Nigeria Country Profile

Nigeria: The Super Eagles

Record in International Competitions

TournamentAppearancesBest Finish
FIFA World Cup6Round of 16 (1994, 1998, 2014)
Olympics7Gold Medal (1996)
Africa Cup of Nations18Champions (1980, 1994, 2013)
African Nations Championship (CHAN)3Runners-up (2018)
WAFU Nations Cup6Winners (2010)
FIFA U-20 World Cup12Runners-up (1989, 2005)
FIFA U-17 World Cup12Champions (1985, 1993, 2007, 2013, 2015)
Africa U-20 Cup of Nations17Champions (1983, 1985, 1987, 1989, 2005, 2011, 2015)
Africa U-17 Cup of Nations9Champions (2001, 2007)

History

Football caught on quickly in Nigeria after it was first introduced around the start of the twentieth century. The first organized match took place in 1904 and by the time Nigeria obtained independence in 1960, football was the national sport. Football became a source of national pride and an important part of the Pan-African and Garveyist political movements that fueled the drive of African nations to obtain independence.

To illustrate Nigeria’s specific case, the biggest advocate for domestic football was Nigeria’s first president, Nnamdi Azikiwe. Leaving for an education in the United States around the time of the Great Depression, Azikiwe was greatly influenced by Pan-Africanist movement taking place and returned to Nigeria in 1934, determined to help his country achieve independence. Having competed in athletics in the United States, Azikiwe was dismayed by segregation in all athletic competition under the British. His background as an Igbo led to him being rejected from competing in a track and field event, as well as being rejected from joining a lawn tennis club. These events led to Azikiwe (known affectionately as Zik) forming his own football club that toured the country, winning exhibitions and spreading the message of Nigerian nationalism. The team toured outside the country in England and Sierra Leone, becoming the blueprint for the national team that would become a reality after independence.

Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe: Nigeria’s first President
Picture from around 1950 of the precursor to Nigeria’s national team. Known as the “UK Tourists”, this team was the first from Nigeria to play matches abroad and were considered representatives of Nigerian football.

The Nigerian national team achieved prominence starting with their first African Cup of Nations title in 1980. Alongside the national team’s rise, the domestic league, known as the Nigerian National League at the time, drew massive crowds and popularity. The league produced a steady stream of talented players, which resulted in Nigeria’s national team reaching its peak in the 1994 World Cup and an unforeseen 1996 Olympic gold medal.

However, by the 1990’s many changes in the trends of world football impacted the scene in Nigeria. Talented players began to leave for the fame of European football, and along with the talent drain from domestic football, fan interest started to leave for Europe as well. Satellite television allowed fans to sit at home and follow Nigerians in the English Premier League, which meant decreasing attendance at domestic matches. Corruption in the Nigerian Professional Football League, the current domestic top flight, has only become more rooted and gives Nigerian fans an all too convenient excuse to tune out and tune in to European football.

The famous 1996 team that won Olympic gold in Atlanta
The legendary Jay-Jay Okocha: As Bolton Wanderers fans used to chant, “So good they named him twice!”

NPFL & Youth Football

The Nigerian Professional Football League has been a steady source of talented players since it took its current form in 1972. Nigerian clubs are typically owned by the local regional government, which makes teams and their respective fan bases divided on ethnic and political lines. As a result, crowds can be hostile and make home advantage unusually enhanced. In an extreme example, in 2013 Enyimba didn’t allow a single goal in a home match. A reason is that referees do not get regular salaries and receive pay and indemnities from the home team. Bribery is commonplace, with locals on the club payroll whose specific job is making sure the referee favors their team by any means. Many pundits, leaders, and experts on Nigerian football agree that encouraging private ownership and investment is the best way to improve domestic football’s integrity and attendance.

Clubs from the south part of the country have historically had the most success in the NPFL. Enyimba (8 titles), Enugu Rangers (7), and Heartland F.C. (5) are the standard bearers from the South, while Plateau United have been surging into relevance in recent years with two titles in the last four seasons. While the southern clubs of Nigeria maintain a high standard, players who go on to success domestically and in Europe come from all of Nigeria’s regions and ethnic groups.  Many different clubs in the Nigerian football league system produce players who go overseas, rather than a dominant few clubs who have exclusive access to talented youth.

Football academies play a significant role in developing players to go to Europe. In the last several years European giants such as FC Barcelona, Juventus, and Chelsea have established youth academies within Nigeria. These footballing schools will only increase the rate at which Nigerians will export players to Europe, and young Nigerians are realizing more and more that moving to Europe from academies is the more effective route instead of playing in the NPFL.

Prominent Clubs and Academies

Enyimba International

Enyimba International is based in Abia State in the southeast of Nigeria and was founded in 1976 under the ownership of the regional government. After the NPFL evolved to its current status in 1990, the club’s results were modest early on. With the majority of clubs in Nigeria being owned by regional governments, Enyimba was at a disadvantage because of limited investment from Abia compared to other states.

However, the 1999 election of a new governor in Abia brought new levels of financial resources and more ambitious management. The results were immediate, and now the club has won eight national titles starting in 2001. Their greatest crown was becoming the first Nigerian side to win the CAF Champions League in 2003, and then defending the title in 2004. In thirty years, Enyimba has gone from relative obscurity to being a top power in Nigerian football.

Rangers International (Enugu)

The other big club in Southern Nigeria and rival of Enyimba is Rangers International F.C., also known as Enugu Rangers. Rangers were founded in 1970 and had their peak in the 1970’s and 1980’s, with six titles in these decades along with winning the CAF Cup Winners’ Cup in 1977. The club has never been relegated from Nigeria’s top division in their history.

Recent times have been difficult for Rangers, with the lone highlight being a 2016 league triumph. Owned by the Enugu State government, finances have been limited at best. Internal power struggles and high expectations only add to the difficulties. After struggling to avoid relegation, a fourth place finish in the 2019-20 season offers signs that Rangers could be back on the right track.

GBS Academy

Ahmed Musa, one of GBS Academy’s prominent graduates
Moses Simon, another GBS graduate making waves

Golden Boot Soccer Academy is a prime example of an African academy that is dedicated to producing talent and exporting Nigerian players to Europe. GBS doesn’t field a team in the NPFL, instead opting to utilize networks with European clubs to send their players abroad once they turn 18. Sometimes talents are loaned to NPFL clubs to give them an introduction to professional football, but young Nigerian talents prefer to explore the European route as soon as they can.

Pepsi Football Academy

John Obi Mikel: Pepsi Football Academy’s most famous product

With well over 3,000 students and 14 training centers, Pepsi Football Academy is another contributor to the success of Nigerian youth football. Since it received Pepsi’s sponsorship in 1994, the Lagos-based academy works with aspiring footballers aged 6-18 with fierce competition for spots. Its structure and development plan is a blueprint for fledgling African academies and is influencing European clubs to open up their own academies in Nigeria.

Former players from Nigeria’s top clubs and academies

EnyimbaEnugu RangersGBS AcademyPepsi Academy
Vincent EnyeamaJay-Jay OkochaSamuel KaluJoseph Akpala
Kalu UcheJohn UtakaAhmed MusaJohn Obi Mikel
Obinna NwaneriSylvanus OkpalaMoses SimonElderson Echiejile