The mention of football in Nigeria brings to mind the image of twenty-two people competing for possession of a round leather. Now, as an average Nigerian, what image does American Football invoke? Yes, I know it took you some time to picture the right image. This is because American Football is unique to America and not an everyday reality here. A puzzled friend once asked me why it’s called football when the hand is the dominant feature for playing the sport? I was as confused as he was, but I argued that the hardest point to score results from kicking the ball high up into two long polls. However, this is a minute debate for another day.

Two weeks ago, I happened on the Instagram page called “Abuja Flag Football,” amused by shared images of young, Abuja-based group playing what you know as American Football. I reached out to speak to them because that was the first time I had seen the game being played in Abuja. One of them, a fellow named Idris, and seeming like their leader, replied: “We could meet up at our next practice so you can see us play and get videos if possible.” I was excited by the thought of this, especially having, a few days before, discussed the sport. A friend, Nafisa, who spent the most of her adult life as student in United States had explained the place of the sport in the American life.

Thanks to her, I was able to understand Flag Football as a version of American Football which replaces the tackling of players to the ground with the removal of a flag from the ball carrier. So it was exciting watching it firsthand in the very heart of Abuja, and gathering that the group started theirs in August, 2018. Their goal is a start a league in December with as much as 40 people. They are currently in the middle of creating awareness for the sport in Abuja. “We need to let people know that this is a sport they can partake in to build their self-esteem, stay fit and enjoy a good time,” Idris said. 

This, though, is not the first time American/Flag Football is being played in Nigeria. In fact, Lagos, Port Harcourt, and Akwa Ibom already have established teams playing the sport. Lagos Marines for example in June 2017 became the first team to tour West Africa playing American Football. They defeated the Ivory Coast side 13-12 to win the SANKOFABOWL, playing a Ghana side along the way. In Lagos, ShitSuke Flag Football League for example has a well-structured flag football league running since 2015. It was birthed by a wellness and fitness professional Bimbo Bankole.

Moreover, in March 2016 Zaria hosted the first official game of American Football to be played in Nigeria. ABU Titans squared up against Lagos Marines in what was to be a memorable encounter for many in the stands. Lagos Marines was to hold a return leg in Lagos. The captain of that ABU Titans side Mustapha was playing with the Abuja Flag Football team when I spoke to them. I asked how he joined the team and what the experience meant. “It was a great day. I am one of the first people to join the team. We were camped in different places while attending different clinics. We were taught the rules of the game and I marveled at how fast we learned.”   

American Football is a very physical sport. Players often get injured playing a game that is so demanding on their body. Like it is with every contact sport, players do not shy away from the hard tacklers and hits that prove their toughness on the field of play, which makes them prone to injuries. In 2005, Bennet Amalu published his research paper titled “Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy in National Football League Players” which led to the re-emergence of the awareness of a neurologic condition associated with the knocks players receive. I asked Idris if the physical demand of the game informed the decision to introduce flag football instead in Abuja. “Flag football removes the risk associated with the game and hard contact between players is completely removed. It allows people to enjoy the game as they just want to play it for leisure.”

“The imbalance is the balance. It is a game for everyone, tall, short, fat, slim, young and old” Idris responded when I asked him what kind of people Flag Football is targeted at. Basketball, for example, requires one to be tall and built while soccer requires one to be athletic. Flag football on the other hand just requires interest and enthusiasm for the game. “Everyone can enjoy it” he hinted. They have also focused on reaching people who have an interest in the sport especially Nigerians who have lived elsewhere where the sport is popularly like the United States. Idris himself played in Turkey for four years alongside his friend Ahmed. Other members of the team have equally played the sport elsewhere before returning to Nigeria.

In Nigeria, private investment in sport is deficient. The government is the major funder of sports and this makes the development of sport impossible in many ways. One of those is that government policies are not as inclusive as they should be. An effort has not been made to ensure the growth of other sports and the enabling environment for sports investment to thrive is lacking. As many sports analysts have argued before now, the focus and investment in grassroots sports are not well thought out by the government. I asked Idris what he thinks the future of flag football is in Nigeria and he said “I am optimistic that it would become a popular sport because of the ease. We plan to create awareness for flag football in Abuja by partnering with schools, gyms, and other organizations to put in place a league in the near future.

In all, American football is not widely played in Nigeria, but the simplified version flag football is excitingly being pioneered by Abuja flag football in the capital city of Nigeria by a group of young people with passion and desire to see the game grow. They are currently creating awareness for interested persons to join the team as they intend to start a league for flag football in December 2018. The future of flag football holds exciting promise in Abuja, especially for Abdul the smallest kid on the team whose ball catching practice has my attention all afternoon. With a smile on his face that speaks volume, Idris looked to Abdul and said “He is our prospect. He is going to the NFL.”   

Ahmed Rufai Isah is an Abuja-based sports analyst and multimedia journalist. He tweets from @AhmedRufaiI