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Monday, April 22, 2024

AFCON 2023: Alex Iwobi and the ‘Bullygans’ of Nigeria [MUST READ]

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In this compelling piece, our guest columnist Jude Ndukwe delves into the harsh reality of social media bullying faced by athletes, with a focus on Alex Iwobi’s experience during the recent African Cup of Nations (AFCON) tournament. Through the lens of Iwobi’s ordeal, Ndukwe sheds light on the broader issue of “bullyganism” in sports and its impact on players’ mental and professional well-being. 

Sometime in 1999, Students Union Government (SUG) executives of the University of Uyo, led by Comrade N. Udom visited the office of the then Dean of Student Affairs, Prof D. Wilson. I was the Secretary-General of the SUG at the time. Our only reason for the visit was to ‘compel’, the Dean to help rein in some students who had made it their pastime to boo and jeer at us at every turn.

We had gone with the confidence that our demand would be complied with as such behaviour, which we considered atrocious, was beyond the borderlines of good behaviour expected of students of the institution, especially when our only offence, in our estimation, was emerging against the interests of some self-appointed student-kingmakers. We impressed the Dean that if no action was taken to curb the situation, it could degenerate into an avoidable crisis as our supporters were agitating to square up with the booing party.

But we always reassured them that the authorities would be formally notified of the situation with appropriate actions expected to be taken by them to curb the menace.

But to our shock, Prof Wilson told us in as simple terms as possible that the students were within their right to cheer, boo or jeer at us as long as there was no element of threat to life or physical attack on our persons.

He explained that the moment we volunteered to serve them as leaders, we opened ourselves up to such scenarios, and that we should take them in our strides just as we take the cheers from our supporters since they were all part and parcel of the baggage of public office. We left disappointed but better oriented to handle such scenarios without allowing them to affect our commitment to serve all institution students irrespective of the political divide they belong to, including their actions or inactions towards us.

I have given this story to highlight the fact that those who represent or serve the people in one capacity or the other must be ready for the days of boos, jeers and cheers. They are all part of the baggage of being in the limelight in any endeavour.

So, when one of Nigeria’s finest and most loyal footballers, Alex Iwobi, reacted angrily to Nigerians bullying him on social media for what they considered his below-par performance, especially in the final match between Nigeria and Cote D’Ivoire at the just concluded African Cup of Nations (AFCON) tournament, by deleting the national team pictures on his social media pages, it is a sign that he is merely human after all despite the adroit skills within his kitty and the global popularity he commands.

However, such popularity comes with a huge responsibility, part of which is to allow situations to simmer down before reacting. With that, a more rational decision can be made at every point.

Granit Xhaka, formerly of Arsenal, now knows better after he reacted angrily at his own fans who booed him off as he was being substituted for Bukayo Saka in an English Premiership League match against Crystal Palace in 2019. Just like Iwobi, Arsenal fans had adjudged Xhaka to have been playing below par long before that match and as he walked off the pitch to be replaced by Saka, Arsenal fans descended on him with boos. Things got so bad that Xhaka reacted there and then by dishing out expletives to the fans in return, swearing and gesturing aggressively at them and ripping the Arsenal jersey off himself.

That was unacceptable but it was long coming. Xhaka had suffered threats and abuse to himself and his family before that day. In a statement he released few days after the incident, a penitent Xhaka said “repeated abusive comments at matches and in social media over the last weeks and months have hurt me badly.

“People have said things like, ‘we will break your legs’, ‘kill your wife’ and ‘wish that your daughter gets cancer’.

It went too far and led to an unprecedented meltdown for an otherwise blistering career for Xhaka at Arsenal. Such an action was even termed unforgivable by some analysts. To many, Arsenal’s door would be perpetually closed on Xhaka. Even Xhaka himself had concluded so.

Then came Mikel Arteta. He was hired as Arsenal manager around that time. He convinced Xhaka to stay on and win back the fans with improved displaysXhaka did despite doubts about himself and his relationship with the fans. In fact, he had said the decision to continue at Arsenal despite the imbroglio was the first he would be taking without first consulting with his family. He worked hard and warmed himself back into the hearts of the Arsenal faithful with exceptional displays and statistics, ending his career on a high, and eventually leaving loved and celebrated by the same fans, four good years after that ugly incident.

Another player who suffered even worse abuse is Nigerian-born England international Bukayo Saka. After missing the penalty kick that should have kept England in the final match of Euro 2020 against Italy, the young Saka who carried the burden of the entire nation on his tiny and fragile shoulders as a teenager and then as the taker of the last and decisive penalty kick for England was mauled to no end on social media by his own country’s fans with a majority of the excessive abuses being racist.

But Saka didn’t allow that ugly episode to break him. He suffered, yet he offered to continue to play for England without any fuss. Today, he is already a cult hero in the England national team despite his young age.

Like a former Arsenal striker, Charlie Nicholas, once said concerning the Xhaka episode, as sad as it is, they are part of the burden that comes with being in the limelight: “They’ve hammered people like (Dennis) Bergkamp, and many greater players…in the past, and that is part and parcel ultimately of being a footballer at the top level.”

But then again, we are all human and no one deserves the kind of bullying Iwobi suffered in the hands of Nigerians after the final match against Cote D’Ivoire. These lads are making enormous sacrifices to represent our dear nation at the highest footballing level. They deserve encouragement and not abuses, commendation and not condemnation. While one agrees that losing that match was painful, we should also know that there can only be one winner in such a tournament. It is Cote D’Ivoire’s turn today, tomorrow it could be Nigeria’s turn. And no single player should be held responsible for the loss and we must not forget so much in a hurry how these boys have put smiles on our faces and given us the bragging rights over other African nations except the champions despite our crushing socioeconomic challenges back home.

They really did well!

The days of hooliganism in international football seems to have been drastically curbed. But it seems that some have taken their belligerence to another level on social media where they exercise their acts of hooliganism by bullying players. It is a new type of football hooliganism by cyberbullying which I have termed “bullyganism”. And I hope it is also stamped out very soon by holding those involved accountable.

As for Alex Iwobi, he has the future ahead of himself. He can choose to use this opportunity to bounce back stronger and better or whither away into national obscurity and oblivion. He will do well to choose the former and hear Nigerians sing his name to high heavens again.

Just like Xhaka and Saka did, he can rise from this ash of disappointment to the height of national stardom again. He can win back his friends, the fans, who frustratingly turned their back on him when he needed them the most. Just like Xhaka and Saka both of whom Iwobi know very well, he can regain his heroic status and become the toast of the same fans once again.

Nobody wins by giving up. Iwobi should not give up on Nigeria! He can reign again!

Jude Ndukwe is a politician and public affairs commentator. He can be reached via email HERE.

The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.

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