Nelson Mandela, Sani Abacha fanned flames of Bafana-Nigeria football rivalry

Late South Africa president Nelson Mandela, right, celebrates Bafana Bafana captain Neil Tovey following their Africa Nations Cup triumph in 1996. Picture: Mykel Nicolaou / AFP

Late South Africa president Nelson Mandela, right, celebrates Bafana Bafana captain Neil Tovey following their Africa Nations Cup triumph in 1996. Picture: Mykel Nicolaou / AFP

Published Feb 7, 2024


What are the chances of the dearly departed Nelson Mandela and the late Sani Abacha watching tonight’s Africa Cup of Nations semi-final clash between South Africa and Nigeria together somewhere in the heavens?

Highly unlikely, I’d say. No, make that impossible.

The deceased former presidents are the main reason the rivalry between Bafana Bafana and the Super Eagles is as intense as it is and even St Peter will probably have it hard convincing them to sit in front of the same TV for a tie as important as tonight’s.

Granted, there was already some bad blood between the two football nations by the time it all turned political in 1995/96, Nigeria having given South Africa the proverbial baptism of fire into world football via a 4-0 hammering in a World Cup qualifier played in 1992, shortly after Bafana’s readmission to Fifa.

The west Africans made matters worse after they mocked Bafana as being ‘young boys’ and added insult to injury by calling South African darling Doctor Khumalo more of a ‘nurse’.

It was thus with great anticipation that a continent awaited the 1996 Afcon, which South Africa were to host, with Nigeria the defending champions after they won the 1994 edition played in Tunisia.

Prior to that, however, political relations between the two countries soured after Mandela’s pleas to Abacha to pardon arrested Ken SaroWiwa – a vocal critic of the Nigerian government over its inability or refusal to sanction the international oil companies that were causing environmental degradation to the Niger Delta region – fell on deaf ears.

Saro-Wiwa was executed in 1995. Under pressure from Abacha, who did not take kindly to Mandela’s criticism of him for the Saro-Wiwa incident, Nigeria did not come to South Africa to defend their title.

Bafana won on home soil, but Nigerians did not regard them as true champions, given the Super Eagles’ absence from the tournament.

With Nigeria banned by CAF from the next edition two years later in Burkina Faso, the chance for the two countries to settle the debate as to who was Africa’s true champion did not materialise and Bafana again reached the final, only to lose to Egypt.

The two countries eventually got the chance to put the matter to bed at the 2000 tournament Nigeria co-hosted with Ghana, and the Super Eagles won 2-0 in the semi-final.

That they later won two other clashes at the tournament – 4-0 in a group tie in 2004 and 2-1 in the quarter-final of the 2019 tournament – speaks to Nigeria’s superiority over Bafana.

Football, though, is fickle at the top and while they are an indicator of what could transpire in a match, past results are nothing more than numbers on a piece of paper with little influence on what actually happens on match day.

At least that’s what Hugo Broos and his team will be thinking as they trot onto the pitch in Bouake later tonight in an effort to reach the final for the first time in 26 years.

The Grammy award success of young South African musician Tyla this week over established Nigerian musician Burna Boy has served to add extra needle to an already intense rivalry.

The reality, though, is that the players’ minds will be far removed from all the political shenanigans from a time when most of them were not even born, the musical competition, as well as the overt social competition between their countries.

But you can bet the players from the two teams will all have fire in their bellies, determined to give their compatriots bragging rights that come from putting one over the arch-enemy.

And wherever they are, Mandela and Abacha will be hoping their teams do them proud.