Michael Agugom was a recipient of an Iceland Writers Retreat Alumni Award in 2018. This story was inspired by the 2018 Iceland-Nigeria World Cup match.
As I hurried into my jean trousers, in my room, I couldn’t think of any other reason why my TV would be doing monkey business on this very day that Nigeria would be playing against Iceland: all the witches from my faraway hometown in Nigeria must have converged in a meeting against me, to lure me out into the streets of Keflavik, to Hel’s Pub to watch the match.
It was three minutes before kick-off time; I would have to sprint faster than Usein Bolt to make it from my apartment to Hel’s Pub in that time frame—I was buttoning my trouser as I ran through the streets like the witches were on my heels with a wand to turn me into a torch.
Earlier, my father had called me from Nigeria. I hear some of their players are not really footballers, that one is even a dentist—I think their keeper, he had said.
He’s the guy I saw to have a bad tooth removed, successfully, I said.
My father had never travelled beyond his cassava farm in Ogwashi-Ukwu and knew nothing about internet; everything he knew of the outside world was what he was told by others, especially me. Truth is I had had a bad tooth removed but it wasn’t at the footballer-dentist’s; I was only a month in Iceland at the time and the only two places outside my station I had been to were the dentist’s office, and Hel’s Pub that I frequented. Telling my father delicious fabrications as this made him feel proud of me, that his son met important people in Europe. I once told him that I drank coffee in a coffee shop with Theresa May while I was in England; he didn’t stop talking about it whenever we spoke until I invented another fabrication. I was hoping he’d focus on extracting details of my meeting with the footballer-dentist so I can amaze him further. He laughed, I tell you after we defeat them today they’ll stick to their day job henceforth. Just make sure to watch the match in your room.
Father, this country has one of the lowest crime rates in the world, almost non-existent—in fact their people brag that the only place crime happens is in their fiction—
Don’t be silly, boy. The devil has a way of bringing out the worst in people when they’re defeated or jealous. Have you forgotten how Cain killed Abel just because God respected Abel’s sacrifice? I hear their president and his family travelled to Russia to give their team moral support. Those people are hungrier for victory than we are. You can’t underestimate the capabilities of a people with such hunger when they fail. Don’t be silly, boy. Watch the match in your room and don’t scream goal too loud when we find their net so your neighbours don’t hear you. Bolt your door firmly. And even after the match, don’t come out too quick so you don’t walk into a drunken fellow who still needs to vent from losing. If you have a job to attend to after the match, call in sick before the match begins—
To stop him from going on I said, what makes you so sure we’re going to win, did you not see how their boys held the pundit’s favourite Argentina to a draw?
If our boys who have been playing football as fulltime job can’t defeat a team that divides its time between playing football and working as dentist or shoemaker or whatever else they do then our boys have no business playing professional football. They might as well return home and join me in my farm. As for the Argentines, they went to Russia as unsure whether they want to or not as their key player Messi is—even little boys here from Adaigbo Secondary School can trash Argentina in a fair match. And don’t tell me about pundits, they’re no different from fake prophets.
If you, like me, grew up somewhere like Mushin in Lagos where I saw with my own korokoro eyes a neighbour, who was a strong supporter of Barcelona, stab his friend, a supporter of Real Madrid, to death over an argument on the outcome of a match between both clubs—come to think of it, both teams didn’t even have any Nigerian footballer in them much less being Nigerian clubs—then you’d understand my awakened apprehension after I ended the call with him. I ran through the streets with my father’s warning auto-replaying itself freely in my head.
I had often bragged to be a better person than Peter who denied Jesus three times to stay alive. That day, I suffered my baptism of fire. A couple seemingly rushing into their home to watch the match called out to me. Hey man, you Nigerian? the man cried.
We’re playing Nigeria.
Oh, good luck team-Iceland!
They smiled into their home.
As I ran farther I was determined to deny Nigeria three more times without suffering any grain of remorse for denying my motherland. It became clear to me that it’s easy to judge others when you’re not in their shoes. I became less critical of Peter henceforth, even sympathetic to the guy.
I had known Hel as long as I’d been in Keflavik. Such a nice guy who even allowed me to drink on credit. Never for once had he referred to me as Nigerian even though he knew my nationality. He thought of me as African and addressed me as such. But that day, as I dashed into the pub, Hel did what left me wondering if he wasn’t working with those witches from my hometown to have me killed. He yelled, here’s my Nigerian, pointing me out to the crowd as if my blackness wasn’t enough to announce me as a member of the race this crowd of about fifteen white faces were about cheering against. My buddy—just who I want to watch this game with, he added.
I swallowed hard as the faces turned to me and I turned to walk out of the pub.
Hel in his usual exuberance called me back. Buddy, you came to watch the game, where’re you off to? The game’s about to start.
I stuttered, I think I’ll just—
Come on, buddy! Are you afraid our boys will beat yours and you’d cry like a sissy before us?
Naaah, your girls don’t stand a chance with our boys, I wanted to say but mumbled, Nah, I just—
Have a seat, buddy. I’ll make you a bet. If Nigeria wins, you’re cleared of your debt. But if you lose you still owe me, plus half of your debt. Good?
I took a seat.
So here I was in this pub, the only foreigner, my skin so conspicuously dark that if all the lights in the pub were turned off I’d be lost in the darkness, watching the match between my birth country and my host country with fifteen of my supposed rivals in the room, all men, as white as Iceland’s glaciers.
When Musa scored our first goal I forgot my sensitive situation and nearly screamed, goal. But I quickly caught the word in my mouth and held it there choking me like a ball of fufu. I excused myself from the room into the gents avoiding everyone’s gaze as I passed.
In the toilet, I let the goal out like hot urine burning one’s bladder. I held my mouth though, muffling the cry so it doesn’t leak into the pub. And I danced shakuku in the gents. When I returned into the pub, I mistakenly looked into a few faces: they were so sullen I made sure the remnant of my excitement was not in any way visible on my face.
When Musa scored our second goal and it became clear we’d win, I wasn’t thinking of how to conceal my excitement—I held it in place—I was plotting how I’d get out of the pub alive: the men were now looking very frustrated and angry; and muttering a preponderance of Icelandic I didn’t understand—it sounded like they were plotting how they’d lynch me.
As soon as the ref blew the final whistle, I got up, determined to dash out without looking back. Hel stopped me with a defeated smile, come on, buddy, have a pint, on the house—nice game. He patted my shoulder, Petta reddast, hun!
Petta reddast! Petta reddast! the men around me chorused, patting my shoulder as well in defeat.
I tell you, those men killed me with surprise that day: almost all of them bought me pints of beer. By the time the night was over I was in-between four of them, our arms over our shoulders in a link like old buddies, staggering home tipsy, singing an Icelandic song I hummed along to.