Let me start off with a disclaimer – I am not the world’s biggest football fan. But even I can’t be cynical enough to try and take away from the joyous moments that come about all because of a game of football, especially during international tournaments. There’s a special feeling in the air.
My Twitter timeline will be filled with tweets expressing happiness or disappointment depending on how my followers’ chosen teams are doing. People I follow that I’ve never seen tweet about a Premier League game – or any other football game really – all of a sudden will pipe up with their opinions about the players’ techniques and dispute the referee’s decisions.
I know this sometimes ruffles the feathers of ardent football fans, but I think this is a prime example of the positive effect football can have, and its uniting nature.
During the Euros last year, I’d never seen my timeline so active with football commentary. Out of nowhere, my friends – both on and offline – were hyped and involved with the ins and outs of the games.
To be honest, I’d never seen the whole nation engrossed in a football tournament like that before. No doubt the disruption to our everyday lives during the pandemic and England’s progression all the way to the final had a lot to do with this. While not having any particular affiliation with any team during this tournament, I could feel the excitement.
But this time, as a British-Nigerian, it’s a competition that’s a little closer to my identity. I’ve been fascinated to watch how it’s played out so far, since AFCON kicked off last weekend in the host country of Cameroon. Nigeria won its first match in the group stage, with the Super Eagles beating the Egyptian team, including Liverpool FC’s Mohammed Salah, 1-0.
In true Nigerian fashion, we weren’t humble about our victory – especially as we won against seven-time AFCON champions, Egypt. But when at times there seems little to be joyous about in the country, it was a moment worth celebrating.
That one goal brought a nation of more than 250 ethnic groups, each with their own language, culture and customs, together. Naturally, with a population of over 200 million people with more differences than similarities, this causes a lot of tension across the country, and at many times, we can be divided along ethno-religious lines. But football seems to hold a special magic that gets all the tensions to sizzle away – and has the power to bring us together.
At a time of growing insecurity in Nigeria – one in which there is real, deep mistrust and disillusionment among much of the population with the government – AFCON serves as a reminder that there is something good that can come from the country. There is still something to celebrate.
Players from different ethnic groups and different religions represent one nation with one goal in mind – to bring the trophy home.
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And it’s not just the Nigerians inside Nigeria who can benefit from all this, but for all of us in the diaspora. Regardless of whether our familial lines tie back to Nigeria or to other African nations, AFCON is a chance for us to feel a part of our culture and our wider communities, as well feeling a sense of pride as we cheer our respective teams on.
Whether it’s AFCON, the Euros or the World Cup, people like myself who often say “football is just a game” can be reminded of its strength in bringing people together.
And with the world still feeling very far from normal, I’ll take all the sprinkles of hope and happiness that I can get.