Nigeria is one of the brightest rays of light for football in Africa. The Super Eagles, as they have been known, have had a stellar history in continental and international tournaments, having won the African Cup of Nations and making their way to the Round of 16 at the World Cup on 3 separate occasions. With an exciting crop of players including the likes of Wilfried Ndidi, Alex Iwobi, Kelechi Iheanacho, Samuel Chukweuze, and captain Ahmed Musa, Nigerian football is in safe hands and have exciting times to look ahead to.
Football is by far the most followed sport in Nigeria and while the nation was still under colonial rule by Britain, efforts were made to organize a national team that would represent the country's interests on the international stage. The first official game played by the Nigerian football team was a 2-0 victory over Sierra Leone in Freetown in October 1949, while friendlies were also played against amateur and semi-professional clubs during a tour of England. Upon Independence in 1960, the national team became fully handled by the Nigerian Football Association (NFA), now Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) and all national team engagements are handled by the football governing body.
The country slowly grew in strength and consolidated their status as the premier team on the continent by the 1970s, culminating in the triumph at the 1980 Africa Cup of Nations. There were subsequent near-misses in the tournament, with two second-place finishes as well as a narrow elimination during the qualification for the 1982 World Cup. The 1990s was undoubtedly the golden era of Nigerian football and a lot of world-beaters were exported from the West African nation to the world and this is a tradition that was maintained into the noughties. This period saw Nigeria win the Africa Cup of Nations and qualify for the World Cup in 1994 as well as become the first African side to win a gold medal in football at the 1996 Olympic Games in USA.
From the start of the 21st century, Nigeria saw a decline in the performance of her national team and this led to an apathy and disorientation from its teeming supporters.
However, there has been an upturn in fortunes in recent years and performances have started to match expectations, leading to a renewed interest in the team.
Furthermore, beyond the Men's National Team, Nigeria also has also found success elsewhere and the Women's National Team (the Super Falcons) are by far the most successful side on the African continent, having won 11 of the 13 Africa Women Cup of Nations played to date while the National Under 17 team (Golden Eaglets) have won the most world titles at that level with five Under 17 World Cup wins.
Prior to independence, the Nigerian football team wore red jerseys and were colloquially known as the 'Red Devils'. However, after independence, the national team colors changed to green to match the flag and embrace patriotism and following this switch in colors, the Nigerian team became known as the 'Green Eagles'. This moniker stuck with the team for the next three decades until their impressive performance at the 1988 Africa Cup of Nations where they narrowly lost out to Cameroon in the final.
Upon their return home, the Minister of Sports declared them the 'Super Eagles' and this is a nickname that has been borne by the Nigerian team since then. With over 200 million football passionate fans behind them, the Super Eagles are one of the most followed and instantly recognizable teams in the world. They have a very vibrant Supporters' Club whose aesthetic display of colors and feverish use of musical instruments makes them a thrill to watch at international tournaments.
Despite their continental dominance, Nigeria found World Cup qualification difficult to come by, chiefly due to the fact that Africa had just two representatives until the 1994 edition. There were a number of near misses, especially in 1981 when Nigeria lost out on aggregate to Algeria in the final stage of the qualification series for the 1982 World Cup (despite beating the North Africans on two occasions en-route their Nations Cup triumph some months earlier). They also lost out by two points to Cameroon in the qualification series for the 1990 World Cup.
After many years of heartbreak, Nigeria finally hoisted her flag at the Mundial when they made it to the 1994 World Cup in the USA. They impressively qualified from a group also containing Argentina, Greece and Bulgaria but fell to Italy in the Round of 16 after two late penalties and a loss in concentration cost the Super Eagles victory in a match they had led for so long. They repeated the feat four years later in France, defeating a star-studded Spain team in their opening fixture before falling to a shock 4-1 defeat to Denmark in the second round.
In total, Nigeria have qualified for the World Cup on six occasions, making it to the second round in 1994,1998, and 2014, while they were eliminated from the group stage in 2002,2010, and 2018.
Given their pedigree on the continent, it should come as no surprise that Nigeria are one of the most successful teams in AFCON history. In total, they made 18 appearances at the tournament and they have finished on the podium in 15 of those. With 3 Nations Cup triumphs, Nigeria are the fourth most successful side in AFCON history, while they have also finished as runners-up on 4 occasions and won the Bronze medal a whopping 8 times. Their first success came on home soil in 1980 when they defeated the Desert Foxes of Algeria 3-0 in from of over 50,000 fans at the National Stadium in Lagos. Two second-place finishes followed in 1984 and 1988, before a second triumph was recorded in 1994.
The Nigerian team of 1994 is widely regarded as the best national side ever assembled in African football history and many opine that they would have successfully defended their title two years later but political tensions with South Africa over Apartheid saw them withdraw from the 1996 and 1998 tournaments.
They controversially lost the 2000 final on home soil to Cameroon and followed this up with third-place finishes in 2002,2004,2006, and 2010 but failed to qualify for the 2012 edition.
A long-wait for AFCON glory was finally ended in 2013 when Stephen Keshi became the first man to lift the trophy as captain and coach but Nigeria did not qualify for the next two editions in 2015 and 2017 before another third-place finish was recorded in 2019.
The NPFL is the highest level on the pyramid of professional football in Nigeria and it has been in existence since 1972. Upon its introduction, the league enjoyed massive followership from the teeming populace around the country and clubs like Rangers of Enugu, Stationery Stores of Lagos, Shooting Stars of Ibadan, and Bendel Insurance of Benin were among the early pacesetters. Of these, only Rangers remain a dominant force to this day and new clubs like Enyimba of Aba, Kano Pillars, and Rivers United have become the heavyweights in the country. Enyimba are currently the defending champions and also the most successful side in the history of the NPFL with eight titles. Teams are relegated from the top-flight into the Nigerian National League, while the best-placed teams secure continental qualification to the CAF Champions League and CAF Confederations Cup. A domestic knockout cup competition known as the Federations Cup (formerly Governor's Cup and Challenge Cup) has been in existence since 1945 and acts as the country's national cup tournament.
Throughout history, Nigeria has produced some legendary players who dominated the game and showcased their abilities on the field. Players like Segun 'Mathematical' Odegbami, Christian 'Chairman' Chukwu, and Aloysius 'Blockbuster' Atuegbu among others held sway in the 1980s and they passed on the baton to players like Daniel 'The Bull' Amokachi, Austin 'Jay Jay' Okocha, and Nwankwo 'Papilo' Kanu in the 1990s. In terms of talent, Okocha is unarguably the best to have come out from the shores of Nigeria and even the great Pele once opined that the former Bolton Wanderers star is the only African that would walk into any Brazilian team. However, judging by success, Nwankwo Kanu can lay a claim to be Nigeria's most successful player in history and he represented some of the biggest clubs in the world including Inter Milan, Ajax, and Arsenal. The lanky striker won almost everything winnable at club level including the Champions League, Premier League, and FA Cup, while he was twice named the African Player of the Year and finished 11th in the voting for the 1996 Ballon d'Or.
He had captained Nigeria to victory earlier at the Under 17 World Cup in 1993 and this was a feat he repeated three years later at the Olympic Games, with his Golden Goal to eliminate Brazil from the semifinal granting him immortality in football's annals. In the 21st century, John Obi Mikel flew the Nigerian flag with pride on the global stage and was a key member of the Chelsea side that dominated football for over a decade. In what was the club's Golden Era, Mikel played a key role in multiple triumphs in the Premier League and Champions League, while he was also a part of the Afcon winning squad in 2013.
Nigeria has been one of the most notable countries in the history of the English Premier League.
A total of 45 Nigerians have played in the Premier League since its inception in 1992 with Efan Ekoku and Ade Akinbiyi among the early pacesetters. Nwankwo Kanu held sway with Arsenal for over five years and won two league titles, while John Obi Mikel and Victor Moses also lifted the trophy with Chelsea.
In terms of goals, Yakubu Aiyegbeni leads the way with 95 goals and other Nigerians who made a mark on the Premier League include Celestine Babayaro, Jay-Jay Okocha, Peter Odemwingie, Obafemi Martins, and Joseph Yobo.
Current stars like Alex Iwobi, Kelechi Iheanacho, Wilfred Ndidi, and Isaac Success are continuing the Nigerian legacy in the Premier League.
Given its history of producing players who star on the global stage, it is not surprising that most foreign clubs look to Nigeria to unearth the next global stars. In addition to the players currently starring in the Premier League, there are other Nigerian footballers strutting their stuff in other foreign leagues.
Samuel Chuwueze is one of the standout young players in the Spanish LaLiga with Villarreal, while defenders Kenneth Omeruo and Chidozie Awaziem are first choice center-back pairing for Leganes. Elsewhere, Ramon Azeez stars with Granada and earlier in the season, he scored a well-taken goal to condemn Barcelona to a 2-0 defeat at the Estadio de Los Carmanes. The Italian Serie A is also stocked with Nigerian talent and William Troost Along and Ola Aina currently star for Udinese and Torino respectively. The French League has Victor Osimhen as one of its standout players so far, with the 20-year-old's exploits in from of goal for Lille garnering attention. Josh Maja recently scored a hattrick for Bordeaux in a Ligue 1 clash and he is teammates with winger Samuel Kalu, while Moses Simon bamboozles defenders on the flank with Nantes. Jamilu Collins, Taiwo Awoniyi, Shehu Abdullahi, Anthony Ujah, and Maduka Okoye all star in Germany and are making waves in the Bundesliga. The Nigerian contingent is, however, not limited to just the top five leagues and there are still other players representing the nation in other mainstream Leagues including Joe Aribo (Rangers, Scotland), Paul Onuachu (Genk, Belgium), Odion Ighalo (Shanghai Shenhua, China), Bartholomeu Ogbeche (Kerala Blasters, India), and Emmanuel Dennis (who scored a brace against Real Madrid while playing for Belgian side Club Brugge in the Champions League) among others.