Agents of Change - National Review congratulates

Why Only Football Featured

Sunday, 29 November 2015 00:00 Written by  Published in Sports Read 622 times
Triumphant Nigeria U-17 team at Chile 2015 FIFA U-17 World Cup Triumphant Nigeria U-17 team at Chile 2015 FIFA U-17 World Cup

Lukmon Adedoyin writes that other sports that have proven to possess the potentials to give Nigeria more laurels deserve better attention than they are accorded, compared to football.

A 32-year old Nigerian university graduate has become the first African to win the World English-Language Scrabble Championships after beating his British rival in what he described as “a battle between one man and a whole continent”. Since the maiden edition was held in London, in 1991, no African had ever won the World Scrabble Championship or even played in the final—until now.

Wellington Jighere, from Benin City, Edo state won four straight games in the best-of-seven final round against Lewis MacKay, 30, from Cambridge, who is ranked 19th by the body’s players’ association, on whose website Jighere doesn’t even feature.

Jighere defeated Mackay by 448 points to 426 to win the championship which was competed for by 450 players from around the world. The competition, held in Perth, Australia, had Jighere finished first in a 31-match marathon which spanned four days before gaining victory in the final by winning the first four games in a best of seven series.

Team Nigeria had only six senior players at the Championship, after the youth team and officials, including the Federation President Sulaimon Gora, were denied visa for the fear that they may not return back to the country. The players in the team are Ebikeme Adowei, Ayorinde Saidu, Eta Karo, Cyril Umebiye, Emmanuel Umujose, Onota Oteheri. The Nigerian team also emerged as the best in the championship, with five of its six players finishing in the top 50 of the tournament. Despite the fact that Jighere and his teammates only arrived in Australia the day before the tournament started, so had little chance to get over the 20-hour flight or the seven-hour time difference.

Jighere, who was sponsored by the Nigerian government, romped to victory using words like “dacoit”, meaning a member of a class of robbers in India and Burma; “yow”, Australian slang for keeping a look-out, and “katti”, an alternative spelling for a weight used in China. In one of the games, Mackay opened with “guiro,” a Latin American percussion instrument, for 16 points. Jighere followed with “aah,” for 17 points. While the lead was taken at turns by Mackay, Jighere picked up a healthy surplus of 63 points after their respective ninth moves. At the end, the win was close. Jighere sealed the deal with “felty”, like the texture, for 36 points.

The Nigeria Scrabble Federation had expressed beliefs that the achievement in Perth would develop the board game in the nation. Sulaiman Gora, president of Nigeria Scrabble Federation told the BBC that Jighere and his teammates had trained for a year in a succession of “Scrabble camps”, and that the new world champion was a quiet person whose "greatest strength is humility". His win was a “testimony of the potential of Nigeria as a country”.

Jighere’s win has been celebrated as a milestone in Nigeria with President Muhammad Buhari being among the first to congratulate the world champion. In a call put through to him the President said: “I called to rejoice with you over your performance. You have done the country proud, and we are very happy. Please, pass my congratulations to other members of Team Nigeria”.

Jighere was delighted at the phone call from the President, being the first time the Commander-in-Chief of the Federation will call him and he pledged to bring more glory to his fatherland.

Jighere started playing Scrabble in 1996 after an older brother introduced him to the game. He only recently completed his university degree and national youth service scheme and had taken time out of finding work to train for the tournament, which he said would be his last after coming third in Mumbai in 2007 and 11th in Malaysia in 2009.

In African Scrabble circles, he was already a household name, having won the Africa Scrabble Championship held in Nairobi, Kenya in 2008 and successaully defended his title in 2010 in Accra, Ghana. But he is little-known outside the continent.

Jighere made a remarkable impression when he first appeared at a World Scrabble Championship in Mumbai in 2007. The tall Nigerian played with confident, wearing a unique hat. He came in third, very close to being in second spot which would have had him play the finals series with the legendary top rated Nigel Richards. His hat, his style and his prowess were talked of long after. The young man reappeared in 2015, this time the hat was different but the style was the same. The prowess was even better.

The 32-year-old has been an internationally-ranked Scrabble player since 2007. He disappeared from world competition for several years after the reports that he announced his retirement in 2010 following disagreements with the Nigeria Scrabble Federation. He became active again in 2013, but going into this year’s championship, he had failed to break into the global Top 10.

Jighere returned home with a $10, 000 (£6, 600) prize. His win can also result in an increased number of slots for Nigerian contestants at the next championship.

The Twist

Scrabble has over the years proven to be an improved game in Nigeria. One would expect that the government also look in this direction to resourcefully engage our teeming youth population. It is an individual sporting event that requires very lessened cost of getting players to participate and win laurels for our great country compared to the seemingly overrated game of football, which has been devouring much of our sporting funds and yet returns with very little or even no compensating victory to show for it.

Team Nigeria had issues with the Australian Embassy till they had late issuance of their travel documents yet lots of other players, especially the young ones who would have had international tournament exposure, were denied such opportunities. Who knows, we might have returned with much more laurels if such had not happened. The president in an interview also lamented poor funding and a member of the team acknowledged that the president of the Scrabble federation on several occasions used his personal money to finance the teams. For as long as the football world cup has been in existence, Nigeria has never been as close as getting to the quarter finals, yet several other sports have over the years brought back global titles but still receive less attention, especially with respect to funding which is the main factor towards the sustainability of such feat.

Interestingly, the world Scrabble champion is an unemployed youth who just finished his youth service, yet he chooses sport to engage himself rather than crime. His example will go a long way in encouraging the youths out there. Moreover, his choice of sport is the intellectual one that will also improve reading and literary culture among our younger generations. While it is the norm to have a football pitch in school compounds, it is rather becoming a myth to have a scrabble or chessboard in our libraries (if at all there is a library). This shouldn't be the case, especially now that all these sports have the potent tools of getting our youths resourcefully engaged.

However, Scrabble is not the only sport that has been playing second-fiddle in the hierarchy of administrative attention. Most individual sports also bear the same fate. Taekwondo, athletics, gymnastics, hockey; in fact the list is endless. It is like we have football and other sports. The most disheartening, is the treatment of the disabled athletes who, over time have been the most consistent and given the most laurels in sports. I could recall a year when they were received in "Molue" a type of public mass transit on Lagos that is characterised by its derogatory status as the last resort for the public.

The Chang We Need

It is not deniable that football has large followership across the country, but so also are these so called unpopular sports. Now that we need to be more economically prudent, we need to embrace other sports, especially when it is so obvious that such sports require less spending compared to others or perhaps needs just appropriate branding/marketing to get viable supports from private investors. The body language of the administration is enough to attract investors, because investment flows in the direction of the interest of the government.

Just this year, we had the senior basketball teams doing us proud on the continent. During the All African Games, athletics and the disabled sportsmen almost gave us the tournament's victory even when football was nowhere to be found. Now Scrabble has done it again even though football also gave us cadet glory. But comparing the victories: football contingent of up to 35 members Vs Scrabble team of less than 10 members.

So, it’s time we look at other available options to engage our unemployed youths and bring glory and respect to our land. With our large population, we are surely blessed with pool of talents to pick from. Not just one sport deserves all our attention.

Once again, congratulations to the New King of World Scrabble.

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