The important history of Nigeria and South Africa’s relationship in African football

It's not a rivalry but there's some depth to explore

Last night, Nigeria’s Men’s National football team, the Super Eagles, defeated South Africa’s Bafana Bafana in the semi-finals of the ongoing African Cup of Nations (AFCON). After 90 minutes of regulation time and 30 minutes of extra time, the teams were deadlocked at a goal apiece, both scored from the penalty spot, which made it fitting for the knockout match to be determined through penalty shootouts.


Nigerian goalkeeper Stanley Nwabali, who plays his club football in the South African Premier League with Chippa United, saved two penalty kicks enroute to being named the Man of the Match. Striker Kelechi Iheanacho buried the deciding penalty kick off the inside of the post, sending the Super Eagles into the final of this year’s AFCON, a feat that was last achieved eleven years ago, which is also the last time Nigeria won the top continental prize in national team football. (In Sunday’s final, they will face the host country’s team, the Elephants of Cote d’Ivoire, who also qualified last night after a lone goal win over Congo.)

This marks the third straight time Nigeria has defeated South Africa in the knockout stage at AFCON. Back in 2000, Nigerian football legend Tijani Babangida scored two goals against Bafana Bafana in the semi-final, a clean sheet win which sent Nigeria into that year’s AFCON final match. 24 years later, although on the much dicier terms of a penalty shootout, Nigeria’s latest win exemplifies how its male football team has edged South Africa’s over the decades. In 15 recorded meetings since 1992, Nigeria has won eight times, South Africa has won just twice, and both sides have drawn five matches.

In October ’92, the Super Eagles scored four unanswered goals against Bafana Bafana at the National Stadium in Surulere. The match was a continental group stage qualifier for the FIFA World Cup, USA ’94, which Nigeria easily qualified for as top of its group. The return fixture in January ’93, at Johannesburg’s Soccer City, was a goalless draw. For the rest of the ‘90s, both teams didn’t face each other, more for political than footballing reasons.

In 1996, South Africa hosted AFCON, two years after Nigeria had won the tournament in Tunisia. As title holders, the Super Eagles were due to defend their award at AFCON ’96, but the country pulled out at the directive of its then dictator Sani Abacha. The marquee event was the execution by hanging of nine Nigerian activists in November 1995, to the horror of Nigerians and loud criticisms of the international community.

Led by author Ken Saro-Wiwa, the nine were members of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP), an organisation campaigning against environmental degradation in Ogoni land, due to the crude oil mining operations in the region. Saro-Wiwa, who was president of MOSOP at the time, was vocally critical of the Nigerian government, at a time when political dissent was met with brute force by a brutal authoritarian. The nine activists were arrested for allegedly orchestrating the murder of several Ogoni chiefs, and were sentenced to death upon trial by a special military tribunal.

To many observers, the charges were trumped up as a way for Abacha to get rid of these critics and also send a message to any opposing figures. In response to their execution, Nigerian was banned from the Commonwealth of Nations for over three years, and many countries were loud in their disapproval, none more than South Africa. In the documentary, ‘Super Eagles ‘96’, several players shared their disappointment at not playing in AFCON ‘96, with Emmanuel Ammunike stating that football didn’t need to mix with politics, especially since the sport was a bright spot for Nigerians who were reeling under despotic rule.

Boasting of one of the most complete squads in Africa at the time, and also widely regarded as the golden generation of Nigerian football, the Super Eagles were the favourites going into AFCON ‘96. For post-apartheid South Africa, Bafana Bafana was a rising force in African football, and in their path to winning the Nation’s Cup, they could’ve faced Nigeria during the knockout round.

In the 2000s, the football history between Nigeria and South African has been extensive so far, with matches whose results have been consequential. At the 2004 edition of AFCON, the Super Eagles beat Bafana Bafana 4-0 in a group stage that played a key role in South Africa not qualifying the competition’s knockout stage. (That match was also notable for introducing forward Osaze Odemwingie to Nigerians, as he scored two goals off the bench in that match.) Four years later, the Super Eagles stopped South Africa from participating at AFCON 2010, handing them two clean sheet losses during the qualification group stage.

In 2014, Bafana Bafana repaid the favour, forcing two draws against Nigeria during the qualifiers, while three of their four other matches to emerge as one of the two countries—alongside second-placed Congo—to play in Equatorial Guinea for the competition proper. For AFCON 2019, both countries were drawn in the same qualifying group again, but they both qualified to the main competition this time, with Bafana Bafana winning the fixture in Nigeria and holding the Super Eagles to a draw at home. During AFCON 2019 proper, though, Nigeria eliminated South Africa in the quarter-final phase, ending a 5-match winless run against Bafana Bafana.

As the most important football match both countries had played against each other in the hyper-connected era of social media, the 2019 match resulted in vitriolic banter being exchanged, primarily on X (fka Twitter), between citizens of both countries. Often, football banter is loaded with witty insults, but the exchange after that Nigerian win became particularly toxic. Playing a central role was the late rapper AKA, who shared several tweets about his deep annoyance at losing to Nigeria.

Also embedded in that conversation was South Africa’s history of xenophobia towards African migrants, of which several Nigerians had been victims of xenophobic attacksFor decades, South Africa has been dealing with high poverty rates, stemming from the brutal inequality of apartheid, as well as the constant mismanagement and deep corruption practices of post-apartheid governments. That has led to no lasting, tangible solution to high unemployment rates, with many imbibing nationalist ethos and blaming prospering immigrants for taking jobs that they think should be reserved by locals.

None of those sentiments are new, and it’s even a key part of Nigerian history. (For the oblivious, find out the history of those hugely popular ‘Ghana Must Go’ bags.) In South Africa, though, its effects have gone beyond mere sentiments into injurious acts. As recent as Operation Dudula in 2022 and the heart-breaking events of 2019, just two months after that quarter-final match, African migrants in South Africa have been greeted by xenophobic attacks on a frequent basis.

Generally, Nigeria and South Africa have a complex, long relationship. Nigeria was an ally during the fight to end apartheid, and it made sense that the South African government would stand with the Nigerian citizenry in opposition to the autocratic Abacha. Currently, citizens of both countries are being led by governments that continue to plumb new depths of economic lows, largely due to rampant, endemic corruption and questionable monetary and fiscal policies. Nigerians don’t have electricity? Well, load shedding isn’t paradise for South Africans.

Possibly the most relevant one for young Nigerians is music. Nigerian artists and South African artists have collaborated over the past decade to great results, from AKA and Burna Boy to Davido and Focalistic. These days, the conduit is Amapiano—albeit controversially. For The NATIVE, there’s no need to rehash our stance: Nigeria cannot and should not be aiming to own Amapiano. In the aftermath of last night’s win, the banter flowed and the primary narrative is that Nigeria owns the genre now. It’s easy to say that it’s all jokes, but at the expense of being called a killjoy, jokes can go too far—especially when you consider Nigeria’s cultural dominance as far as dictating the narrative within African music.

Even before last night’s match, there was a viral video circulating X (fka Twitter) where several Nigerians supporting the Super Eagles in Cote d’Ivoire were blatant in stating that Nigeria is responsible for the growth of Amapiano. With how much Nigerians view its music through the “Afrobeats to the World” lens, and very little regards to local and pan-African narratives, those assertions aren’t shocking. These sentiments are only going to get bolder, which would increase animosity. Describe it as arrogance or the need to dominate or whatever else, the loudness of Nigerians is integral to its relationship with South Africans, and just like the music, football will always be a rallying point to exchange words.

It doesn’t feel appropriate to deem the Super Eagles and Bafana Bafana as rivals. For the former, two wins in 15 matches—one in a friendly and one in AFCON qualifying—means it’s playing catch-up from afar, a distance that just got wider with yesterday’s loss. Amidst all of the celebration (for Nigerians) and ruing (for South Africans), it feels relevant to acknowledge how connected both countries are where the round leather game is concerned. It’s not a rivalry, but the history is important.