For all the posturing and banter on social media, Nigerians did not head to Cote d’Ivoire with grand expectations of conquering the continent, and for several reasons. First, the country lost its pre-tournament warm-up match 0-2 to Guinea, a week before its opening game. Second, several players were injured in the run-up to the tournament and had to be replaced. These included two of the team’s much-vaunted attacking lineup—Victor Boniface, of German league leaders Bayer Leverkusen, and Umar Sadiq, of Spanish side Real Sociedad, whose medical report was controversially received after he ended up playing for his club side shortly after. To add to that, Wilfred Ndidi, expected to take a key role in the absence of technical midfielders, also left camp injured. The opening draw with Equatorial Guinea, who would surprise the group by finishing top, left many assured that this would be a quick exit.
But, in a tournament defined by upsets, not living up to the “Giants of Africa” moniker has perhaps suited the team. Nigeria huffed and puffed through the group stage, with a drab victory over the hosts and a lucky own goal sealing the victory over Guinea-Bissau. Expectations were high that any of the favorites, from holders Senegal to World Cup semi-finalists Morocco, would prove fated to win. Resigned to low expectations, Nigerians were happy to spend the tournament trolling eternal rivals Ghana (who failed to qualify past the group stage) while taking each game as it came. However, when paired with fierce rivals Cameroon, at whose hands Nigeria has lost three finals, it seemed like the moment the squad truly morphed into Super Eagles. After a commanding performance against the Lions of Cameroon, and amid other upsets that saw pre-tournament favorites tumble out, Nigeria averted the favorites curse by beating Angola. The Eagles will play two more games, and there can be no hiding from the fact that few would bet against Nigeria at this point.
The magic of this run, as always, is what it means to a country desperately in need of some good news. The naira has plummeted to record levels against the dollar (after a recent devaluation of the currency to let market rates determine its value), and harsh policies might be needed to correct course. Neighbors Niger, alongside Burkina Faso, and Mali, have left ECOWAS while Nigeria serves as its chair, which adds to some concern over long-term foreign policy planning. And the polity continues to remain overwhelmed with identitarian rhetoric that has spawned from the divisive 2023 elections—defined less by the issues citizens face, and more by the identity of the leading candidates and the belief that having a kinsfolk in power would help one’s condition.
It is why seeing the national team take the pitch and soar is always a good sign and reminder of the potential Nigeria has and has not always delivered on. The country is the most successful team at the FIFA U-17 World Cup and boasts impressive players, but mismanagement has plagued the team and even cost it a place at the 2022 FIFA World Cup. Few will argue that this side is as stocked with talent as vintage Eagle sides of the past, including the three squads that have ruled the continent (Nigeria won AFCON in 1980, 1994, and 2013), but each game brings a level of optimism and camaraderie that will help in inspiring a nation.
In that quest alone, there are different stars on this side. Top scorer Ademola Lookman, who previously represented England at a junior level, is a leader in a side teeming with multiple identities. Calvin Bassey and Ola Aina were born in Europe, but few will question the passion with which they have defended the jersey and performed in this tournament. But it is in the talismans of this side that an answer can be found for how Nigeria can grow, both on and off the pitch. Victor Osimhen, the reigning African footballer of the year and feared forward who helped Napoli win a long overdue title, has replaced expected goals with positional play and relentless energy. Stanley Nwabali, the latest heir apparent to legendary goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama, has taken a more journeyman route to the squad—formerly playing in the domestic leagues and now representing South African side Chippa United. But his composure, control, and comfort with the ball make one wonder what other talents are lying unseen in the under-invested domestic league. In a country constantly debating identity and place, it might be a sign that embracing the different facets of a modern African nation is needed to grow and build something special.
A lot has been made of the fact that despite boasting the continent’s most fearsome attack, it is the defense that this run has been built on. A key difference between whether Nigeria celebrates a fourth title or yet another bronze run is improved decision-making. Multiple runs against the Antelopes of Angola could have ended in goals if the players were better at making quicker calls and avoiding indecision. The resurgent Bafana Bafana may not be as forgiving in the semifinals and neither will the other team that reaches a hopeful final. That is one lesson that both the squad—and Nigeria’s leaders—should take on during this most decisive of years. After all, politicians are now striving to be associated with the team—opposition frontman Peter Obi has been praised for attending the quarterfinal match, and President Tinubu called the team from France—and that works when the team is doing well.
This run should not distract, however, from a lackluster World Cup qualifying run, and a coach who might have won plaudits now but whose potential victory will blot the recent successes of African coaches at the tournament. Perhaps the most important lesson of this run is simply to enjoy the moment when it comes. In 2013, we were not favorites but won an unexpected third title through strong teamwork. In 2021, despite finishing top of our group, we were knocked out by a solitary Tunisia goal in the next round. This time, it has been simply an enjoyable ride, and provided hope to soar even further on the wings of our Super Eagles.