Written by Lizzie Williams
Nigeria emerged on the international football scene in 1960 when it first entered the World Cup, but failed to qualify for the finals. It eventually qualified for the 1970 World Cup in Mexico, and the Nigerian National Football League was established in 1972. Since then Nigeria has consistently fared well internationally in the fields of football and athletics. It hosted the 2003 All Africa Games in Abuja, for which a new 60,000-seat National Stadium was built. The country also made a bid for the first FIFA Football World Cup to be held on African soil in 2010, but lost out to South Africa.
Football is hugely popular among millions of Nigerian men, and is played and watched throughout the country. Everywhere, whether it is a cleared spot in a city rubbish dump, a dusty pitch in the middle of a village, or even a pitch on an unfinished road, people play and watch football. If people don’t have their own televisions showing local and European games, they can watch football even in the smallest village or side street where a satellite television will be set up for an important match. There is a small fee of, say, N10 to watch, and even in the remotest possible places are blackboards and scribbled posters proclaiming ‘UK Premier Division; Liverpool v Blackburn; tonite; 19.30’ or ‘Real Madrid qualifying match; here 18.00; with suya’ (barbecued meat). Football shirts are also hugely popular, and I saw perhaps thousands of David Beckhams! The Nigeria Football Association introduced the Professional League in 1990. Now the Nigerian Premier League, it has 20 teams from throughout the country. Other football clubs feature in division two or three or in the amateur leagues.
Nigeria has produced seasoned soccer players, and the national Super Eagles team, who usually make it to the football World Cup, was at one time regarded as the best in Africa and one of the world’s top football teams. The Super Eagles won the gold medal for football at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta (when Nigeria also won long jump gold) and routinely do well in African competitions such as the FIFA Africa Cup of Nations. Nigeria last won this in 1994, but lost out to Cameroon on penalties in the final in 2000 when it was played in Nigeria. Since then they have come third in the 2002, 2004, 2006 and 2010 competitions, and the under-17 squad, known as the Golden Eaglets, won the 2007 Africa Under-17 Championship. Unfortunately the Super Eagles didn’t qualify for the 2006 World Cup and didn’t get past the group stage in 2010, but today there are more than 360 Nigerian players playing for European and South American teams. These include Nwankwo Kanu, who played for Arsenal until 2004, and is currently finishing his career at Portsmouth; John Obi Mikel, a Chelsea midfielder; Victor Anichebe with Everton; and Obi Joel Chukwuma at Inter Milan.