Football in Nigeria: How one sport became the voice of freedom

There is nothing more fulfilling than how sports harmoniously bring action and a sense of unity among the people of Nigeria. While it is impressively well-known for having Nollywood (the world’s second-largest film industry in terms of output) and being the largest economy in Africa, it also takes pride in its rich history in sports.

From its traditional sport called Dambe, the most widely popular one today is football. As described by Osman Sillah, the CEO and founder of Oyah Sports F.C., it’s like a religion where half of the country’s population are active football fans and consumers.

It’s a fervent culture and a growing money-making industry for investors. Today, it provides employment prospects to the citizens as well as strengthens the market of sports betting in Nigeria. Back then, however, the sport was far from any of these services. Here is a story that unfolds its enduring history and greatness.

From a colonial sport to a source of national pride

Football came to Africa in the late 19th century when much of its part had been colonised by several European powers. It spread across the continent through missionaries, railways, and the military. It wasn’t until in the early 20th century, officially becoming a British colony, when the sport was introduced in Nigeria.

According to Dr. Wiebe Boer, author of The History of Football in Nigeria: A Story of Heroes and Epics (1094 to 1960), Calabar City was the birthplace of football in the country. The first recorded match was played on June 15, 1904. Then 45 years later, the Nigeria national football team had its first official and foreign match in October 1949, where they defeated Sierra Leone 2-0.

By 1950, football had become the country’s national sport, even though the British regime focused on promoting polo and cricket. It was also within this period where several African nations started their own or joined others’ nationalist movements to combat colonial power. Among many, it was the said sport that became their major source of national pride and form of protest, inspiring them to achieve political and social freedom.

The most notable example in this sensational movement is Nnamdi Azikiwe. He was one of the country’s leading nationalist figures, who later became the first president of independent Nigeria. Despite the thrill of the sport, he witnessed how extreme racism and racial segregation were within the leagues. Angered by the dreadful injustice, he connected sports and politics during the late colonial period.

Football: Nigeria’s symbol of freedom and nationalism

Azikiwe’s experienced oppression was his driving force to take action against injustice. Following his rejection to compete in a track-and-field tournament and join a tennis club due to his ethnic background, he created the Zik’s Athletic Club (ZAC) in Lagos in April 1938.

In response to Britain’s liberation struggle during World War II, wherein concurrently oppressing African natives from having their own fight for freedom, he used football as a national symbol. Through his nationalist newspaper, the West African Pilot, the sport helped paint a picture of freedom and a sense of community among the locals.

A thriving opportunity

After years of struggle, Nigeria attained its independence from British rule on October 1, 1960.

This opened a thriving chance for both the sport and the country. From becoming a member of FIFA in the same year to being the first nation to start women’s football in Africa, it continues to make influential changes both in and out of the field.

While football greatly furthers the economy, job offers, and sports betting in Nigeria, one must never neglect its social, historical, and cultural role in the liberation from oppression.

As stressed by Dr. Boer regarding his book, football served as a powerful tool during the British colonial era, and the Nigerian government must always be the first figure to uphold its primary meaning. Beyond as a means of self-promotion, it unifies the people.

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