Express your distaste for meat or say you don’t like Friends, and while you may get a few strange stares, most people will overlook it saying, ‘it takes all kinds.” These rules however don’t stretch to football. If you don’t like or are not interested in it, it’s looked upon as a federal offence. Interventions will be arranged and questions about your mental state will surely be asked. Calls will be made and if you don’t retract your statement quick enough, you might just find yourself staring at iron bars for the rest of your life. To be a Nigerian male and not like soccer is an oxymoron that most will prefer, and wish, didn’t exist. I have never watched a full soccer match before, not because of anything much but the fact that it just doesn’t interest me. The teams, the players, the leagues, I just don’t care. Modern Family, yes. Arsenal Vs Chelsea, no. I’d sooner watch paint dry.
Growing up, I didn’t even think it was that much of a big deal, a friend would ask what team I supported and I would stare blankly assessing my choices. If I answered honestly that I didn’t watch it, to them I might has well have put a sign on my head saying, ‘Future Homosexual,’ and if I sputtered the first team that came to my mind, it may have been in competition with his, forcing me into a tiresome argument. I would normally just shrug and fall back on my normal response. “Hm, well what team do you support?” And then I’d side with them. I’ve at turns been an Arsenal, Chelsea, Barcelona and Liverpool fan, sometimes all in the same day. I’ve become something of a jersey chameleon, my colours changing depending on the situation.
This became one of my genuine fears going into Whitesands, an all-boys secondary school. How would I keep up with the football talk? In group conversations, lines would be drawn in the sand as people took stances with their teams. The thing that confused me the most along with the vigour that they argued, supporting their various teams, was the use of the pronouns, ‘we’ and ‘us’. “We beat you guys last time at the Premier League, your defence was too poor.” I’d look at the speaker and wonder briefly if I had seen a picture of him playing alongside Messi. To them, it was so personal, so alive that it was like they were playing on the field too with their favourite players.
I’d always found it weird that it wasn’t only attraction to other males that could label you gay but also disinterest in a sport. What even was the relationship between a sport and where I put my genitals? Could you be a homosexual soccer fan then? It always made me pause and think every time I was accused of being gay because I didn’t like football. “Have I ever liked guys?” “Did I really think Zac Efron was cute in that movie?”
Strikers, defenders, right back and midfield were terms I still don’t understand but have been forced to hear and imagine what they could mean. The thing is, even if I wanted to start watching, where would I begin? It seemed that the team you supported was something deeply ingrained in your being and supposedly said a lot about you. Arsenal fans were always ‘salty’ for some reason while Barcelona supporters, by contrast, were haughty. Chelsea peeps were finicky and the people over at Liverpool were somehow at peace. It looked like I was already late to the party.
To add insult to the injury, there was the FIFA game. While I was comfortable with Assassin’s Creed and Sims. Not having any form of a football game was a grievous sin and considered disrespectful, not to talk of not knowing how to play. When tournaments were being set, my eyes would search quickly for a team with lots of stars, one that wouldn’t force me to work too hard. Then maybe I could at least try and play with a quiet dignity. After a brother of a friend of mine beat me 7–0 within the first half of a match, I dropped the controller and swore to never play again. “Oh, thanks for the offer, guys, but uh, I already played this morning,” becoming my standard excuse.
With time, my apathy towards football turned into a deep-seated loathing for it. Balls when rolled my way were duly ignored and all forms of it on social media were effectively avoided. What really was so special about some sport? I mean, they supported Man City and Man U, surprisingly good male strip club names, and had the nerve to call me gay? I humped whenever the topic was brought up, playing the latest episode of Vampire Diaries, focusing instead on Elena and Damon.
I think, sometimes, to how different it would have been, where I to have developed into a different type of male. I imagined myself in a living room with friends, watching in anticipation as Neymar Jr. dribbled past the midfielders, my eyes wide in sick shock as he rainbow flicked the last defender. I squeezed my inhaler tight as he continued his journey towards the goalpost, the keeper widening his legs, his expression even from this distance, shaken but determined. Neymar slowed down as he was a few paces from the goal, the crowd screamed, the lights shone like the sun and then, rearing back like a hungry lion ready to pounce, he shot and he — .