The applause. The cheers. The applause.
God, you should hear the applause.
Someone in the crowd calls out to me in reverence. They have named me their god on these streets and in return, I feed them from the bounty of the entertainment I am capable of giving them.
The crowd is always hungry and today is no different. Today, they are even hungrier for action. Reeling from the frustration of the postponed elections, this is the only way they can let go of all that anger- by gathering around on our empty street close to watch us sermonize. Our message wrapped in a round leather ball. Football, the gospel.
5-a-side. The best five players on my street up against the best five of the street adjacent to mine.
No rules. Just how the crowd likes it.
While Fola, my team-mate, makes the crowd wet with his no-nonsense tackling and Fumnaya causes them to gasp with his silk passing, I am the one that truly takes the crowd over the edge. To football viewing ecstasy.
Blessed with a left foot that moves like a gazelle and body movement that would make any dancer jealous, I entertain the crowd on demand, silkily evading aggressive tackles and body contact. With every dribble, the crowd thirsts for even more and I oblige till there are no more defenders in my path and the only thing separating me from a gaping goal is just a little showboating to make their smiles wider.
My left foot is their delight. Lionel Messi like. Hence the name, Baba Thiago.
The game ends 7-3 in our favor and I lead the scoring with 5. As always, they gather around me.
“Guy, you too dey burst brain.”
“See wetin you use Nnamdi do that time. You give am confam haircut.”
“Baba, abeg show next Saturday o. Na Akinsoji street we dey follow play next o.”
The praises are familiar. It’s been years since I stopped minding it. I welcome it now even. With every enthralling performance I put in, I Imagine doing this on a larger scale. I imagine what it would be like to have a 60,000 capacity stadium packed to the rafters sing my name.
“SUBOMI! SUBOMI!! SUBOMI!!!”
The thought makes me smile and causes my eyes to swell with tears. I fucking want it.
Spider-man on these streets. Peter Parker at home.
My mother is first to welcome me. “O tun lo gba ball abi. Shey next week ko le ma bere exam ni?”
I shrug. Yes, my second semester exams to wrap up my 5 years of Chemical Engineering starts next week but exams never stopped me from getting some footballing action. It isn’t about to start now. My mother’s just pissed about the fact that I am tethering on the edge of falling into a 2.2. Her deal with me is I make it out with a 2.1 and I am free to pursue my football “because it’s Nigeria and someone must have the security of a certificate”. I do not mind really. It’s just cost me years I could have devoted to breaking into a youth team. Obinna who I finished secondary school with went to an academy right after and the next year I was watching him represent Nigeria at U-17. I was happy for him but I am way better than Obinna. It could have been me. It should have been me. It might never be me.
“E kule ma.” I merely greet, ignoring her entirely on the subject of football. She knows me well enough now to know that I would not bother at all to reply her on it. It’s one of the cons of schooling in the same state you live. And even worse still, living just a stone’s throw from the school- too much parental supervision.
I head straight for my room and plug my earpiece in, filling my ears with the UEFA Champions League theme song as soon as I get in. The music is heavenly. My younger siblings are in boarding school so it’s just me and my mom at home. Dad died a year after him and mom had Tiwa, my youngest sibling. And his death while sad for all of us was my mom’s last grasp card for all arguments, “If your dad were here now…”. Which is why I stayed in school and did not leave for all those youth team try outs all around the country.
I did go this one time though, about two years back and not for an officially organized try-out. ASUU was on strike and I managed to convince my mother to let me go to Edo state to see an aunt who resided there. Word had spread that the coach of the U-20 national team, then based in the state, was hitting well-known local fields to scout for raw talent. For a certain fee, you could pay an associate of the coach to let you know which field the coach would be at next. I did my ground work well. I paid the fee, killed the performance and got approached by the coach. Two weeks after that; I was, along with 34 others, lodged in a hotel waiting to travel to Abuja to be presented by the coach as part of his longlisted players for the upcoming African Youth Championship. My plan was to call my mother when I eventually made it to Abuja knowing fully well that it would be too late for her to call me back.
I never made that call.
On the morning we were to travel, the coach walked in with a few ‘dignitaries’. Dignitaries being the term for potbellied, bald men with well starched kaftans and an air that screamed, “Available for the right price”. They announced to us that Abuja had sent in some names and those names rather than us would be representing the country. They handed us transport fare back to our homes and that was it.
Just like that, it was over. Poli-fucking-tics. Yet somehow, I clung to my dream that my chance would come.
My mother pokes her head through the door of my room. She has a frown on. Something’s upset her.
“You have a visitor. It’s Danjuma.”
The name explains the frown. Danjuma is something of an enigma to her and to most other people around the neighborhood. A middle-aged apparently jobless man whose only use of time seemed to be to hang around the local fields. He told those of us who asked him that he was a scout for a top football side and he had pictures with several top footballing figures in the country to prove it. Every now and then, he would tell me to keep training, my time would come.
It’s a bit odd to have Danjuma come to my home. He rarely ever visits anyone. When I step out to greet him at the gate, he flashes his kola-nut stained teeth at me and in his thick Hausa accent, he goes straight to the point. “Subomi, my prend, National Stadium next week. Make shua you come. Ko?”
I smile back. I know what this means. Someone important is coming to watch. The Fates, it seemed, had begun to spin my thread.
“One more thing, Subomi. Make shua your age when they ask is 17. Are you understanding me? I can make documents that align”
My smile thins out. I’m almost 23. Tiwa is 17. That would make us twins. This is the price to pay for the big leagues?
“I’ll get back to you.” I inform Danjuma. We have had too many back-and-forths on age falsification among African football players and how it eventually shows up in the shelf-life of the said players. Now, the argument has come to me. I am the defender up against the tricky feet of this conundrum. Could I put up a fight?
When I go back in, my mother asks me what Danjuma wants and I mutter something about inquiring for the price of boots. She harrumphs but does not push on.
All week long I think about it barely managing to stay focused enough to write my finals. I weigh the options in my head. The system had finessed me once. It would be sweet revenge to cheat the system in return for a chance to get my football career on the road. I pulled up old interviews of my heroes in football -Jay Jay Okocha, Kanu. Did they have to make this choice too?
For me, football is not an escape from poverty. I am not doing this for the money. Mom makes enough to get us by. For me, it is about the passion. Once you’ve heard the crowd cheer your name, there’s no going back.
Saturday comes and I still have no clue what choice I am going to make. I only know I am going to have fun on the field. I apologise to my street team-mates about missing this weekend’s game and I head for the National Stadium. I am unsurprised by the number of people like me also here. Competition hardly bothers me. I am that good.
I see Danjuma some way ahead. He’s talking to a white man and he nods his head at me to acknowledge that he has seen me too. He subtly tilts his head in the direction of the foreigner and I know that is the man that I will have to Impress.
God knows I’m ready for this.
A trainer assembles all sixty of us around and groups us by the position we each said we play. Then he shuffles us into six teams of ten players each. Some teams are unbalanced in terms of player position distribution but he explains that their selection criteria would take that into their analysis of individual performances. He reels off a bunch of other instructions and introductory statements but the only thing that really catches my attention is his mention of the football club, Porto F.C. They’re on a selective continent wide search for young talent.
My heart races. This is what I have been waiting for.
We play. I impress. Rinse and repeat. Over and over again. I know because each time I look at Danjuma, he is smiling at me and whispering to the white man. I have caught his eye.
By the end of the tryouts over four hours later, five names are announced. I am number one on the list.
Danjuma and the white man come over to see the five of us. Apparently Danjuma has been scouting the South-West of the country for a year now as the local contact of the club and now is the time for them to check-out the results of his assessment. The white man introduces himself as Ricardo de Souza and explains that we would still have tryouts on a national and then continental scale but for now, we are the best of the lot for the region.
Ricardo dismisses the other four and asks me to wait behind. His English is not flawless but his next set of words sound like music to my ears and my heart does a better dab than Pogba in response.
“I have to say lad, there is something special about you indeed. Danjuma’s been singing your praise all year long and I am honored I finally get the chance to see you play.”
“Thank you Ricardo. I am really glad you love my style.”
Danjuma chips in, “I told you. This boy has something about him. Really special kid.”
I notice then the words they are using.
Lad. Boy. Kid.
An awkward moment of silence follows. I sense the question coming.
“Very well then. I feel the need to treat you to a bottle of Heineken. I would like to discuss a lot more with you.” Ricardo says.
There, in that statement, the question hangs. A bottle of beer. I am 17. I should not be old enough to drink. I can feel Danjuma’s eyes on me. Does Ricardo know I am not 17? Is the question a test to know if I am on board? Questions for much later. Maybe after my first interview with BBC SPORT.
“Ice-cream for me. Coldstone preferably.” I reply.
Ricardo and Danjuma eye each other approvingly. I have applied the finishing touch their delicate pass requires.
The applause. The cheers. The applause. I hear it all in my head.
God, I want to hear the applause.
First step taken. Glory cometh.
Apampa Tobiloba is a fifth year medical student at Obafemi Awolowo University College of Health Sciences. When he is not documenting clerking notes, he spends his time crafting flash fiction and short story pieces. He is passionate about the literary world especially in his local community and last year co-organised a literary event in his university that was graced by internationally acclaimed authors, Dami Ajayi and Ayobami Adebayo.