Football: The People’s Opium

Dr. Chris Anyokwu

By Chris Anyokwu

Karl Marx once famously declared that “religion is the opiate (or opium) of the masses”.  His reading of history at the time was informed in large part by the fact that power-holders of Europe had abandoned their constitutional responsibility of catering to the needs of the people on whose behalf they were occupying exalted positions of influence and authority.  Although the jury is still out on the question of the origins of religion, it is, however, fair and reasonable to assume that those who traditionally controlled the levers of political power had invented religion as a diversionary instrument of social control; as a tool with which the popular mind was/is obfuscated and befuddled.  Thus, religion has remained something of an opiate designed to dull popular consciousness in order for the powers-that-be to continue to screen off the debilitating shortcomings of realpolitik.

Karl Marx

Religion, in truth, served and continues to serve as a dry bone thrown to the dog [read: the masses], so as to preoccupy and detain it whilst the people, known for their congenital credulity and amnesia, lap up the illusory sop of religion, particularly its promise of a paradisiacal afterlife as a reward for an earthly life of self-abnegation, self-mortification and asceticism, the rulers of the world always play havoc with their collective patrimony, turning it into personal fiefdoms and heists of vested interests.  The power-holders and their ilk always tout the mantra of the Jeremy Bentham philosophy of utilitarianism or the doctrine of the “greatest good for the greatest number”.  Small wonder, Sigmund Freud characterises religion as a “consoling myth”, having understood the essential philosophy of power across aeons.  Whilst religion, to an extent, remains the opium of the people to date, it is, however, arguable if it still exerts the same amount of interest, commitment and extremism in people.

Silhouette of a preacher

But how appropriate is the opium metaphor deployed in describing the kind of influence religion has had on civilisation?  What, then, is an opium?  Opium is an addictive narcotic drug that is derived from the unripe seedpods of the opium poppy.  As a matter of fact, it has been said that opium was used as a painkiller in the Middle East and Asia.  Such was the demand for opium that nations had to go to war over the Opium trade.  For instance, in the so-called Opium Wars, two armed conflicts had erupted between the forces of Western countries and the Qing dynasty in the mid-19th century in China.

Opium field in Afghanistan. Britannica photo

The first Opium War took place between 1839 and 1842 while the second Opium War was fought between 1856 and 1860 between China and Anglo-French forces.  There is, to be sure, a sense in which opium can be likened to marijuana or, to use local synonyms, Igbo, weewee, grass, dagga, ganga or cannabis.  When people take opium, therefore, it makes them feel “high”” or “ireh” to use reggae patois. Users claim that when under the influence of opium or opiate, they experience an alternate order of reality; they are removed temporarily from objective reality; they attain a false sense of serenity, equanimity and nirvana.  They walk untrammelled in a never-never-land of ineffable bliss.  All the pain of mortal existence is gone.

File Photo: People holding a wrap of marijuana

According to American playwright, Tennessee Williams in his play entitled A Streetcar Named Desire, humans can’t bear too much reality.  The question is: why so?  Objective reality as we know it, is a damp squib; it’s a lousy affair shot through with angst, ennui, with paralysis of mind (and sometimes, body), sorrow and pain(s).  Ernest Hemingway in A Farewell To Arms remarks poignantly that the human estate is characterised by the banality of pain.  You can only escape pain in death, he argues.  This Hobbesian dystopia which we designate life or living is the jail to which all of us are condemned for life, no reprieve, no parole.  This is the common experience of all sentient beings, whether you reside in the Northern Hemisphere or in the Global South, the region of the wretched of the earth.

But we know life can also be a lot more liveable in the North unlike it is in the South, that is the Third and the Fourth World where large swathes of the populations live below the poverty line.  Matters are made worse when your country is universally acknowledged as the poverty capital of the world; when the value of the national currency, the Naira, in our case, has plummeted to an all-time low; when a piece of tissue paper is of greater value than your nation’s currency!

Naira notes

And, what’s worse, when stagflation and skyrocketing prices of goods and services have reduced the masses to a nation of hopeless scroungers.  Add to this distressing scenario, rising unemployment, joblessness, Biblical immiseration and millennial misery that have effectively wiped out the middle-class, then welcome to the postcolonial hell-hole called Nigeria.  As we speak, factories and industries are either relocating to other African countries or are being converted to cathedrals, churches and prayer houses.

Even so, religion a la Karl Marx is fast losing its hold on the masses as the opiate of the masses; however, hard ministers of religion try to wield the magic wand of mumbo-jumbo.  The genie has escaped from the bottle.  Sport is now the opium of the people, nay;football is the opiate of the masses.  In the 1960s and ‘70s, Nigerians had followed the local game with relative enthusiasm.  They had rooted for such football clubs as Shooting Stars Sports Club of Ibadan (a. ka. Oluwole Warriors), Enugu Rangers, Stationary Stores of Lagos, EnyimbaInternational of Aba, Railway XI Football Club of Lagos, IwuanyawuNationale  Football Club of Owerri, Kano Pillars F.C., Bendel Insurance F.C of Benin, and Mighty Jets F.C. of Jos.  On the African continent, we have great clubs like Al Ahly of Egypt, El Zamalek of Egypt, Mamelodi Sundowns F.C. of South Africa, Asante Kotoko of Ghana, Accra Hearts of Oaks and Esprance de Tunis of Tunisia.  In Nigeria, stretching from the ‘60s to the present, we have had great masters and stars of the round-leather game.  Who can forget the likes of Peter Fregene, Inna LawalRigogo, Tony Igwe, Ben Iroha, OkeyIsima, Jerry Azinge, SegunOlumodeji, Samuel GarbaOloye, Jay-Jay Okocha, KanuNwankwo, SegunOdegbami, Victor Ikpeba, Emmanuel Amuneke, RashidiYekini, Stephen Keshi, Peter Rufai, Christian Chukwu, GarbaLawal, Victor Moses, OdionIghalo, and Victor Osemhen.  Frankly the list is inexhaustible as Nigeria has been blessed with an abundance of football talent.  Most Nigerians are passionate supporters of our national teams such as the Green Eagles (now the Super Eagles, the Flying Eagles, the Golden Eaglets, and our female soccer teams, the Super Falcons, the Falconets, etc.  These national clubs have done the country proud at various times in the past winning sub-continental and continental trophies such as the AFCON, and the WAFU and have posted modest performances at World Cup competitions.

Super Eagles

If anything, our soccer stars, such as,Daniel “Da Bull”Amokachi, Kanu, Jay-Jay and those still playing in European clubs at present have succeeded in putting Nigeria on the world map.  It is, indeed, gratifying that the influence of Pay-TV has helped in no small way in globalising the game. Supersport,a Multichoicebouquet of sport channels on DSTV has got the exclusive broadcast rights to beam Livematches played in Europe and elsewhere to the African continent.  It is nearly always the case in every home that the man of the house tries to keep hold of the TV remote control and make sure everybody in the family is glued to the screen watching FOOTBALL!  The wife’s voice is usually drowned out by Daddy and the kids who prefer football to telenovas and sitcoms, the preference of Mummy.  It is interesting to note that the father and his children are all passionate supporters of European clubs such as Arsenal F.C., Chelsea F.C., Man United, Man City, Liverpool, Juventus, PSG, Bayern Munich, Barcelona, Real Madrid, A.C. Milan and others.  Given the atrociously hellish state of affairs in Nigeria, the people always love to escape into the exciting adrenaline-rush world of football.  Hence, their support for their clubs tends to verge on the manic.   A brief analysis of a few European clubs in this regard will suffice.  Arsenal F.C. of London, England are noted for their silky, sexy caressing of the ball, their free-flowing style that is incredibly easy-on-the-eye, an epithetic playing identity they owe to the incomparable “professor” of football, Monsieur Arsene Wenger.  It’s sad that his ephebe-successors to the Emirates throne have so far come up short.  Chelsea F.C. of London, Arsenal’s sworn rivals are known for their swashbuckling, gung-ho, all-action style of play, an attitude that hardly prioritises finesse or flair but places high store by a Viking-like ruthlessness, a smash-and-grab mentality.  For them, winning is all that matters.  Victory on the pitch more than compensates for what they lack in entertainment value.

It, thus, does not matter who sits in the Stamford Bridge dug-out.He must stay true and faithful to the Blues DNA of ruthless dominance or else he’s shown the exit door.  Little wonder, the revolving door is always in motion in West London.  Thomas Tuchel should beware!  Tottenham Hostspur F.C. of London have their one-billion-pound stadium to console their fans as they have not been able to mix it with the Big Boys on a consistent basis.   With Daniel Levy, their boss still controlling the purse-strings and caring little about trophies, their fans will have to wait a little longer for silverware.  Manchester United F.C. and Liverpool F.C. are quite frankly well-established English coliseums of the beautiful game, their respective histories going way back in time with their trophy-cabinets bursting at the seams, testament to a tradition of footballing excellence, pride and glory.  Manchester City F.C., are late-bloomers, thanks to the wealth of their owner Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al-Nahyan, a member of the Abu Dhabi ruling family.  Pep Guardiola is doing his level best to make City a great club.  But can they last the distance?  In continental Europe, A.C. Milan used to dominate Serie A but not anymore,not with the emergence of their cross-city rivals, Inter,  and Roma, Napoli, Juventus, Atalanta, etc. In Spain, F.C. Barcelona and Real Madrid have continued to hold sway for years.  Athletico Madrid under the mercurial Argentine gaffer, Diego Simeoneare now a force to reckon with.  You underestimate them at your own peril, for they have got Luiz Suarez, the Dracula.  But, pray, where’s Lionel Messi, the erstwhile Barca god?  Oh, we hear he is now playing at PSG in France.  Hmn… how things change!  Ah, yes, how about Christiano Ronaldo, a.k.a.CR7?  He too has been rather peripatetic lately – from England to Spain, from Spain to Italy and now back to England (Man U) in the twilight of his career.  Now as the two heroes of the game – Messi and CR7 – are gradually winding down their well-decorated careers, football buffs can take heart or consolation in the emergence of young Turks such as KylianMbappe, Haaland, Macey Mount,    Rodrygo and Vinitius Junior, BukayoSaka and MaceyGreenwood.  Theirs is the future of the global game.  Someone once said that football is a matter of life and death.  But another person was quoted as countering that football is much more serious than that.  Little wonder, when a club, like Arsenal F.C. lose a match, like they did to newcomers Brentford F.C. of London, many of their fans lose their appetite for food.  They remain glum-faced and sullen all week.  They lose all sense of motivation and zest for life.  Contrariwise, their wives and girlfriends sometimes join these men to watch live matches on TV for totally different reasons.  Women simply stay glued to the screen just to admire the hairstyles, and good looks of the stars.  Talk about star dust!  By the same token, folk “rep your club”, “wave your banner” and, for good measure, turn out in their clubs’jerseys, decorate their offices and homes and cars with the souvenirs and mementoes of their clubs.  Every now and again, turf-wars, inter-street brawls break out over club supportership.  Some fans go as far as organising prayer and fasting programmes for their clubs, especially when they are not doing well.   Football is a universal language spoken and understood by both young and old.  It is a sport that is capable of bringing out either the Beauty or the Beast in people.  Football is a multi-billion-pound business, with many European and American clubs quoted on the floors of many Stock Exchanges, with millions of people owning stakes, equity and shares in these football clubs.  Thus a single act of shame committed by any player in a club is enough to send the shares or the economic fortunes of the club into a tail-spin.  Even a tattoo on a particular part of a player’s body can make or mar both the personal career of that player and the global brand of the club.  In our globalised world,  a crisis in a football club is capable of unleashing seismic eruptions across the world.  Indeed, football or soccer is a matter of life and death.  What is more, in our consumer culture, football is a veritable commodity; it is the oxygen of popular culture, normally deployed as master-trope for commercial transactions, notably advertising and infotainment.   In our cities and towns, people now bear the names of their favourite stars such Messi, Ronaldo, Henry, Fabregas and Jay-Jay.  Children now want to pursue football as their life careers, what with football academies dotting the landscape.  Since school or education is considered a scam by the youth of today, the alternative route to instant wealth is football.  Now, it’s all about betting (or gambling).  If anything, football and gambling have always been something of Siamese twins.  One remembers those years of Fixed Odds and Tremble Chance, those bygone years when our elders were fixated on making a kill out of games played across the seas.  Today, people, football fans are advised to let their passion put food on their table.   Thus, there are hundreds of betting houses or companies in town, all avenues for fans to stake a token amount of money and probably smile afterwards to the bank.  There are now radio, TV and internet shows designed to help betters and gamblers make accurate predictions and win big!  Curiously,Multichoice,owners of Supersportand DSTV, the pay-TV is always increasing the subscription fees for their packages.  It is usually an overkill in an unregulated market.  The National Assembly once blew hot and cold over the DSTV exorbitant charges.  But NASS has long gone to sleep on it, leaving long-suffering Nigerians to paddle their own canoes.  Yet on the flipside, DSTV is helping the Nigerian government to keep the masses “opiumed” in the absence of jobs, social amenities, of bare necessities.  DSTV is helping the authorities to curb youth restiveness, crime and all whatnot.  In the face of the poverty of religion, which god do the people worship, if not the god of soccer?  Thus, football-as-religion is helping the government to keep the people entertained, distracted and anaesthetised while the power-holders continue to fleece the land, milk our common-wealth dry while promising the amnesiac people a better tomorrow that never comes.  The National Stadium Complex in Lagos and its counterpart in Abuja, in their hollowed-out, shell-like state, are an eloquent indication of official aversion to youth development.  Football is the only consolation for a disinherited demographic of potentially powerful shapers of national destiny – the youth.  Even if our local game being run by the Nigeria Football Federation (the NFF) is dying on account of institutionalised corruption, and sleaze, selfishness and allied primordialities, the European game is enough “bone” to keep the dog (i.e. the masses) on leash, distracted while the burglar pillages the house without let or hindrance.  C’mon, guys, rep’ your clubs!


Chris Anyokwu writes from University of Lagos