Is football the only killer? 

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Mahmud Jega

Deadlines dictatorially set by editors for the submission of column articles made it compulsory for me to finish this write up many hours before the Super Eagles took to the pitch against the Elephants of Cote D’Ivoire for the AFCON final match last night. Which, come to think of it, was thoughtful of the editor because there was no knowing who will still be alive after the final whistle to write any column article.

There were only two possibilities. This morning, millions of Nigerians will either be inebriated after an all-night street party celebrating the Super Eagles’ win of the Cup of Nations for the first time since 2013, or they will be wearing mournful looks in offices, schools, banking halls, construction sites, police stations and in the streets after the Eagles failed to fly. Statisticians say that when a fair-sided coin is tossed in the air, the probability that it will land head or tail is exactly fifty fifty. “Fair-sided” is an important catch because I remember an old Indian film that I once watched after sneaking out of the school compound. Two friends regularly had a bet by tossing a coin. One friend, who always chose head, always won the bet. It was only when he died, and the mate retrieved the coin from his pocket, that he saw why his mate always won: both sides of the coin were head!

A football match is not a fair-sided coin. There is such a thing as “giant killers” in football. Such as, during the 2002 World Cup finals opening match in Tokyo when Senegal defeated defending champions France. Dakar streets exploded in wild celebration. Our “giant-killer” moment was the 1996 Olympics football semi-final match in Atlanta when Nigeria’s team defeated Brazil. There never was a spontaneous public celebration quite like it in this country. In every city, town and village, men, women and children poured into the streets in all-night celebration. Two days later I saw on CNN that wild celebration took place not only in Nigeria but throughout black Africa. Including, curiously, in Cameroonian towns, even though we were virtually at war with that country at the time over ownership of the Bakassi peninsula. We Black Africans did what our Black American cousins did in 1937 when the Brown Bomber Joe Louis knocked out James Braddock to clinch the World Heavyweight boxing title.

What we don’t even know is, who will be alive this morning to either celebrate or to mourn after last night’s grand finale. Why because, a day before the match, Nigeria Cardiac Society [NCS] warned Nigerians to be vigilant about their cardiovascular health and “avoid sports and other emotional events that can trigger arrhythmias, heart attacks and stroke in those with underlying heart conditions.”

I can see why NCS issued that warning. Following the Super Eagles’ squeaker of a victory in the AFCON semifinals on Wednesday after penalty shoot-outs, stories soon followed of the sudden deaths of many Nigerians, including the PDP chieftain Cairo Ojougboh, a Youth Corper in Taraba and a prominent Nigerian businessman in Cote D’Ivoire. One of them was said to have slumped and died when a last-minute penalty kick was awarded against Nigeria.

NCS President Prof. Augustine Odili said in a statement, “Several reports have documented a very high prevalence of many cardiovascular risk factors including obesity, metabolic syndrome, smoking including passive smoking, drug abuse – recreational drug use, alcohol intake and physical inactivity among Nigerians. The risk of sudden death varies with the cardiovascular risk factor, the severity of the disease, genetics, and other precipitating factors among which may be acute stressful reactions to which the link with these recent deaths can be associated.”

Hhhmmn. Prof, all these things you listed, are you saying that anybody who is obese, who has diabetes or high blood pressure, who smokes, who drinks beer or local gin or who, like most office workers, spends most of the day sitting down, should not watch a football match? Does this your warning not go contrary to the directive by President Bola Tinubu that all Nigerians should vigorously cheer on the Eagles, even though I doubt if they will hear our cheers there in Cote D’Ivoire?

Prof Odili also said, “It must be emphasized that many of these cardiovascular risk factors are without symptoms and signs. Therefore, screening is the only effective mechanism for early identification and appropriate control and prevention of sudden death among the populace.” Ok Prof, since the Super Eagles’ advancing to the AFCON finals was rather sudden and we had no time to go for pre-match heart screening, what did you want us to do? All the hundreds of thousands of young Nigerians who sit in television viewing centres every day to watch English Premier League matches, did you subject them to heart checks?

The NCS president said, “Sports and other emotional events can trigger arrhythmias, heart attacks and strokes in those with underlying heart conditions. While the society cannot authoritatively confirm the exact cause of death in these situations without prejudice, we owe it a duty to call the attention of Nigerians to the very possibility that sudden death can often occur either in the presence or absence of risk factors, many of which are highly prevalent among Nigerians and are also poorly controlled.”

Thank you very much, Prof. I am glad you said “sports and other emotional events” can trigger heart attacks. My question to you is, do you intend to issue a warning anytime any of the other such emotional events is taking place, in which case Nigeria Cardiac Society will have nothing else to do but issue warnings? Are you saying banks should stop sending alerts because a bank alert can be a traumatically emotional event? While in most cases a credit alert causes joy and excitement in the receiver, some people could die from joy upon receiving a big credit alert. Especially of the kind that Hon. Gudaji Kazaure once said, that an alert after receiving dollar allocation at controlled price from the Central Bank had a different sound from ordinary credit alerts. In terms of the potential to trigger heart attacks though, I think debit alert is more dangerous than credit alert, especially when a Yahoo boy has fiddled with one’s account.

Cardiac Society should warn those Nigerians who start the day these days by checking Aboki Forex for the current naira to dollar exchange rate. Something that shoots faster than a rocket, how can you start your day with it? Naira has shattered every glass ceiling previously thought to be beyond its reach, and anyone who regularly checks its rate, despite optimistic Central Bank assurances, may not be far from cardiac arrest. Professor Odili, kindly warn political party supporters also. When the Supreme Court delivered final judgments on some governorship election cases, I saw some zealous party supporters celebrating on top of trucks, shouting at the top of their voices and performing all sorts of acrobatics. Do you want to have a heart attack just because someone won an election court case? Are you not the same people who will later come back and say the man has not performed to your expectations?

Last week there were demonstrations in several Nigerian states, against the high cost of living. I saw videos of elderly market women in Niger, Kano, Ogun and Lagos states, carrying placards and shouting themselves hoarse, that government must reduce the cost of foodstuff. That is all very good because citizens must express themselves and say what worries them, especially when it is so close to the stomach, literally. However, some of the protesters were doing it so excitedly that Nigeria Cardiac Society should issue an advisory for them to take it easy. I saw a placard saying hunger kills. That is true, but hunger probably kills more slowly than a heart attack or a stroke. The Nigerians who died watching the semi-final match, almost all of them were not hungry. One was a prominent politician and one other was a successful businessman. So please, let us protest less zealously, so that when Federal Government opens its strategic grains reserve, we will still be around to eat the food.

At the weekend, I saw a post by a young woman, urging all her Facebook friends to pray for her because she has semester exams coming up soon. Asking thousands of friends to pray just because of an exam, not even a WAEC, NECO or JAMB exam but one confined to the four walls of your school? I think this is one of the emotionally stressful events that NCS was talking about. Even though it is mostly young people who write exams and their hearts pump blood more powerfully than older hearts, they still need to be warned to go for checks. To encounter a question in the examination hall from an area of your notes that you did not read could be worse than a penalty kick awarded against Nigeria in an AFCON match.

Talking about emotionally stressful events capable of triggering a cardiac arrest, there is this thing called love. In the 1990s, Time magazine did a cover story on love. It said even though no one has succeeded in properly defining it, musicians and artists will be jobless without it. Time also said something important, that falling in love has exactly the same feeling as drug addiction because both follow the same chemical pathways. In Nigeria here, millions of love letters, emails, chats, pings, voice mails, video calls and snapchats are flying everyday between young and not-so-young love birds. Has it occurred to Nigeria Cardiac Society to warn that a single WhatsApp chat that conveys a snub to a love-struck person, could trigger cardiac arrest faster than an AFCON penalty kick? Our cardiologists should warn young women not to send snub messages without first ascertaining the health status of the recipients’ heart.