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