AFCON 2024, Nigeria and the untold African stories

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The finals of Confederation of African Football (CAF) organized African Cup of Nations (AFCON) tournament being hosted by Ivory Coast has been an exciting tournament so far and as the finalists; Nigerian Super Eagles and the Elephants of Ivory Coast would play the finals tomorrow in what many analysts have termed the finals like no other in the history of the competition.

The two nations are in the same Group A and had met at the group stages  the host nation a had a bloody nose despite their rancorous home support. The hosts lost to Nigeria 1-0. They went ahead to lose 4-0 to lowly ranked Equatorial Guinea side. They had thus lost two games but are lucky to have scaled the round of 16 through the lucky route of the best losers.

The Super Eagles on the other hand equally struggled through but triumphing in the group stages, drawing with Equatorial Guinea, defeating Cameroon by two goals in the round of 16, defeating Angola by a lone goal in the quarter finals Angola and South Africa through penalty kicks in the Semi-finals.

Some three West African nations of Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger,  that had recently come under military coups exited the regional Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) citing some yet to be clarified reasons following their recent suspension by the sub-regional bloc. Their withdrawal comes 14 years after Mauritania withdrew in 2000 even though they signed a new associate membership in August 2017. The 15-nation regional economic bloc was formed in 1975 by the military administration of then military Head of state of Nigeria, Gen. Yakubu Gowon (Rtd.) as a way of promoting economic integration among member countries.

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Though there were lofty goals that inspired the formation of the economic group, many of them remain unachieved as the sub-region struggles with conflicts, imperialism, terrorism, bad leadership and the lack of viable economic pathways. At this level therefore, the West African Sub-region seems to be tottering. There are calls for the regional body to re-calibrate for better cooperation and economic sustainability.

On a continental level however, there are still divisions often papered over diplomatically and through the African Union (AU) protocols. But we all know that the South African region, the Horn of Africa and the North African region all have their unique issues which many global economic and political analysts believe must be tackled to make the continent more viably functional and united.  Dependency on other continents cannot be as functional as unity engineered from the continent.

However, despite all the challenges the continent face both at continental and regional levels, sports and more specifically football is one game that seemingly seeks to unite the countries. The continental competitions under CAF provide the space and opportunity for the countries to interact through their young ones through football. Football is today a multi-trillion dollar business  globally.

It is therefore very interesting to see that this year’s AFCON has thrown up a lot of surprises and a high level of excitement.  The exit of the so called African football giants like Morocco that went up to the semi-final of the Qatar World Cup in 2022, Egypt , Ghana, Cameroon, Tunisia, Algeria, defending champion, Senegal and other multiple winners all crashed out before the Semi-finals. The performance of ‘small’ teams like Equatorial Guinea, Cape Verde and Burkina Faso were admirable even though they did not reach the semi-finals.

Progress has been made in the game and Africa has contributed to the global growth of the game. Some analysts even argue that AFCON seems to be like a hunting ground for the EPL, Serie A, Bundesliga, La Liga, French League and lately, the Saudi Arabian League that seems to have focused on attracting the likes of Ronaldo, Benzema and Mane.

The Semi-Final game between South Africa and Nigeria in the on-going AFCON 2024 more than any other in the past has thrown up a lot of questions about unity through sports in the continent. Even though the drama has been on the social media between the young people of both countries, most Nigerians are shocked that countries like Ghana and Cameroon joined South Africans in trolling Nigerians. Comic as the banters might appear, the Roundtable Conversation seems to see beyond football given the intensity and dimension of the debates between the various African countries African countries.

The recent alleged threat by the fans of the South African club side, Chippa United F.C where the Nigerian goal keeper, Stanley Nwabali and stopped two South African penalties to not come back to South Africa is the most poignant example of the seeming bad blood being displayed by some of the countries that have elected to threat Nigeria as an enemy. It is very sad that the spirit of sportsmanship seems to be leaving the game.

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Before the tournament, there were permutations but the game being as unpredictable as the weather in a 21st century environment, all permutations seem to have fallen apart given the surprises that emerged in the build up to the finals. Exciting as the game is, lucrative as the global football industry is, it is humans that make it tick. While entertainment and sports banters are not out of place globally, the Roundtable Conversation believes that the dangers that fan enthusiasm can cause must be nipped in the bud by CAF and most countries through re-orientation and more information that can douse tension.

The Roundtable Conversation spoke to a veteran footballer who scored 23 goals for the Nigerian national team and was part of the team that won the 1980 AFCON tournament, the very famous Mathematical Odegbami (as christened by the late ace commentator, Ernest Okonkwo) due to his dexterity with the round leather. He is a sports enthusiast who has invested so much in not just football but other sports and is adept at nurturing talents through his sports academy. He now contributes to sports broadcasting through his Eagles 7 Sports Radio 103.7FM in his home state, Ogun in South West Nigeria.  In his words, “we are trying to groom young people interested in sports broadcasting and hopefully, we may just discover another Earnest Okonkwo of blessed memory. As a matter of fact, about five of them are here with me in Ivory Coast for the AFCON duties”.

We asked him his views about the seeming ‘hatred’ being shown Nigeria by countries like Ghana, Cameroon and South Africa and whose voices seem to the loudest in trolling Nigeria and wishing them failure at this year’s AFCON. He feels the energy, the wealth, the population, the beauty of Nigerian football and the plethora of ex- and present internationals with global reputation may be a source of secret admiration that often comes off as envy for Nigerians and their successes. Nigeria is a giant black nation with the greatest number of  globally successful individuals scattered across continents and their confidence often rob other Africans the wrong way.

Asked why these countries that have benefitted hugely in the past from Nigeria’s benevolence seem to have forgotten too soon, Chief Odegbami blames the lack of good study or understanding of history by African youths must be blamed for the lack of a sense of history that should humble other Africans that Nigeria had in the past been so magnanimous to through financial contributions, sending of technical partners, judges, teachers, offer of scholarships/ asylums  and doctors to help in their post-independence or post-apartheid recovery political economies.

On a more comical note, Chief Odegbami believes that the colonial and apartheid historical experiences of some African countries are very diverse and Nigeria seems to stand out in terms of their own colonial experiences, the acculturation/opression that other countries experienced seems absent in Nigeria so Nigerians come off more confident, independent-minded and this might rob off on others in ways they might show some tinge of jealousy even if without much bitterness. Nigerians to him come off more confident and assertive in ways that might be interpreted as arrogance by some other Africans.

He believes that the various African nations must begin to take the study and teaching of history more seriously because the younger generation seem to lack a depth of the history of Africa as a whole and the individual countries in ways that the younger ones can have more information. If some of the younger generation understood more about slavery, colonialism, apartheid and its effects on the continent, the younger ones would understand themselves better and desist from some anti-social behavior like the xenophobic attacks from South Africa on other Africans.

Chief Odegbami believes that football is growing in Africa and must be nurtured to reward the continent with economic and social growth.  He believes that despite all odds, Nigeria is supposed to be a leader of the entire black race not as a gift by other nations but given the sheer number of people, their industry, passion and the influence of Nigeria in different global sectors one of which is the field of sports with football leading the pack. Other nations must understand the soft and hard powers Nigeria wields and understand the value in showing good sportsmanship before, during and after any competition. Africa must maximize the role of sports as a unifier and a socio-economic tool for unity and development he concluded.

The Roundtable Conversation wishes the Super Eagles victory and hopes that CAF will use its position to appeal to Chippas FC fans of South Africa or any other South African fanto not harm the Nigerian goalkeeper, Stanley Nwabali when he gets back to his club. Football is a game and Africa is one. The world is watching how we as Africans threat each other in an era of increased multilateral and migration policies across the world. This AFCON 2024 must unite rather than divide Africa.

● The dialogue continues. ..

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