The Super Eagles of Nigeria will on Wednesday, July 10 continue their quest for a fourth Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) title with a quarter-final clash against South Africa.
A place in the semi-finals of AFCON 2019 is at stake along with bragging rights of a not too long-drawn rivalry between the two countries.
Speaking purely in football terms, the two countries are really not rivals. Nigeria have a far richer football history than South Africa but fueled by politics, a football game between these countries has gone beyond the four corners of a football field.
Football and politics
It is a rivalry that was drawn from political sparring and distrust.
There is a cliché that football and politics don't mix but in the case of Nigeria Vs South Africa, the stir has made what would have been just a football game turned into something bigger.
As the Super Eagles prepare to take to the field against the Bafana Bafana on Wednesday in Cairo, an over two-decade narrative will once again come to the fore.
It all started in 1996 when defending champions, Nigeria, infamously boycotted the 20th edition of AFCON which was hosted by South Africa.
With Nigeria’s boycott, AFCON 96 was without one of the best teams in world football and a clear favourite. Two years earlier, in 1994, the Super Eagles of Nigeria had won their second AFCON title in Tunisia and also wowed the world at the 1994 FIFA World Cup in the United States of America.
It was Nigeria’s then Head of State, the late General Sanni Abacha that gave the order for Nigeria to withdraw from AFCON 96 out of a long-drawn political tension between Nigeria and South Africa.
"It's so painful, but we are in support of the federal government," then Super Eagles captain Austin Eguavoen told the UK Independent.
The Abacha regime, unarguably the darkest in the annals of Nigerian political history, was under constant attack by the South African government for its disregard to human life and this got to a boiling point when the Nigerian government adamantly executed the famous environmentalist, Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight others despite pleas from foreign nations.
This unfortunate development infuriated a lot of Nigeria's allies including South Africa who severed ties with the West African nation and this sparked a diplomatic war between the two countries. Following this tussle, Abacha cut ties with South Africa and issued travel bans to the country.
'Champions by luck'
With the absence of Nigeria at AFCON 96, South Africa went on to win the title on home soil to the chagrin of Nigerian who have had to deal with the thoughts of what would have been.
South Africa took full advantage of the situation in their first tournament after apartheid to emerge as the new king of African football. The Bafana Bafana were a delight to watch as they paraded a squad full of exciting stars like the famous Mark Fish, Andre Arendse, Doctor Khumalo, Shaun Bartlett, Lukas Radebe, Neil Tovey and Mark Williams who scored two late second-half goals against Tunisia in the final to secure a famous victory.
South Africa’s win left a sour taste in the mouth of Nigerian football followers who felt that the non-participation of the Super Eagles in the tourney paved way for the emergence of South Africa whom hitherto were considered underdogs in African football.
Nigeria was further punished for its ill-advised action by the Confederation of African Football (CAF) with a ban from AFCON 98 in Burkina Faso, and thus wasted a generation of talents that could have dominated African football.
The South Africans would also finish with the silver medal after they lost 2-0 to Egypt in the final and as a result maintained their rising profile in African football.
From the Nigerian perspective, South Africa’s successes in those two AFCON tournaments were not down to their brilliance but out of mare luck of being in the right place at the right time. This view point infuriated South Africans and thus the source of the rivalry.
In truth, Abacha’s order robbed a truly talented and world-class group of Super Eagles players the chance to dominate the African continent. They were clear favourites to win the title in 1996 the chances that another team would be able to stop them was very slim. That Super Eagles class won the AFCON title in 1994, was one of the most exciting teams at the USA 94, and made history as the first African country to win the Gold Medal of the football event of the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta.
South Africans however, were not pleased with the arrogance and continued to lay claim to their new position as a top ranking football country in Africa.
In AFCON 2000 which was co-hosted by Ghana and Nigeria, the country met for the first time and for the Super Eagles of Nigeria, it was time to silence the pretenders.
After Nigeria’s nervy win over Senegal in the quarterfinals, South Africa convincingly defeated joint host, Ghana, to set the stage for a grudge semi-final encounter between the two countries.
The game provided an opportunity for the two nations to set the record straight, a challenge that was relished by the Nigerian players. Two quick first-half goals from winger Tijani Babangida was enough to condemn the Bafana Bafana to the sword to send Nigeria to the final and put South Africans in their place.
“It was a match that we took personal,” former Super Eagles star Austin ‘Jay Jay’ Okocha to South African media in an interview during a recent visit to the country.
“Before the match, we were arguing a bit about who was the best in Africa. We felt that South Africa won the 1996 AFCON because Nigeria didn’t take part and we were of the belief that we were the best in Africa. It was a chance for us to claim bragging rights, which we managed to do but we had an advantage because the match was played in Nigeria.”
The two nations continued the rivalry in subsequent meetings with Nigeria coming tops at every turn. This dominance included a 4-0 win in AFCON 2004, another 2-0 and 1-0 victories in 2008, a 2-0 win in a friendly in 2013 and a 3-1 victory in African Nations Championship (CHAN) in 2014.
South Africa’s only win in that era came in an inconsequential 2004 Mandela Challenge friendly match that finished 2-1.
It hasn’t remained like that in recent years. Three consecutive meetings between the two nations ended in stalemates but it was the Bafana Bafana that had the last laugh in November 2014.
The Super Eagles, after a string of poor results, were left in a precarious situation in their last qualifying match for AFCON 2015 and had to win away at South Africa to qualify.
Having secured a first place spot in group A of the qualifier, the game was a dead-rubber for South Africans but in a bid to keep alive the flame of the rivalry, the Bafana Bafana came in full force to stop Nigeria.
The Super Eagles went into the game looking unprepared, and deservedly got punished with Tokelo Rantie scoring in both halves to hand South Africa a two-goal lead. Nigeria fought back with two goals from substitute Sone Aluko to level matters but it was too little, too late for the defending champions who missed out on a chance to defend the trophy they had won in South Africa 2013.
Effectively, this was the second time South Africa had stopped Nigeria from defending their AFCON title. The first time in 1999 due to political tussle and in on the field of play in 2014.
South Africa returned again to hurt Nigeria in an AFCON 2019 qualifier as the Bafana Bafana beat the Super Eagles 2-0 in Uyo in June 2017.
That loss didn’t linger as Nigeria had to quickly turn their focus to an important doubleheader against Cameroon in the 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifier.
In the return leg of the AFCON 2019 qualifier, Nigeria needed to avoid defeat to seal qualification and laboured to a 1-1 draw in a game that they had two goals incorrectly ruled out for offside.
Since the beginning of the rivalry that erupted out of political bickering, it has gone up a notch because of the deep rivalry for economic and political dominance in Africa. But still, the possession of a strong desire of both Nigeria and South Africa to get one over another stems from Abacha’s headstrong order and the grudge continues on Wednesday in Cairo.