Nigeria's exit in the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) came as a shock for many. But on the ground, the continental tournament's influence goes beyond silverware and glory.
Story by Samuel Okocha
When Nigeria lost to Tunisia and crashed out of the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) in Cameroon, it came as good news for Emerald Jimoh who works as a graphics printer in Lagos.
“I predicted Nigeria was going to lose 1-0 to Tunisia,” Emerald told me as he hunched over a laptop at a sports betting shop. “I won the ticket.”
Emerald is one of many Nigerians using the AFCON tournament to double down on football match predictions through sports gambling – a culture that has continued to grow in Nigeria. But the story of Emerald also highlights the evolving relationship Nigerians have with the game of football in Africa’s most populous country.
With a young and tech savvy population (half of the country’s population is aged under 19), young Nigerians like Emerald are deploying their youthful energy into the digital economy through outlets like sports betting.
“It’s part of the game,” Emerald continues. “You don’t win every game but Nigeria is just like our electricity – unreliable.’’
While predicting Nigeria’s loss remains part of the game for Emerald, it’s not so for other teeming Nigerians like Fatai Olarenwaju. Unemployed and in his 50s, football, he says, gives him joy. And as a fan of Nigeria’s Super Eagles, a loss is not “part of the game” for him.
“It’s very painful,” he says of Nigeria’s ouster at AFCON as we both watch Cameroon prepare to play Comoros on TV at a street pub. I ordered a beer for him.
“They (Tunisia) came for revenge,” he says, referring to the last Nations Cup (2019) in Egypt where Nigeria beat Tunisia to clinch the third place position. Nigeria’s forward, Odion Ighalo, scored the only goal of the match, he reminds me.
“Football makes you forget your problems,” Fatai says as he reaches for the cold bottle of beer on the table for another sip.
“As of now, I support Cameroon,” he goes on. As I lean in to hear him more clearly, an Afrobeat music with the lyrics “for better for worse” blows through the loudspeakers.
“AFCON is our own World Cup which unites us together,” he says. “It makes us unite in Nigeria and in the whole Africa”
Fatai’s sentiments are echoed by Anulilka Menaya, a Lagos based sports journalist and analyst. “It’s a competition by Africans for Africans,” she says.
No matter what happens in football tournaments the world over, Anulika says Afcon allows African players to come back home and exhibit their talents.
It’s also a platform for talent discovery.
In 2013, Sunday Mba, a domestic player in the Nigeria Professional Football League, scored the winner in the 2013 Afcon final against Burkina Faso. “Mba's heroics got him a move to Europe,” says Anulika. “This is usually the case for a lot of African players.’’
Here in Nigeria, many young players hope to play in Europe.
“To me every game is important because it’s a step towards the future,” Mogaji Ridwan told me at the end of his first match at a talent hunt football tournament for teens in Lagos last June.
“You can’t tell who is watching. So you need to play every game as if it’s a final.”
Mogaji is not alone. Many disenfranchised youths are looking to football as a pathway to achieve opportunities otherwise denied them, says Kwame Ibegbuna.
Kwame is lead intermediary at Sesan Global, a European football agency that connects young players with diaspora families to reduce feelings of isolation and dislocation trauma when they arrive abroad.
“Many of the values we hold dear began in the same villages these talented youth originate from,” Kwame explains.
AFCON, he says, allows these youth to buy into a wider sense of community. That sense of community - supporting a national team or rooting for the next super star - is crucial for a multicultural country like Nigeria.
“In a nation often segregated along sectarian lines, seeing many different ethnicities and religious groups pushing together to achieve a common goal is worth celebrating and fighting for,” adds Kwame.
Although Nigeria crashed out in the knockout stages of this year’s AFCON, the spirit of football will continue to linger in the hearts of many. And that in itself should keep hope alive for many Nigerians.