It is not unusual to find a particular region dominate a sporting discipline. You can always count on graceful, supple ebony bounding over the finish line at the Olympics, especially in middle and long distance track events, draped after in red and green and yellow. However, this tale of East African athletic dominance differs from the extraordinary footballing record of Kaduna State in that there are significant topographical advantages.
The capital of the Old Northern Region lacks the dizzying peaks of the Jos Plateau, and in terms of prevailing climate, it is closer to the desert Harmattan from the Sahara. There is bare land aplenty; considering land mass, Kaduna is the fourth largest state in Nigeria, but has a population density per sq. km (140, per 2006 estimates) far lower than Kano and Lagos, the major metropolitan states.
It is this enclave of dust and parched earth that has become, over the last decade, a hotbed of footballing talent.
Indeed, the late great Rashidi Yekini, the first ever Nigerian to score at a Fifa World Cup, was born in Kaduna three weeks after the nascent nation was declared a sovereign Republic. Nine years later, his strike partner Daniel Amokachi berthed in Kaduna as well; between them, they were responsible for three of Nigeria’s seven goals at its first ever Mundial in 1994.
The likes of Celestine Babayaro and Tijani Babangida were also born in the North-Western state, both instrumental to Nigeria’s Olympic Gold medal in 1996. Lately, the likes of Efe Ambrose, Kingsley Madu and Moses Simon have also come to light. Clearly, Kaduna is woven inextricably into the tapestry of Nigeria’s football history,
so what exactly is in the water over there?
If you believe Ahmed Lawal, it is really just fiat of divine choosing. “We’ve just been blessed, that’s all I can say,” he says.
Himself a former footballer, Lawal was forced to give up his playing career due to injury. He immediately sought a path into coaching, and met with Babangida, through whom he was able to do a coaching course in the Czech Republic. Now, he works with Football College, Abuja, scouting young talent from Kaduna. Indeed, it was his keen eyes that picked up on Sadiq Umar and Nura Abdullahi, both of whom have now been snapped up by Italian giants Roma.
While there is some allure to the belief in supernatural predestination, Kaduna’s rise may not be unconnected to the preponderance of amateur club teams, over 200 in Northern Kaduna alone, training on as many as 20 different pitches every day. The locals also take advantage of Local Education Authority (LEA) schools to play.
Being a strategic political hub, it is no surprise that the Nigerian Defence Academy is located in Kaduna. The cosmopolitan nature of the military settlements also lends itself to footballing excellence. Kaduna-based journalist Mohammed 'Mowiz' Suleiman, who grew up inside Ribadu Cantonment in the Nigerian Defence Academy, informs me there were three full-size football pitches inside the barracks.
“There is not a single barracks in Kaduna with less than three or four,” he says.
“Amazingly, Moses Simon, the Obaje brothers [Godwin and Joshua], (former youth international) Simon Zenke all came from the same barracks I grew up in.”
According to Suleiman, it was the exploits of the 2007 U17 World Cup winning side that put Kaduna back on the talent production map. “It was [Macauley] Chrisantus’ move to Hamburg that opened the door, and got people looking at Kaduna again. The likes of Daniel Joshua and Rabiu Ibrahim were also in that team, both unearthed in Kaduna.”
While academies like the Football College have made it easier for young, talented footballers to make it in Europe, there are significant challenges, not least of which for the players themselves. Moving to Europe can be quite the culture shock for these fledglings; Sadiq and Nura were discovered at age 15 and moved to Abuja in 2013, from where they benefited from a partnership between the Football College and Italian side Spezia.
Roma signed them up on loan, and both have impressed with the U19s: Nura earned rave reviews in the UEFA Youth League before suffering a serious knee injury, for which he has undergone surgery; while Sadiq, affectionately nicknamed ‘Jololo’ for his lanky physique, has already debuted with the senior side and scored twice. Lawal says it is no coincidence they have settled in so quickly.
“I found as many as 20 talented players, but recommended four - among them Nura and Sadiq. When I find a player, I consider first how he handles pressure, his mentality and level of maturity. It is those who can that I consider ready for Europe.”
It will be interesting to follow the development of these two youngsters, as their progress is peculiar: they have avoided the typical route open to Nigerian talents seeking greener pastures, that circuitous path through North America and the Balkans that so often leads to short-lived careers. Their success will serve as a further boon, and a more vocal advertisement for Kaduna, the hazy cradle of Nigerian football.
While it is tempting to consider football an inexhaustible football export from Kaduna, there is evidently little by way of concerted planning from the footballing authorities at any level. It is, at best, simply a case of a resourceful population making the best of what is available: available land. If, however, it is indeed divine intervention, then the Emirate would do well, for the sake of Nigerian football, to stay in the Almighty’s good graces.