Nigeria’s elephants in the room

For Nigeria to return to the peak of African football, it needs deeper introspection about how the country functions today.

Image credit Serg Stallone via Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0 Deed.

Nigeria’s loss at the African Cup of Nations Final stings for two reasons. First, after a month of enjoyable banter at the expense of our neighbors, especially Ghana, we were on the other side of hiding from what seemed to be the collective response of the continent. But, perhaps most painfully, was that the brief respite from the harsh economic and socio-political issues that plague the country was now over. We have been forced to acknowledge the other elephant in the room and it is another glaring hurt that we must address.

Earlier in the tournament, admittedly amid optimistic and patriotic hubris, I reflected on how the run was bringing the country together. Few activities showcase the patriotic fervor that forms nations as when we do well in sporting tournaments. The nation’s maiden AFCON title in 1980 was just after the country’s return to democracy a year prior, and the optimism of that moment would be wistfully recalled when one considers the farcical election and the coup that followed in 1983. Nigeria’s second AFCON title, in 1994, was won less than a year after the famed June 12 1993 elections that were annulled and would eventually lead to the incarceration and death of the acclaimed winner M.K.O Abiola. The win would provide some sorely needed unity under a regime that would be criticized for its excessive disregard for human rights. The most recent win, in 2013, was in the middle of a rising militant insurgency that would lead to the defeat of the incumbent president two years later. Even then, the win was still a sorely needed boost for flagging issues and it is fair to say that the Super Eagles returning with the cup this time out would have been in line with historical moments.

Some might argue that Nigeria was also competing against the weight of history and narrative. Nearly half (15/34) of all tournaments have featured a host in the final, and roughly one-third of them (11/34) have seen the host win—Nigeria itself being a beneficiary of this fact in 1980 and an anomaly in 2000 when it lost to Cameroon on penalties. The hosts had also gone through a cathartic evolution from the group stages, changing the manager to a former international and then welcoming a feared forward who had overcome a battle with cancer. Despite the imperious form that Nigeria appeared to boast heading into the match, it appeared resigned to playing the role of final foe in Cote d’Ivoire’s redemption arc. And who doesn’t love a good story?

The aftermath laid bare the different cleavages that the team had tried to cover, with many also reflecting the challenges facing the current Nigerian state. 

First, there has always been a miscalculation in where and how to demand accountability. Alex Iwobi, Nigeria’s seventh most-capped international, was cyberbullied by supporters who believed he did not perform well in the final. While senior players called on Nigerians to desist, football federation leaders who have fallen short of ensuring proper team planning were largely ignored in initial reviews. In the same vein, while there are calls for charges to be meted against former Central Bank Governor Godwin Emefiele and other government officials, there has been little accountability demanded of former president Muhammadu Buhari, who presided over a poor economic period

Second, Coach Jose Peseiro was criticized for not responding sooner to the threat posed by Simon Adingra on the flanks and Nigeria seemingly being overrun in the midfield and only doing so once Sebastian Haller had popped up with the eventual winner. The same squad also played most of the games, with fatigue playing a role in the barely-won semi-final and the final loss. The poor decision-making reflects recent state policies, such as the removal of fuel subsidies and the floating of the Naira, carried out seemingly off-the-cuff and without proper planning. Poor situational awareness meant Nigeria still tried to defend against a team with momentum and playing in front of raucous home fans. It also shows how a government appears to be struggling with responding to increasing protests and threats of strikes

Last, and perhaps the source of considerable frustration, Nigeria did not appear to play to its strengths. Nigeria has a fearsome attack, led by reigning CAF footballer of the year Victor Osimhen, but most goals came from winger Ademola Lookman and defender William Troost-Ekong. Furthermore, the defensive solidity that was the hallmark of the run to the final fell apart at the most important moment. Likewise, Nigeria’s government policies so far have been damaging to a young population that has already been stung by the response to the EndSARS protests. For any government to succeed, it will require a stronger acknowledgment of its vibrant youth.

The 2025 AFCON will take place in Morocco, and there is a strong chance that most teams will rely on the same spines that represented them in Cote d’Ivoire. It offers a chance for the same mistakes to be made, but also an opportunity to course correct. Some countries have already made managerial changes and traditional favorites, including host Morocco, hope to go further. 

For Nigeria to return to the peak of African football, it needs to address the major challenges in the way the team is set up. Doing so might also mean a wider introspection about how Nigeria functions today. 

Further Reading