Can Nigeria host the FIFA World Cup or the Olympics?
There's theory, there's practice and there are wild dreams, and only one is within reach.
I rushed back from a bathroom break. It was half-time in Qatar but this was not just any half-time…it was the mid-point of the final game at the 2022 FIFA Football World Cup. I had spent 5 weeks experiencing this historic tournament, partly as part of FIFA’s volunteer workforce and partly as a tourist. It was arguably the best World Cup in a long time (so they say, since this was my first world cup in person) and I was witnessing the undisputed best final game ever. Our hearts were in our mouths for Argentina and France and every second was more intense than the last. Half-time was a good moment to catch our collective breath and still our agitated hearts. So, in a group of some Ghanaians, some Nigerians and the one Moroccan or two Egyptians, we debated the age-old question: “can we host a World Cup?”
There’s no-money, old-money, new-money and Arab-money.
When big football countries like France and Brazil host the World Cup, it makes sense. These countries have large fanbases that support the sport and there is an infrastructural foundation to be built on for such a major tournament. When a country like South Africa opts to host the World Cup, we root for an underdog who has come a long way. When a country like Qatar bids for the tournament, one half of the world might sneer and jeer while the other half is intrigued to see what good could possibly come out of Qatar. This country barely plays football well and they are known for being oil-rich and having a world class airline, but that’s about it. What we forget is that when a country has a point to prove, they’ll do anything to prove it. But when a rich country has a point to prove, they’ll do everything to prove it. Qatar’s World Cup journey was just as political and scandalous and messy as any other country’s (and yuck, it was messy), but what they lacked in PR or “sex-appeal”, they made up for in Arab-money. So, while Russia shelled out 16 billion US dollars for their World Cup and Brazil spent 19.7 billion for theirs, Qatar spent almost 230 billion! The audacity of a tiny, conservative, Middle-Eastern country to play a very Western game and win. It is one thing to have no-money and protest for acknowledgement (this is how much of Africa fights for a voice) and it is another thing to have Arab money and demand respect. Qatar did the latter.
How do people move around?
Qatar built a rail metro system in only a handful of years. Where the rail lines stopped, thousands of buses picked people up to the luxury cruise ships, souqs, stadiums or to fan fest zones. Your Hayya Card served as a visa, a fan ID and a FREE metro pass all in one. The metro worked insanely well. It managed to be clean, efficient and easy to navigate. The metro was often faster than Ubers or Careems, especially to stadiums and other such areas. The commute for Qatar residents was different during the tournament but not to a point of disruption. Oh, and their world-class healthcare was free to all. Apart for the crowd on the last day which doubled as a holiday (Qatar’s National Day celebration) and the World Cup Final, the metro seemed to be in greater supply than demand.
In Lagos, we notice when there is a 50,000 person event going on in town. When the traffic extends to my door front in Ikeja, I run to Twitter to check what’s happening. “Oh, the Experience is tonight,” I mutter. A quick trip could become a journey if one of the churches along Lagos-Ibadan Expressway is holding a major conference. When there is a small gathering of people in Lagos, we notice because the already poor transportation infrastructure becomes impossible. And 50,000 or 100,000 is a very small number compared to 1 or 2 or 3 million spectators, officials and tourists.
Are we all in?
Qatar was an incredibly delightful experience. Everyone was on their best behavior and if there ever was a thing as team spirit, it was felt in Qatar. From the airport to the city to World Cup events, everyone had one mission: “help people feel welcome.” The city-state was safe, so when matches ended at midnight, people felt comfortable turning up in fan-fest zones till 2am and getting home at 3 in the morning. Some people may argue that this was good packaging enforced by the Qatari government, and maybe it was, but if every business and every organization successfully got their front office staff to ‘properly package’, we would have excellent businesses running excellent services. I dare say that much of it was not packaging. People truly felt like they were contributing their own quota to the success of this giant event.
So, if we set out a plan and lay out a handbook for customer service, can we guarantee that the immigration officer in Lagos, the taxi driver in Owerri, the police checkpoints in Abuja and the bus conductors in Oshodi would co-operate? Are we all in for the good of the group, or would this be an opportunity for us to extort as much as we can to our individual heart’s content? We test-run this yo-yo every December, when we see an in-flux of guests coming in for Detty December and if this were a class, we would be repeating.
Speaking of Detty December…
Monkey dey work, baboon dey chop.
In English: other people are reaping where we have sown. Remember Detty December, 2019? It was the year that changed everything in West African in-bound tourism. Nigeria’s tree of music, film and entertainment had started yielding fruit for the country. We could see that people started to consider Nigeria as the Mecca of afrobeat. Ooh, this was the fruit of that which we had worked so hard for. And then Ghana steps in to say, hey, Diasporans come to us. We will show you where you came from. We will give you easy entry. We will bring the Nigerian musicians here for you. And if you want to stay close to your ancestors, we will give you residence permits. This is the motherland, come home! I’ve shared lots of threads and posts about how we missed the first wave of this opportunity and how we can salvage the loss. All this to say that events like the World Cup thrive on ecosystems. That’s why the governments of Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Oman allowed me use my Hayya Card to apply for visas to visit their countries. They were not alone, pretty much all Qatar’s neighbors including the UAE and Kuwait encouraged World Cup fans to visit them with no additional paperwork and cheap connecting flights. We have a little annual opportunity to practice and hone this craft of hosting visitors enmasse, and as part of an ecosystem. And we are not practicing.
The conversation continued long after the second half was over and the euphoria of the World Cup had waned. It still continues. When I think fondly of my time in Qatar, I fantasize about another African World Cup, perhaps one that is shared by multiple countries. Nigeria might be able to handle one or two games. I want the joy, the energy, the vibrancy and the common commitment to something. I want it for my people. I want it so much for us.
So, can Nigeria host a World Cup? We must never make categorical condemnations such as ‘NO’ but we can ask the very important question:, ‘biko, HOW?’
Before you go, I would like to say thank you for being a part of this community. Please, keep sending me lovely emails with your comments and questions. I see that majority of you open and read the emails but I truly love when you respond to me.