Super Eagles legend Jay-Jay Okocha laughs at the notion that South Africa and Nigeria are football rivals. The two most powerful nations in Africa have had a tumultuous relationship over the years because of their numerous squabbles in the business, diplomatic and political arenas.
South African telecoms giant MTN is currently fighting two battles with the Nigerian government – a tax bill in excess of R28 billion and an order to repatriate about R117 billion to Nigeria’s central bank, a sum alleged to have left the country’s shores illegally.
This comes just four years after Pretoria had to cut through miles of red tape to repatriate the bodies of 85 South African citizens who died after the collapse of Pastor TB Joshua’s Synagogue Church of All Nations in Lagos. Since the incident, reports have surfaced that suggest the delay was due to an arms deal the South African government had blocked.
But the one political impasse Okocha will never forget is that which resulted in his star-studded generation being denied the opportunity to defend their Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) title in South Africa in 1996.
The powerful Nigerian men’s team at the time, comprising the likes of Okocha, Stephen Keshi, Sunday Oliseh, Rashidi Yekini, Samson Siasia and Daniel Amokachi, were withdrawn from the 1996 Afcon, which Bafana Bafana eventually won, after former president Nelson Mandela’s reaction to the execution of writer and activist Ken Saro-Wiwa by the Nigerian government.
Mandela issued a stern warning to Nigeria’s military leader and de facto president at the time, General Sani Abacha. “Abacha is sitting on a volcano and I am going to explode it underneath him,” said South Africa’s first democratically elected president. Saro-Wiwa was one of the Ogoni Nine, a group of activists who stood up to Dutch oil giant Shell’s pollution of Ogoniland in southeast Nigeria.
After hearing Mandela’s warning, Abacha withdrew the Super Eagles from the tournament, something Okocha laments to this day. “We felt like we were cheated, losing our title without being given the chance to defend it,” he says.
Speaking to New Frame at the Mesh Club in Rosebank, Johannesburg, Okocha continues: “We stood a chance to win the Nations Cup [now known as Afcon] because we had arguably the best national team ever during that period. Maybe that’s where the rivalry started. But for me, I don’t see South Africa as our rivals. We have been too dominant [in our meetings with them to be regarded as rivals].
“I am of the opinion that football shouldn’t be mixed up with politics. The political issues they had should have been dealt with in the bureau and not on the pitch. We felt bad. But it is what it is. You dust yourselves up and move on.”
Nigeria have consistently wiped the floor with South African football teams, men and women, senior and junior. In total, all South African teams have registered just three wins against all Nigerian teams in football: Banyana Banyana beat the Super Falcons in the semifinals of the 2012 Africa Women’s Cup of Nations (Awcon); Amajimbos, the men’s national under-17 team, beat their Nigerian opponents in 2015 during the African Under-17 Championship in Niger; and the latest victory came in June, last year, when Bafana Bafana beat Nigeria in Uyo in a 2019 Afcon qualifier.
Now, following their victory in Nigeria in June, Bafana Bafana have a chance to prove a belief swirling around that the Nigeria fear factor no longer exists. They take on the Super Eagles at FNB Stadium in Johannesburg this Saturday in the return leg of the 2019 Afcon qualifiers. Banyana Banyana also have a chance to follow up their 2012 Awcon semifinal victory when they take on the Super Falcons on Sunday in their opening match of the 2018 Awcon at Cape Coast Sports Stadium in Ghana.
Shaun Bartlett, the former Bafana Bafana striker who is now the assistant coach of the senior men’s national team, says: “We were always in a negative state of mind before a match against Nigeria because we hadn’t beaten them. But now that we have beaten them in a competitive match, it has changed the complex of the national team and the players’ mind. That’s important for any player to succeed. The ability and talent has always been there, but do you have the mental strength to overcome certain things?”
Guarding against complacency
It’s tough to work out who is the underdog and favourite between Bafana Bafana and Nigeria. On the one hand there’s Bafana, who won the first leg of this fixture and have bossed Nigeria in their last three meetings. But on the other hand, there’s a resurgent Super Eagles side soaring over South Africa, Libya and Seychelles in Group E of the qualifiers after getting past their slow start.
“Complacency is always the biggest threat to any player’s success or any team,” says Bartlett, “It’s something that the coach [Stuart Baxter] has been working on. Since arriving, I’ve seen how he impacts the players mentally. It will definitely be the same in this game, players will know what’s needed in order to get a positive result, which is three points against Nigeria.”
Of course, a win for Banyana Banyana on Sunday will give them a precious three points to start their Awcon campaign on a high. This tournament is important, as the top three teams will qualify for the 2019 Fifa Women’s World Cup in France. Despite reaching the finals in 2012, Banyana have never won the Awcon. Nigeria, on the other hand, have won 10 of the 12 Awcon editions that have been played.
Banyana’s growing confidence
Banyana Banyana captain Janine van Wyk and scorer of the only goal in their victory against the Super Falcons in 2012, says: “We are ready for them! We have beaten them before and I don’t see why we can’t do it again.
“It was always said that Nigeria have many players who play overseas, which gives them an edge over us as they bring a lot of experience. Well, we have that too now. We have to put up a fight and show Africa what South Africa is all about. We will take on Nigeria with all our full force.”
Okocha, who was in Johannesburg as part of the German Bundesliga Legends Tour, will watch the Super Eagles’ clash with Bafana Bafana with keen interest. Apart from his patriotism, there’s also the fact that his nephew, Alex Iwobi, will be among the men donning the famous green and white.
The last time the Super Eagles played at FNB Stadium, they left victorious with the 2013 Afcon title firmly in their clutches. Nigerians felt that victory was poetic justice for the generation that was robbed of a chance to defend their title. The late Keshi, the captain of the class of 1994, came to South Africa as coach to do what he couldn’t do as a player.
“I don’t want to say that us winning the Afcon in 2013 proved that we would have won it in 1996, but it was a strong statement and it was good for us,” Okocha says with a smile. “That hurt some South Africans, that we took it from here. As a player, you always try to defend your nation, no matter who you are playing against. I don’t, honestly, see any nation as our rivals because football is one big family.”