Football As A Religion In Nigeria

Uzor Maxim Uzoatu

Nothing excites and unifies Nigerians like football, especially when the national team, the Super Eagles, can claim a continental or world title. It was the typical Nigerian night of high hopes on Sunday, February 11 when Super Eagles squared up with the host nation, Cote d’Ivoire, in the final match of the AFCON tourney.

Nigeria had beaten Cote d’Ivoire by 1-0 in the Group Stage of the contest, and the host nation actually scraped into the knockout stages as the fourth-best third-placed team!

As a player of the game, I knew that playing the host nation again, especially in the final match, may end up as a road too tough to travel.

It should be noted that Cote d’Ivoire had actually sacked the white coach of the team after the devastating 4-0 loss to Equatorial Guinea when the entire country thought the team had come to the end of the road.

The lucky and plucky Cote d’Ivoire team needed an 86th minute equalizer to force extra-time and eventually eliminate the defending champions and arguably best team in the continent, Senegal.

In the quarter-finals, the host nation surprised not a few observers when playing one man down from the 43rd minute eventually scored a last minute equalizer before winning in extra-time against Mali.

Then the team zoomed into the final against Nigeria by beating Congo DR with a 1-0 score earned in the 65th minute. The Nigerian Super Eagles owned the bragging rights as the only unbeaten team in the tournament.

There was the added dimension that the team had beaten the host nation earlier, as mentioned above. The Ivorian people filled up the stadium with spectacular spectatorship that had to be silenced in the first half through a header by the Nigerian skipper, William Troost-Ekong, in the first half, very much against the run of play.

The Nigerians were playing defensively, leaving the Ivorians to do all the rampaging through delightful attack play.

It was little wonder that Cote d’Ivoire equalized in the 62nd minute through Kessie, only for Haller who had just survived a bout with cancer to jab in the winner in the 81st minute.

The Ivorian team played better football than Nigeria on the night as the Super Eagles Portuguese coach, Jose Peseiro – a protégé of the defensive play of his countryman Jose Mourinho – could not bring the Nigerian players to attack to win.

A shining light for Nigeria was the defence superman, Skipper Troost-Ekong, who was adjudged the player of the tournament.

One particular player who got multiform criticism from Nigerian fans was midfielder Alex Iwobi, but incidentally, immediately he was subbed off in the final match the Super Eagles conceded the second goal, just like in the semi-final that Alhasan Yusuf replaced him only to commit the penalty that yielded the South African equaliser!

A new discovery for Nigeria happens to be goalkeeper Stanley Nwabali who however could not repeat the heroics of the semi-final in which he saved two South African penalty-kicks in the shootout.

The Super Eagles team made up of Nwabali, Ola Aina, Zaidu Sanusi, Troost-Ekong, Semi Ajayi, Calvin Bassey, Frank Onyeka, Iwobi, Ademola Lookman, and Victor Osimhen did their very best but victory went to the team that wanted it more.

The substitutes over the tourney such as the much reviled former Number One goalie Uzoho, the defender Kenneth Omeruo, wing-back Osayi-Sanuel Bright, the attackers Kelechi Iheanacho, Paul Onuachu, and Terri Moffi all acquitted themselves well.

A victory for Nigeria would have served as some kind of elixir to forget some of the many problems of the country, but it was not to be.

So Nigerians are back to facing the realities of existence in the benighted country where some citizens gave up the ghost while supporting the Super Eagles, especially in the semi-final match against South Africa that claimed the life of former House of Representatives Member, Dr Cairo Ojougboh, and four or so others.

Football as a Nigerian religion has come to stay, no matter the loss to Cote d’Ivoire this time.

The Super Eagles shall return, with goalie Stanley Nwabali making more saves than all the fly-by-night pastors of Nigeria put together!

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