An artist with the ball
© Action Images

Over beers in a small one-room shack of a bar, James Sunday Mathew tells his compelling story. Born in Akina Ibom, but raised in Lagos, football was always his passion - the one thing in life that made sense amid the teeming poverty and hardship of his upbringing. Good as he became, though, no club would take a chance on poor James, or ‘Jammy', as he's sometimes known.

"My creations come out of frustration," says James, spurning beer for fruit juice like the still-aspiring footballer he is. "But no clubs would give me a contract. I am a good player, I think, but I guess I am not good enough."

From that frustration was born James' true source of expression. An intrepid ball juggler, his skills border on the surreal. His balance, delicate touch, and complete mastery of the ball have made him a folk hero in his native Nigeria. "I consider myself an artist. What I do is a form of expression and it is a gift from god that I worked hard to perfect," says the man who has been wowing appreciative crowds in half-time performances of the games at Calabar's U.J. Esuene in which he disrobes, drinks a coke and contorts into inconceivable positions, all while never letting the ball touch the ground. "That's nothing," he dismisses, one foot on the ball he always carries with him. "I can balance the ball on my neck and ride a motorbike down the road," he enthuses, eyes burning with pride.

I can balance the ball on my neck and ride a motorbike down the road.
James Sunday Mathew

His second performance was a tour de force. As a massive rainstorm hit the Group C game between Colombia and Iran, fans were running around the stadium searching for any kind of cover. Certainly not James, though. He had a job to do and he dutifully marched out under the raging torrent and put on his masterful show for the fans, decked in the full kit of the Nigerian national team. The fans, who would be justified in being a little grouchy from all the rain, roared their appreciation, clapping every little move.

"I live off the appreciation," says James, who often performs during senior Super Eagles games and was even invited to the African Player of the Year award ceremony. "It soothes me and makes me feel proud. The rain didn't bother me at all. I have a job to do and I do it," he adds, passing around a pouch of photos of himself performing for the likes of Super Eagles legends like Jay Jay Okocha and Sunday Oliseh.

James, 25, works no other job and struggles financially, and while proud of his talents and performances, he can't help but feel sadness around the edges of it. "It's half-time of a football match," he says, fingering his bottle of juice. "I am a footballer at heart, so I would rather be inside the changing room, a part of the team, than putting on a show on the pitch."

As he finished his performance, soaked through with rain, it was time for the grand finale, when he turns and volleys 50 yards into an open goal. This time, though, as he fired his shot, the ball swerved just wide of the post to a cheerful groan from the crowd. "I only missed because of the rain," he says, half-jokingly, eyes turned toward the floor.