As the 2023 Africa Cup of Nations charges towards its crescendo, one fixture looms large on the horizon, resonating with historical intricacies and simmering tensions.
On Wednesday, Nigeria and South Africa will clash in the semifinals, igniting a debate that transcends mere football rivalry.
Amidst the palpable anticipation, a fundamental question emerges: Is there a simmering undercurrent of hatred or jealousy between the fans of the Super Eagles and Bafana Bafana?
This encounter, on the surface, showcases a clash between two African giants, both former champions of the prestigious tournament. However, delving deeper reveals a stark contrast in their footballing pedigrees.
Nigeria, a veritable African superpower, boast a rich tapestry of success, clinching the AFCON title on three occasions – in 1980, 1994, and 2013.
In contrast, South Africa’s triumph in 1996 remains their sole conquest, placing them on a lower rung in Africa’s football hierarchy.
The historical backdrop of this fixture lends credence to the absence of a traditional rivalry between the two nations.
Before South Africa’s maiden AFCON victory, the tale between the nations was unscathed by animosity or competitive disdain.
However, pivotal moments in history have seeded a narrative of resentment, most notably during the 1996 AFCON edition hosted and won by South Africa.
Nigeria’s controversial withdrawal from the 1996 tournament, coinciding with South Africa’s triumph, fueled speculations of what could have transpired had the Super Eagles participated.
This sentiment gained further traction following Nigeria’s Olympic gold medal triumph in Atlanta, Georgia, in the United States, overshadowing South Africa’s AFCON glory and deepening the perceived injustice among Nigerian enthusiasts.
Subsequent encounters between the two sides on the football pitch further underscored Nigeria’s dominance, with seven victories in fourteen meetings.
These triumphs, crucially timed to stop South Africa from qualifying for the 1994 World Cup, reaching the final of AFCON 2000 or the semifinals of AFCON 2019, have entrenched a sense of superiority within Nigerian footballing circles.
While Nigeria’s fervour remains rooted in sporting triumphs, the narrative takes a stark turn when examining the South African perspective.
Previous instances of xenophobic attacks against Nigerians in South Africa have been well documented.
And when this is coupled with recent pre-match threats ahead of the semifinal clash in Bouake, Cote d’Ivoire, it paints a grim portrait of underlying tensions.
The Nigerian High Commission’s cautionary advisory to its citizens underscores the gravity of the situation, highlighting a disturbing reality overshadowing this footballing spectacle.
South Africa’s assistant coach, Helman Mkhalele, offers a poignant reflection on the historical context, recounting past encounters fraught with animosity and disdain.
Despite his assertions of narrowing the gap, underlying tones of resentment and longing for redemption linger, indicative of a deeper-seated rivalry fueled by perceived injustices.
Mkhalele, who was one of the South African players that lost 2-0 to Nigeria in the AFCON semi-final in 2000, recalls:
“Ja, going to that game, I still remember when we landed in Lagos, people were raising their hands and said, ‘You’re going to get [beaten by] five,’” the former winger said.
“If you saw, there was so much – in inverted comas – ‘that hatred’, and I believe maybe as a team, we couldn’t handle that type of pressure [before the match].
“But when we got onto the pitch, I would say we made some mistakes that cost us dearly, and playing against a top team with top players in Africa – even the world, I think that sealed our fate because you can’t make mistakes against top players.
“All of a sudden, it was 2-0, and to have to chase that game was really hard.
“Going forward from 2000, the Nigerians were always been mocking us and saying bad things about us, but fortunately over the years, we started to close that gap.
“Even now, today, I still believe that as much as they claim dominance, they are no longer claiming it with that same confidence. So, that is what I believe our players will just carry [into the game] because they just want to make history for themselves.”
Amidst these intricate dynamics, Nigeria’s stance remains resolute, devoid of hatred towards their counterparts.
The prevailing sentiment among Nigerians embodies a spirit of competitive camaraderie, a sentiment mirrored in their anticipation of facing South Africa on the pitch.
As the countdown to Wednesday’s encounter ensues, South Africa’s quest for redemption echoes a nation grappling with its footballing identity amidst a backdrop of simmering resentment and unspoken animosities.
The Super Eagles, however, as has become the norm, will aim to soar to victory.
Nigeria’s unstated target for this tournament and beyond remains to win a fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, and maybe eighth AFCON trophies, in the process equalling and surpassing Ghana, Cameroon, and Egypt. Not South Africa.