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Editorials, Sports

Football as a National Solace in Nigeria: An Excerpt of the Super Eagles 96 Documentary

The documentary looked at what the Super Eagles’ success in the 1990s meant to the people of Nigeria and how it was a source of distraction.

  • Toyosi Afolayan
  • 12th October 2023
Football as a National Solace in Nigeria: An Excerpt of the Super Eagles 96 Documentary

Adekunle Daniel was a teenager when Nigeria etched the AFCON 1994 title after securing a 2-1 win over the Chipolopolo of Zambia. The year was 1994, and Nigeria was under a repressive military regime. Despite this, Daniel and his friends sought solace in football.


“Every goal scored by the Super Eagles that period meant a lot to me and my friends. Thanks to football, we had a reason to smile”, Daniel, now in his early 50’s said.


Football has been more than just a sport for Nigerians. It has provided solace and a sense of unity for a nation often grappling with political instability and economic hardships. This story delves into the historical significance of football as a source of hope and pride for Nigerians, with a specific focus on how General Sanni Abacha empowered the Super Eagles to serve as a beacon of light during a period of dark governance.


In the early ’90s, Nigeria was under the rule of General Sanni Abacha, a time marked by political oppression and corruption. Elections were held in 1993 and were won by Moshood Abiola, a candidate supposedly supported by Ibrahim Babangida, who, however, annulled the elections and set up a civilian interim government, which Abacha quickly overthrew.


Although Abacha promised a return to democracy, his actions were anything but democratic. He banned political activity of any kind, fired a large portion of the military, controlled the press, and assembled a personal security force of some 3,000 men.


While he supported the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and its military arm, the ECOWAS Monitoring Group (ECOMOG), in sending troops to restore democracy in Liberia and Sierra Leone, he brutally suppressed dissent at home. Abiola and Olusegun Obasanjo, a former military leader of Nigeria (1976–79), were jailed for treason.


Wole Soyinka, Nigeria’s Nobel laureate, was also charged with treason, although he had voluntarily left the country. Perhaps Abacha’s most brutal act was the imprisonment, trial, and subsequent execution for treason of writer Ken Saro-Wiwa and other Ogoni activists who were concerned with the environmental exploitation of their region by multinational petroleum companies. In this turbulent era, the Super Eagles, Nigeria’s national football team, rose to prominence on the global stage.


Ken Saro-Wiwa
At the peak of his non-violent campaign, Ken Saro-Wiwa was tried by a special military tribunal for allegedly masterminding the murder of Ogoni chiefs at a pro-government meeting, and hanged in 1995 by the military dictatorship of General Sani Abacha.


Growing up in Nigeria in the early 90’s , Daniel, always perceived Super Eagles’ victories as a temporary escape from the oppressive Abacha regime. “I remember how the Super Eagles brought our community together. We would forget our struggles, if only for 90 minutes, and cheer for Nigeria. It was more than just a game; it was hope.”


1994 AFCON and FIFA World Cup: The Genesis of Glory


In 1994, Nigeria’s national football team, the Super Eagles, etched their name in history by clinching the AFCON title in Tunisia. Under the guidance of Dutch coach Clemens Westerhof, the Super Eagles played an exhilarating brand of football. They defeated Zambia in a thrilling final, winning 2-1. This victory marked Nigeria’s second AFCON title, and it was more than just a football achievement; it was a source of pride for a nation grappling with political instability.


Also in 1994, Nigeria finally reached the World Cup for the first time in 1994 after years of struggling to get there. Clemens Westerhof managed them. Nigeria topped their group which included Argentina, Bulgaria, and Greece but couldn’t go beyond the round of 16, losing to Denmark.



The victory united Nigerians and provided a welcome respite from the tumultuous era of General Sanni Abacha’s rule. Joyful celebrations erupted across the nation, transcending ethnic, religious, and regional boundaries.


Hassan Yakub who lived in Kano during this time, vividly remembers the Super Eagles’ triumph. In an interview with BOUNCE, he said: “The entire nation came together to celebrate that AFCON win. It was more than a football victory; it was a glimmer of hope that we needed during Abacha’s rule.”


1996 Atlanta Olympics: Gold Amidst Global Glory


The Super Eagles’ success continued at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. Coached by Bonfrere Jo, the Nigerian team claimed the gold medal in football. This remarkable victory, amidst political and economic hardships, symbolized the resilience of Nigerians.


A still image of Nigerian fans in Lagos celebrating in the Super Eagles 96 documentary
A still image of Nigerian fans in Lagos celebrating in the Super Eagles 96 documentary


Nigeria’s triumph captured the imagination of the world and announced its football prowess on the global stage. The Atlanta Olympics gold served as a beacon of hope, illuminating Nigeria’s path through the dark corridors of political instability.


BOUNCE spoke with David Olabiyi, a veteran sports journalist who covered the Atlanta Olympics from his base here in Abeokuta. “The Atlanta Olympics gold was a momentous occasion,” David said. “It showcased Nigeria’s football prowess to the world, and it was a brief escape from the harsh realities of the time.”


1998 FIFA World Cup: A Monumental Journey


The journey reached its zenith in 1998, when the Super Eagles represented Nigeria at the FIFA World Cup in France. Under the leadership of coach Bora Milutinović, Nigeria reached the Round of 16, where they faced Italy. While the Super Eagles didn’t advance further, their performance was lauded globally.


Nigeria’s World Cup journey was more than just football matches; it was a testament to the talent and passion of Nigerian footballers. It showcased the nation’s ability to stand tall amidst adversity and the power of sports to unite and inspire.



The world began to recognize the Super Eagles as a force to be reckoned with. BOUNCE spoke with Dr. Yemi Adeyemi, a football historian, for insights: “Nigeria’s World Cup journey was a testament to the talent and passion of Nigerian footballers. But it’s crucial to remember that it also served as a distraction from the government’s shortcomings.”


FIFA Ranking: Nigeria Among the Elite


Nigeria’s achievements were reflected in its FIFA ranking. In 1994, Nigeria reached an all-time high, ranking fifth in the world. This ranking symbolized the nation’s rise to footballing prominence and its place among the world’s top football nations.



The FIFA ranking was not just a number; it was a source of pride and validation for Nigerians. It signified that Nigeria had arrived on the international football stage and was ready to take on the world’s best.


Conversely, BOUNCE spoke with Aisha Ahmed, a young woman in her twenties, about how the Super Eagles continue to be a source of unity in Nigeria today. “As a child, I saw how my parents and grandparents rallied around the TV to watch the games. Now, I do the same with my friends. We may have different concerns today, but the Super Eagles still give us a reason to come together.”


Football remains intertwined with Nigeria’s complex history and politics. While it has brought joy and unity to the nation, the story of the Super Eagles under General Abacha is a poignant reminder of the power of sport to serve both as a distraction from governance issues and as a beacon of hope during challenging times.




The documentary, directed by Yemi Bamiro, a London-born filmmaker of Nigerian heritage, follows Nigeria’s journey to the 1994 World Cup under the coaching of Clemens Westerhof, known as the “Dutchgerian.” It delves into their progress until he was eventually replaced by compatriot Jo Bonfrère, all within the backdrop of political instability during Nigeria’s military dictatorship.

Super Eagles ’96 is available to stream on Amazon Prime

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