Settling Old Scores: Nigeria Vs South Africa


The stage might not be as big as when the first shots were fired. But Nigeria and Bafana Bafana’s clash in the African Nations Championship (Chan) on Sunday in Cape Town could go a long way in settling an old score between the two rivals.

It all started in 1995 when General Sani Abacha’s regime executed writer and activist Ken Saro-Wiwa for standing up to Shell and Abacha in defence for his Ogoni people whose land was being polluted by the oil giant. The late president Nelson Mandela, like most of the world, was outraged by the vindictive actions of Abacha regime. Madiba had tried, without luck, to save the lives of Saro-Wiwa and his eight other compatriots who were executed.

Mandela described Abacha’s regime as “illegitimate, barbaric, arrogant, military dictatorship [that] has murdered activists, using a kangaroo court and using false evidence”. In yet another interview, Madiba declaimed: “Abacha is sitting on a volcano and I am going to explode it underneath him.” The swords were drawn.

At the time Team Nigeria was similarly ruthless against their opponents on the pitch. They slew everything who came their way. A year before Saro-Wiwa’s execution, the Super Eagles had won their second Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) title. The team was saturated with stars: Stephen Keshi, now the Super Eagles coach was captain; his charges included Daniel Amokachi, Sunday Oliseh, Jay-Jay Okocha and Rashid Yekini. But in the 1996 Afcon, which was supposed to be hosted by Kenya but moved to South Africa, the Super Eagles skywards trajectory was halted.

They surrendered their title without kicking the ball when Abacha denied them permission to go to Mandela’s South Africa. Abacha, citing fears for the team’s safety, withdrew them. Bafana Bafana, after only four years into re-admission to international football, were crowned African champions for the first time. Nigeria, naturally, waved away the significance of the victory, arguing, with some logic, that Bafana Bafana wouldn’t have won the trophy had they been allowed to defend their title. So it was that the generation missed two Afcon tournaments: the one in 1996 and the 1998 edition when Caf suspended them for not going to defend their title in South Africa. The rivalry between the nations was born.

The rivalry, to be sure, stretches beyond football and politics. The two nations are key players on the continent: Nigeria, with over 150m people, is the most populous country in Africa while South Africa is its economic hub. The two countries share something else: arrogance. Some Nigerians believe they are superior to everyone in Africa; while it is a badly kept secret that some South Africans think they are too good for the continent.

J.M. Coetzee, in his semi-autobiographical book Summertime, describes South Africa as too “insular”. “I went back on a visit last year,” Coetzee writes, “and it was the same: little or no interest in the rest of Africa. Africa was a dark continent to the north, best left unexplored.”

Nigerian-American writer Teju Cole writes of Nigeria’s arrogance in his book Open City. “We are a bit aggressive,” the narrator Julius says, “I think the reason is that we like to get ahead, make our presence felt. We think of ourselves as the Japanese of Africa, without the technological brilliance.”

On the football field, Nigeria’s arrogance is justified. They have been dominant in all age groups, including women’s football. In the eight times that the two nations have met, Nigeria has won six times, lost once and drawn the other (infact South Africa has never won a competitive match against Nigeria).
When South Africa play Nigeria tonight it will be probably be the best chance Bafana Bafana will ever get of putting one over Nigeria to advance to the knockout stages of Chan.

Bafana Bafana coach Gordon Igesund has at his disposal the best players from the country while Keshi has a depleted squad as some of his local based Afcon stars couldn’t make the trip. Sunday Mba, scorer of the winning goal in the Afcon final, is finalising a move abroad; so is Kelechi Iheachano, the best player from the Under-17 World Cup that Nigeria won.

When Nigeria won the tournament last year nothing much was expected of them. Infact the Nigeria Football Association (NFA) didn’t expect them to reach the knockout stages and the rumour was the NFA had booked their tickets for the day after their match against Ivory Coast in the quarterfinals. They would stay on for longer when they lifted the Afcon trophy at FNB Stadium.

Keshi- now coach of the Super Eagles, his assistant Amokachi- are part of that generation which insists they could have defended their title. For Keshi, guiding Nigeria to being African champions was sweet; but doing it in South Africa made it all the more sweeter. No one in the South African camp experienced the spat; for them it is just hearsay.

This match will not only decide who goes through to the knockout stages but it could settle an old score. Not that the match will resolve the generation old tussle. Someone will win the battle but the war will continue.


Pic Credit: Marcello Casal Jr

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