In 1989, Daniel Kolawole ‘DK’ Olukoya,
a recent University of Reading masters graduate, summoned a prayer meeting in his Lagos living
room. He was already a devout man and an adherent to the Pentecostal wave that hit Nigeria in
the 1970s. 24 people showed up. Soon after, according
to the church’s website, they began to experience miracles. Olukoya held more meetings. Attendance
rose. Pretty soon he was a minor celebrity, and in 1994 he opened the Mountain of Fire
and Miracles Ministries: a church whose name, he says, was revealed to him during prayer.
Today MFM is a global sensation. Headquartered in Ponder’s End, London, it has branches
on six continents and millions of followers. Its spiritual home is still Lagos, however
– specifically a giant former slum in the historic district of Yaba, just yards from
the spot where it all began. It is devoted to “the revival of Apostolic signs and Holy
Ghost fireworks”. To the side of the church, in a tiny, one-room
office, sits the headquarters of Mountain Of Fire And Miracles FC, a football club owned
entirely by the ministry. DK Olukoya grew up a football fanatic. His father, a policeman,
made him the kit-man of his division’s weekend team and he played as an outside right, idolising
Pelé and Teslim “Thunder” Balogun, a Nigerian striker who scored three goals for
Queens Park Rangers in their 1956-57 Third Division South campaign.
Lagos’s biggest team was Julius Berger (now Bridge FC), a club that produced world-class
talent including Taribo West, Yakubu Aiyegbeni and Sunday Oliseh. Olukoya preferred Stationery
Stores, with whom they shared the picturesque Onikan Stadium that overlooked the Gulf of
Guinea. By the mid-2000s, however, both clubs had fallen on tough times. Stationery Stores
ran out of cash and dropped out of the Nigerian Premier League in 2004. Julius Berger were
relegated two years later and shuttered in 2008.
That left Lagos, Africa’s largest city with a population of around 20 million, without
a top-flight football club. Olukoya wanted to bring the game back to Lagos and inspire
the city’s youngsters. MFM FC would be part of his ministry’s agenda to “bring more
youths to Christ.” The club first competed at the DK Olukoya
Cup in 2008, at MFM’s Prayer City, a sprawling complex outside Lagos built at a reported
cost of £100m that is big enough to hold half a million worshippers. Soon after, they
applied for a spot in the Nigerian National League, the country’s second tier, but wouldn’t
win many headlines until 2014, when they beat a Colombian team in Goa, India, to win the
Unity World Cup, a religious tournament held to decide which Christians are best at football.
The newly crowned Best Church in the World gained promotion to the Nigerian Professional
Football League (NPFL) in 2015 and avoided relegation on goal difference the following
year. They moved in at the historic Agege Stadium, in the heart of old Lagos.
In 2017 the miracles kept coming. MFM won 19 of 38 games to finish league runners-up
to Plateau United, earning a spot in the CAF Champions League. Their young coach, Fidelis
Ikechukwu, adopted a form of gegenpressing that stifled opposition, creating space into
which they sprung star strikers, Sikiru Olatunbosun and Stephen Odey.
Throughout MFM’s rise, the church played a key role. It scouted players from Lagosian
congregations. It capitalised on its flock around Nigeria to fill away ends. At the beginning
of each half the crowd stood with the players to sing Gospel songs and a big steel band
accompanied the team at each match. Fisayo Dairo, chief football writer at ACLSports,
says MFM has at least ten churches in each major city. “I think MFM is one of the best
brands I’ve ever seen.” Church-affiliated clubs are as old as the
game. In 1531, the Puritan pastor Thomas Eliot scolded footballers for their “beastly and
extreme violence,” but by the beginning of the 20th century churches were the foundations
of 11 major English clubs, including Aston Villa, Everton, Manchester City, Southampton
and Tottenham. Celtic were also formed by members of a Glaswegian Catholic church to
alleviate poverty among the city’s Irish population.
These days European religiosity has dampened. That is not the case in Nigeria. According
to Gallup, it is the world’s second most religious nation behind Thailand. Of Nigeria’s
187m people, 46.3% are Christian, most of whom are located in the south, and 46% are
Muslim, many of whose heartland is in the arid north.
In the southern city of Lagos, adverts for televangelists and pastors are plastered all
over billboards, LED screens and street signs. Nigeria has a particularly strong Christian
fundamentalist movement and Pentecostals like DK Olukoya sit at its vanguard. Evangelism
is big business and “Pastorpreneurs” often fly to sermons in private jets. Some have
criticised them as cynical flim-flam men who make millions off the poor.
According to many Nigerians, the popularity of pastorpreneurs is symptomatic of a population
which, disgruntled by graft and cronyism at the top of society, has turned its hopes on
snake-charmers and tongue-speakers. Olukoya himself has not escaped scrutiny.
Last year, MFM was implicated in a fraud case in the US state of Maryland. Worse still,
an MFM pastor in Liverpool was taped leading chants against homosexuality that included
the phrase “die in the fire”. When a gay journalist then questioned the leader involved,
he was offered a course of conversion therapy. Still, Olukoya has seen his star rise even
further through his association with MFM FC, whose team are often called the “Olukoya
Boys”. He doesn’t go to many games, so his staff usually send him videos instead.
But his prestige is still felt: In November 2017, Lagos State governor Akinwunmi Ambode
pledged £100,000 to the club for its Champions League qualification. It looked to have paid
off when, in February 2018, MFM stunned Real Bamako 2-1 on aggregate to reach the second
round. There, they would face MC Alger of Algiers.
A 2-1 victory at the Agege gave them hope. But it was quickly snuffed out across the
Sahara, where Alger went four goals up in the first half hour. By the end it was six,
and MFM had been taught a lesson in new money. In truth it was no surprise – and money
was a big factor. Nigeria has, by some distance, Africa’s largest GDP. But its football clubs
have struggled to make an impact on the continent. Since 1964 just one Nigerian club has won
the Champions League: Enyimba, from the oil-rich Niger Delta, who won back-to-back titles in
2003 and 2004. No Nigerian club has ever won the CAF Confederations
Cup, Africa’s equivalent of the Europa League. That is mostly down to decades of shambolic
post-colonial military rule that has sucked up funds and fuelled corruption. That grift
has drifted into football and players and clubs are often stung by the many fake agents
who ply young men with dreams of foreign riches and teams with promises of the Next Big Thing.
Accusations of match-fixing are also rife. Today, Nigerian clubs are still poor compared
with those in neighbouring countries. The minimum NPFL salary is £293 per month. Players
get bonuses for matches on foreign soil. But they are usually confined to double-digit
stipends. Dairo told me MFM’s is the lowest of them all.
While big African teams such as Raja Casablanca, Al Ahly and Orlando Pirates can sign players
for hundreds of thousands of pounds, and keep them on lucrative contracts, Nigerian clubs
rely on local talent that leaves soon after it flourishes. Olatunbosun and Odey, MFM’s
star duo last year, have both left for Swiss side FC Zürich.
Of the Nigeria team that faced Algeria in their last World Cup qualifier in November,
just one, the Enyimba goalkeeper Ikechukwu Ezenwa, played domestically. Fans often prefer
to watch Premier League matches on TV than the NPFL in person, meaning that big gate
receipts are tough to find. The biggest effect Nigerian teams’ lack
of money has on their Champions League chances is shown in their logistics. Unable to pay
for expensive flights, clubs are often forced to take lengthy connecting flights, or even
coaches. For MFM’s away leg in Mali their squad flew for a day across Africa to Addis
Ababa, then to Bamako. The direct route takes less than three hours.
The rise of Mountain of Fire and Miracles FC has been one of African football’s great
modern tales. Whether it can keep on moving upwards depends on many things – not least
cash. That will not stop its fans and staff praying for success.