On a winger and a prayer: the miraculous rise of Mountain Top FC

by C�lia LEBUR
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Players and officials of Mountain of Fire and Miracles Ministries football club pray in the changing room before a game at Agege Stadium

One of Nigeria's biggest evangelical churches was on to a winner when it set up a football club -- backed by millions of dollars and the power of prayer.

Just over a decade later, Mountain Top FC or MFM FC are now in the Nigerian Professional Football League and among the best sides in the country.

At the Agege Stadium in Lagos, the ritual is the same before every match: players in their all-purple strip gather round a pastor in the dressing room to be blessed.

Then, trance-like on their knees and with hands turned upwards to the sky, they give themselves up to God to ensure victory.

"It's a faith-based team, we don't seek power from anywhere apart from prayers," coach Geoffrey Aghogi told AFP -- and he made no secret of their ambitions.

"We want this team to be the Real Madrid of Nigeria, the Chelsea of (Africa)!"

MFM FC has had a meteoric rise since it was set up in 2007 by the Mountain of Fire and Miracles Ministries (MFM).

The church's founder, football fan Daniel Kolawole Olukoya, scoured the streets of poor areas in Lagos, Nigeria's teeming megacity of 20 million people, on the hunt for talent.

Driving him on was a vision from God to guide young people away from what he said were "the vices of this world".

"I hate it when the youths get involved in crime and drugs... just because they have too much time to waste," he explained.

The team rose quickly through the leagues and in 2014 won the Church World Cup in India, the same year they joined the top flight.

Last season, they finished second in Nigeria and qualified for the African Champions League.

- Footballing evangelists -

Charity isn't the only aim of the church, which was founded in 1989 and now has hundreds of branches and millions of followers around the world.

"Part of the idea is evangelism," said Olukoya, a smartly dressed 60-year-old whose every appearance is hailed by followers at his church that dominates the Yaba area of Lagos.

"Most of the footballers were not Christians. Some of them were Muslims. But they joined us to become serious," he added.

Christianity and football have a long association in Nigeria and many other African countries, where it was introduced by Roman Catholic and Protestant missionaries in the 19th century.

"In its education mission, the church has always been very important in spreading football in schools," said David Goldblatt, author of "The Ball is Round: A Global History of Football".

The Mountain of Fire and Miracles Ministries, like other African churches who used football as a way to spread the Word, made a "smart move", he added.

"If you want to speak to the youth of Africa, where else would you go?"

But unlike many churches who talk a good game, MFM "has really done it. They done great and it's a miracle", he added.

Players themselves aren't short of praise for their benefactor.

The "Olukoya Boys" are fed and housed and earn up to $2,500 a month -- a small fortune in a country where many live on less than $2 a day and the minimum wage is 18,000 naira ($50.42) a month.

Plus they're paid on time, which is often not the case elsewhere.

- Chronic neglect -

In return, MFM imposes strict rules on daily life: no alcohol, no drugs, no tattoos, no jewellery.

The practice of what it calls "aggressive prayer" -- "Amen!" and "Praise the Lord!" -- is encouraged as much on the pitch as they are at church.

"We try to be good ambassadors for the church and the country," said Jonathan Zikiye, a 26-year-old defender.

The club doesn't have a sponsor to pay for salaries, kit or overseas trips. Instead, the church finances everything with what Olukoya calls his "modest means".

But in a country of 180 million people, where nearly 20 percent belong to a Pentecostal or Evangelical church, there's no shortage of cash.

Donations come from collection plates and tithes, the equivalent of 10 percent of salary that church members are encouraged to pay every month.

MFM FC's rise has been in stark contrast to other clubs in the Nigerian Professional Football League.

Seventeen of the 20 sides are owned by state governments and sporting infrastructure has suffered from chronic neglect in recent years.

"Teams have no stadium to train at, no home ground, or they're in a very bad state," said Austin Okon-Akpan, head of sport at Nigeria's private Channels Television.

Even defending champions Plateau United were forced to play matches in the African Champions League away from home because their stadium was not up to scratch.

Lack of transparency in how clubs are run has put off sponsors from investing despite the obvious talent in Nigerian football, affecting results internationally.

As a result, players and public alike only have eyes for Europe, especially the English Premier League.

"There's no way I can play in another club of the league," said Emmanuel Chukwuka Onuwa, a promising 21-year-old midfielder.

"After five seasons with MFM, if I have to leave, I want to go abroad."

Players and officials of Mountain of Fire and Miracles Ministries football club pray in the changing room before a game at Agege Stadium

Founder of Mountain of Fire and Miracles Ministries church Pastor Daniel Olukoya speaks at the international headquarters of the church in the Yaba district of Lagos