 4 in favour of Chelsea. As the okada riders screeched their tyres in celebration of the victory and I headed home, it was with a feeling of excitement at an interesting game of soccer juiced up by the comical display of coachie.