- Nigeria come into the 2023 Africa Cup of Nations with a depleted team due to injuries while their coach has been fighting with his employers who have hinted they want him gone.
- This build-up ahead of a major competition would destabilise any team, but not Nigeria who thrive in turmoil.
- Chaos is such a normal part of the team that one Nigerian journalist argues that fans even feel an unstable build-up to a major tournament is better than the team having good preparations.
- For more Afcon news, go to News24 Africa Cup of Nations Zone.
The Super Eagles landed in Ivory Coast with a coach who is at odds with his employers, while the team is missing key players who had to be withdrawn from the squad due to injuries – so naturally, the odds of Nigeria winning the Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) have improved dramatically.
Chaos is a staple diet for the Super Eagles, so much so that it’s one of their key ingredients to being one of the forces of African football. The build-up to this Afcon is actually very relaxed and organised according to Nigerian standards.
The Nigerian Football Federation (NFF) have agreed on a bonus structure with the players, promising each member of the team $35 000 (over R640 000) for winning the Afcon and a payment of more than R91 000 for every win with a draw earning the players just over R45 000.
The sport ministry also announced it would settle all outstanding payments to the players and technical staff before the start of the tournament, with some of those monies dating back to three years ago.
That, however, doesn’t mean that the build-up to this Afcon has been drama free. That wouldn’t be the Nigerian way.
The relationship between the NFF and coach Jose Peseiro is in the dumps, with members of the federation questioning his competency. One NFF board member, Nse Essien, even hinted that if the federation could afford Peseiro’ pay-out they would have fired him after the team’s poor start in the 2026 FIFA World Cup qualifiers, picking up just two points from an available six with draws to Lesotho and Zimbabwe.
Peseiro has not only had to work looking over his shoulder with rumours of his imminent sacking a regular occurrence, he also had to take a pay cut when he extended his contract in September and has had to make changes to his initial squad following the withdrawal of Wilfred Ndidi, Victor Boniface and Sadiq Umar due to injuries.
Nigeria will start their Afcon campaign not only with a depleted squad, but some members of their 23-man squad arriving hours ahead of their opening match against Equatorial Guinea on Sunday as the replacements are coming in drips and drab. The Super Eagles’ group includes the hosts Ivory Coast and Guinea-Bissau.
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Having players arrive hours before a major tournament is nothing new to Nigeria. The country’s Under-23 team arrived six hours before their opening Olympics match against Japan in Rio in 2016 and they won that game 5-4.
Nigeria topped their group and went on to win a bronze medal at the Games. This has led to a situation where chaos doesn’t faze the team or the supporters.
“In fact, people always say that it’s better for Nigeria to have chaos than to have very good preparations because when they have good preparations chances are they will not excel,” said Nigerian journalist Oluwashina Okeleji who has followed the Super Eagles to several Afcons.
“You look at how the team travelled to the 1994 World Cup, the Olympics in 1996 and 2016 – how they arrived a few hours before the kick-off (in 2016) and they won bronze. In the 1994 World Cup, there was in-fighting and in the 1996 Olympics there were problems with kits, bonus and just a lot of drama. But they went on to win Africa’s first-ever gold medal in football (in 1996). It’s not a good way to function, but amidst the disfunction and chaos – the Super Eagles find a way to fly.”
In 1994, the Super Eagles topped a World Cup group that had a Diego Maradona-led Argentina, Bulgaria with Hristo Stoichkov and Greece. They bowed out of the tournament in the last 16, months after winning the Afcon earlier in the year.
They couldn’t defend their title in 1996. Nigeria president Sani Abacha withdrew the team from playing in South Africa due to Nelson Mandela’s stinging criticism of the military dictatorship’s execution of environmental activist Ken-Saro Wiwa who brought into focus Shell’s human rights violations in the country.
The Super Eagles’ 2013 Afcon triumph in South Africa felt like some sort of vengeance, especially with the team led by Stephen Keshi who had captained the side to glory in 1994. But even that sweet success was mired in controversy, with allegations that the NFF had little faith in the team beating Ivory Coast that they had booked their flights back home after the match in the quarter-finals.
Keshi’s men not only won the game, but went all the way to lifting the Afcon. In true Keshi style, the larger-than-life coach resigned shortly after the victory, only to rescind his resignation in a power move that embarrassed the NFF.
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Daniel Akpeyi – who was part of Nigeria’s Under-20 World Youth Championship squad in 2015, the 2008 Olympics team and did duty for the Super Eagles in the 2019 Afcon in Egypt – says the players’ mental strength is what allows Nigeria to eat adversity for breakfast.
“Nigeria have always adopted the fire brigade approach, where putting out fires is our default setting rather than doing everything necessary to ensure that there is no fire in the first place,” said Akpeyi.
“That has become something that the team is used to, that certain things might not happen early and you need to prepare yourself for an emergency response to something that could have been done on time. We are prepared, mentally, to face any challenges that may arise because we know that it won’t be smooth sailing all the time.”
In the last Afcon, Nigeria fired their coach just weeks before the tournament. Augustine Eguavoen took over the job in the interim, with Peseiro waiting to take over after the tournament. Eguavoen didn’t complain, saying regardless of the build-up, Nigerians expected him to lead the side to glory at the 2021 Afcon.
The team brushed over the chaotic preparation to beat eventual finalists Egypt in their opening group stage match. They topped the group with a 100% winning record but eventually went down to Tunisia in the last 16, having put on a formidable performance that betrayed the fact that all of their preparation was thrown away by hiring a new coach on the eve of the tournament.
Goalkeeper Maduka Okoye faced the ire of Nigerians for the loss to Tunisia, with many blaming him for the Youssef Msakni thunderbolt that gave Tunisia the 1-0 win. The defenders who gave him space and the NFF that threw the team into a state of chaos were all absolved.
Akpeyi also faced similar criticism, with the blame falling largely on him for the 2-1 defeat to eventual champions Algeria in 2019 in the semi-finals, with many blaming his poor position for Riyad Mahrez’ free-kick in optional time. Both these goalkeepers never returned to the Super Eagles after these episodes.
“It takes huge mental strength to be able to handle things like this because it can be overwhelming with the way that the nation loves football and there are always a lot of critics,” said Akpeyi.
“In some instances, people criticise you just for the sake of it. They criticise you because you are not from their region or don’t follow their playbook. It becomes a big load for you if you aren’t mentally ready. But it is a great opportunity for you if you find yourself playing for the Super Eagles, because Nigeria has around 3 000 professional footballers who are doing well all over the world.”
The Super Eagles’ ability to defy any challenge, their success and the country’s challenges have made the team an important institution in Nigeria. That power is part of the fuel that drives players, knowing what their wins means to the country.
“The Super Eagles are the one uniting institution in Nigeria,” said Okeleji.
“People preach unity in Nigeria but the country is far from united. Nigerians are divided on ethnic, religious, and political lines. But when it comes to football, it’s the one thing that will bring people together. We have over 450 languages spoken in Nigeria. But when it comes to football, there is only one language spoken – and that is the Super Eagles, the green and white of the Super Eagles.
“It symbolises unity, and that’s why politicians use football to get love and admiration. Even though Nigeria’s Afrobeat is talked about globally, for instance, but it can never have a wide reach like football has in the country. That is why Nigerians react more angrily when Nigeria loses a football match than for instance when a politician rigs an election.”