The Story of a Church Football Team in Nigeria

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.

100 thoughts on “The Story of a Church Football Team in Nigeria

  1. Hey Tifo, could you do one about how sport betting is affecting sports in Africa and the finances

  2. Saw a billboard of Lazurus Muoka (Lords chosen) on Tifo Football. Lmao hilarious. You guys really did your research, well articulated video. And please donโ€™t get us started on Pastorpreneurs in Nigeria. Great Video Tifo

  3. Wow! You really do outdo yourselves every time. Kudos ๐Ÿ‘Œ

    However, a minor mistake. The location of Enyimba on the map of Nigeria is wrong. Otherwise, Kudos๐Ÿ‘.

  4. Huh didnโ€™t know soccer was that tough to come by in other parts of the world. Thought USA was the only country with soccer problems.

  5. ุฎุณุฑูˆ ูƒูˆู†ุทุฑ ุงู„ู…ูˆู„ูˆุฏูŠุฉ ุฃุฌุฏูƒ ู‡ู‡ู‡

  6. Thank you for this Tifo! As much as we on the African continent support European clubs itโ€™s good that you are making efforts to show that our African football is also important. Please also make videos about the state Post-2010 South African football. Possibly how Mamelodi Sundowns have faired reasonably well on the world state at the Club World Cup in recent years.

  7. ๐Ÿ˜‚๐Ÿ˜‚๐Ÿ˜‚๐Ÿ˜‚๐Ÿ˜‚ That name, it's so long. Surely the pastorpreneur can spare some air miles for his team.

    This was an interesting piece to say the least. With that being said, it is in my view that (over)religiousness in Nigeria is not because of poverty. There are quite a number of wealthy countries where religion still plays a central role in society. Even in Nigeria itself there are well educated and/or wealthy people who remain devout worshippers. Poverty is a cop-out IMO

    I'd say it's a combination of different cultural and economic factors at play. Since the introduction of Protestantism in the region, the Church has served as a stepping stone to different goals. The church provided access to newer medicines, literature, funding and political connections. Even today, the facilities of some these venues are state of the art, especially in comparison to slum dwellings.

    Then there is a strong culture of respect and spirituality. From a young age, people are taught to have the utmost respect for elders and powerful people, even if it's undeserved. Elder relatives, quite frankly, are only second God. If they tell you to attend a congregation, refusal isn't an option, thus continuing a generational cycle.

    Spirituality is another cultural phenomenon, deities are taken very seriously regardless of sect or faith.

  8. So refreshing to see some news about an Africa country which is cultural and inspiring rather than about deprivation!

  9. great story. still, i feel like it's every working man's greatest fear: coming up against a team of 11s that believe they're performing the will of g-d. looks out and sees 11 zahas warming up "shit, this lot again? i think i'll go for a smoke."

  10. I love you guys..Keep it up ๐Ÿ‡ณ๐Ÿ‡ฌ๐Ÿ‡ณ๐Ÿ‡ฌ๐Ÿ‡ณ๐Ÿ‡ฌ๐Ÿ‡ณ๐Ÿ‡ฌ๐Ÿคฏ๐Ÿคฏ๐Ÿ‡ณ๐Ÿ‡ฌ

  11. Hello tifo football am a Nigerian and I really love football. I'm so glad you did this video.I have the dream to change football culture in my country .the issues you highlighted in this video; low fan base, resulting from low financial buoyancy of Nigerian clubs as stadiums are in poor conditions.
    Also, the football federation is corrupt thereby limiting the growth of the top flight league and lower divisions too.
    Another problem is waste of footballing talents as clubs don't have an efficient scouting system to catch talented players at young age for proper tutelage.
    I believe my country is very passionate about the sport with a lot of fans of the English premier league , Spanish LA liga, seria A teams respectively

    I have a dream to change the culture Nigerian football!
    I commented on a video you posted on Instagram. How can I become a successful coach in Europe, please [email protected]

  12. Really impressed Tifo cared to delve into African football thoroughly researching and accurately delivering this expository on a "who cares about such?" Nigerian club. It's delightful and admirable.

  13. The CAF Champions League is the equivalent of the UEFA Champions League. The CAF Confederations Cup is the equivalent of the Europa League.

  14. That was insightful. Ghana football is facing the same issue we're even worse than our Nigerian neighbours

  15. I had to spend 3 months in Lagos last year. A more filthy, horrid, woebegotten place you cannot imagine. That church has its work cut out for it – the poor bastards in Lagos already live in hell.

  16. I'm in tears watching this ๐Ÿ˜ข๐Ÿ˜ข๐Ÿ˜ข
    Thank you Tifo! Thanks a lot for this!
    Even the Nigerian media can't put it together as good as this ๐Ÿ™Œ๐Ÿ™Œ

  17. As a Nigerian, this is very impressive.
    No doubt about how you guys do your research. Again, I'm impressed. Thank you very much for this video.

  18. Wow. Alot of nigerians follow Tifo football. Imagine my shock surfing through my youtube wall and found a Tifo analysis on MFC and Nigerian football, i was freaking curious to see what they had to say. and i loved his "Pastorprenurial labelling of the Nigerian churche business

  19. One small detail tho, CAF champions league is Africa's 1st tier competition and the Europa league is the equivalent of the CAF confederation Cup.

  20. would be awesome if you could do a video about Mamelodi Sundowns or the South African PSL in general.

  21. I am so impressed by this!!!! Props to you guys! Tifo is the best. Please talk about Accra Hearts of Oak and the glory days of Asec Mimosas

  22. Not sure what fuels this dedication, but i'm telling you, these videos makes youtube a better place!

  23. ๐Ÿ˜ข๐Ÿ˜ข
    Dear Tifo Football..
    You just got a subscriber for life.

    Words cannot express my gratitude for doing a video of a team from my country.

    Bless You.

  24. Wow!!! Thank you for this Tifo football. You guys are the best, absolutely!!!! I'm Nigerian by the way, so I'm so elated by this video on an indigenous clubside… Bravo Tifo!

  25. My naija people gather here๐Ÿ‡ณ๐Ÿ‡ฌ๐Ÿ‡ณ๐Ÿ‡ฌ๐Ÿ‡ณ๐Ÿ‡ฌ๐Ÿ‡ณ๐Ÿ‡ฌ

  26. Such a shame that Africa has such a massive problem of scam artist priests who take money from poor people for "Miracles". There should be way more education to get people to realise it's bullshit.

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