After 20 years, Nigeria’s Super Eagles finally return to the country’s commercial capital, Lagos, to play a competitive football match.
The Super Eagles last played in Lagos in 2011, but that was an international friendly game against Sierra Leone, which they won by two goals to one.
Nigeria’s last competitive game in the centre of excellence was an Africa Cup of Nations qualifier against Zambia in 2001 at the National Stadium, Surulere. A Victor Agali strike in the 33rd minute of the encounter sealed the three points for Nigeria that evening.
Since then, the three-time African champions have not returned to Lagos for a world cup or nations cup qualifier. However, 20 years later, Nigeria’s senior team will finally return to Lagos when they host Lesotho in their final 2021 Afcon qualifiers at the Teslim Balogun Stadium.
This could be seen as a homecoming, and it evokes a sense of nostalgia in me. During their time away from Lagos, the Super Eagles have played in places like Benin, Abuja for over ten years, Kaduna and recently Akwa Ibom.
However, none of these cities matches up to Lagos. There’s a special feeling surrounding a Super Eagles match in Lagos, which is not experienced in any other city.
The atmosphere, energy, buzz and excitement around a national team match is higher in Lagos than in any other city in Nigeria. I’ve been lucky to watch a Super Eagles game outside Lagos, and I can say the centre of excellence evokes a kind of emotion that’s not felt in any other city.
For example, Nigeria’s last competitive game in Lagos witnessed a crowd of 60,000, but it’s hard to pull such numbers in other Nigerian cities.
There’s already this feeling of nostalgia ahead of their highly anticipated return. While the Super Eagles have had some memorable matches in Lagos, and that’s an article for another day, one game stands out for me.
And that’s the quarter-final clash against Senegal at the 2000 Africa Cup of Nations. 20-years after winning their first Afcon title on home soil, Nigeria was back on hosting duties alongside neighbours, Ghana.
The Super Eagles were also making a return to the competition since winning their second title in 1994. Nigeria missed their title defence in 1996 following General Sanni Abacha’s orders and, as a result, were subsequently banned from the 1998 edition.
It meant Nigeria’s golden generation missed the chance to exert its dominance on Africa. Still, they were favourites going into the 2000 tournaments as most of the players were still in the team, and they were also co-hosts.
Lagos and Kano were the two host cities, but the Super Eagles played all their games in the country’s commercial capital. They started their campaign with a 4-2 victory over Tunisia, with a crowd of 80,000 turning up to support the team.
The second game was a 0-0 draw against Congo, but they bounced back with a 2-0 win over Morocco in the final group game to set up a quarter-final clash against Senegal.
Nigeria’s game against Senegal is one of the most dramatic games I’ve watched in the Super Eagles history. It was a game that served fans with all kinds of emotions from start to finish.
Buoyed by 60,000 crowds in the stadium, the Super Eagles went into the game as favourites. But it was the Teranga Lions that took the lead against the run of play after Khalilou Fadiga brilliantly controlled a ball with his chest before firing a low volley past Ike Shorumu in the seventh minute.
The goal sent shock waves around the stadium as it was not in the script. The Super Eagles tried to find their way back into the game but could not find a breakthrough as Senegal went into the break with the lead.
They started the second half on the front foot, but one could sense anxiety not just in the stadium but all over different homes across the country.
Senegal were not given a chance going into the game, and it’s also the first time Nigeria conceded first, so it was a new experience for the team and fans.
The situation got more nervous with just ten minutes to go as Senegal were on course for a shocking win. However, Nigeria’s coach, Bonfere Jo, made a substitution that would forever live in Nigerians’ memories.
The Dutch coach brought on Julius Aghahowa in the 68th minute, and the then 17-year-old became an instant hero. With just five minutes left and Nigeria starring at its first defeat at home in 19 years, Aghahowa latched on to a brilliant long ball from Sunday Oliseh to fire in the equaliser and send the whole stadium into delirium.
Suddenly, the stadium atmosphere that was silent like a graveyard came alive with trumpet sounds blowing from all the corners of the stadium.
Aghahowa’s goal took the game into extra-time. And just two minutes into extra-time, the 17-year-old sent the whole stadium into a frenzy once again after getting on the end of an Emmanuel Amunike’s cross to fire Nigeria into the lead.
The whole stadium erupted in massive celebrations, with fans storming onto the pitch, not knowing the golden goal rule was not in play at the competition.
One of the iconic moments I remembered was a fan on his horse celebrating the goal passionately. After realising the match would continue, fans returned to their seats.
While the rest of the game was a nerve-racking moment for everyone in the stadium, especially after Jay-Jay Okocha was sent off, Nigeria held on for a famous win.
It was a victory that showed why a national team game in Lagos is always special. And 21 years later, the Super Eagles will once again try to create these kinds of memories when they welcome Lesotho on their return to the city that has given them a lot of joy.