LAGOS, Nigeria, February 8 – Nigeria’s sensational run to the final of the African Cup of Nations has united the often divided country in football pride and given a nation that has grown weary with bad news a reason to celebrate.
With Africa’s largest population and massive oil wealth, many see Nigeria as a natural powerhouse held back by corruption and division, but some football fans say that reputation could be improved with a win on Sunday.
After shocking star-laden Ivory Coast in the African Cup of Nations (AFCON) quarter-finals and thrashing Mali in the semi-finals, Nigeria will face Burkina Faso for a chance to win its first continental title since 1994.
“We are going to show what kind of country we are on Sunday… you’ll see,” said Kola Obe, standing on the sidewalk at a busy intersection in the Lagos Island area of Nigeria’s economic capital.
“Nigeria is a nation to watch and we are coming up and we are going to get there,” insisted the 45-year-old father of two. A win against Burkina Faso, he added, “is going to improve our image.”
Obe and others on Lagos Island, one of the oldest areas of the city, conceded that outsiders often view Nigeria as a case of unfulfilled promise, including when it comes to sport.
The country boasts a population of roughly 160 million people and the continent’s second biggest economy, not to mention hordes of passionate football fans: so the 19-year AFCON title gap has been frustrating for many.
Nigeria failed to even qualify for last year’s AFCON, and the team’s performance in the 2010 World Cup was so dismal that President Goodluck Jonathan sought to ban the team — a move he later rescinded.
The start of this year’s Nation’s Cup initially brought back some of the old cynicism, as Nigeria did not look to be playing as champions in the group stages.
Nigerians are not known for holding their tongues, and coach Stephen Keshi took exception to the criticism. Ahead of the quarterfinal he said that “it’s a great shame that a nation doesn’t have confidence in its sons, the players.”
The country has since rallied behind Keshi, who captained the team that last won Nigeria the Nations Cup in 1994, along with his mix of experienced stars and local-based players.
In the team’s thrilling win over favourites Ivory Coast, the show stealer was not a Premier League star like Victor Moses or John Obi Mikel, both of Chelsea, but Sunday Mba, who plays in the Nigerian league and scored the winning goal.
“I want to kiss him!” Keshi said of Mba after that match. “Everyone one of my boys is a hero, a Hollywood star, but it just happened that a home-based player, Sunday, scored a beautiful, beautiful goal.”
No local networks secured the rights to broadcast the tournament, so Nigerians have flocked to outdoor bars with satellite TVs to watch the matches, breaking out into wild celebrations with each victory.
“I must confess, since 1994 until yesterday, (the national) Super Eagles have been a shadow of itself, but the activities of yesterday really impressed me,” said Godfrey Idahosa, 27, recalling Wednesday’s win over Mali.
The daily papers here are filled with reports of the nation’s troubles, notably a corrupt, often inept government and waves of violence partly linked to religious and ethnic divisions in a country with a mostly Christian south and mainly Muslim north.
Moses, the national team star and Chelsea player, suffered a personal tragedy connected to this divide when, at age 11, his parents were killed in religious riots in Kaduna, still a flashpoint city a decade later.
As for Obi Mikel, his father was abducted in what was suspected to have been a ransom kidnapping in Nigeria in 2011 before being freed some 10 days later in a police raid.
But football transcends the country’s divisions, several Super Eagles fans argued, adding that come kick-off on Sunday, people across the country will be united and cheering for the same result.
“In Nigeria, when football is involved all barriers crumble,” said Musa Yakubu, a taxi driver in Kano, the country’s second city and largest in the north.
He recalled Nigeria’s stunning football gold medal at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, a victory which sent people of both faiths pouring into a busy neighbourhood to celebrate side by side.
Speaking in Lagos, a city of some 15 million people, Obe offered a similar sentiment.
“Of course we have differences, we have Christian, we have Muslims,” he said. “But when it comes to sport, especially soccer, we unite.”