A History of Nigerian Football: From Red Devils to Super Eagles

The Nigerian Football Team, nicknamed the Super Eagles, is one of the most accomplished national teams on the African continent, and the world, generally. Over the years, the Super Eagles have cemented their place on the football stage as a global phenomenon.

With legends such as Rashidi Yekini, Taribo West, Peter Rufai, Samuel Okwaraji, Daniel Amokachi, Emmanuel Amunike, Austine Jay-Jay Okocha, Nwankwo Kanu, John Obi Mikel, Ahmed Musa, and incumbent superstars such as Kelechi Iheanacho, Samuel Chukwueze and Victor Osimhen, the Super Eagles have evolved over the years from playing barefooted during the colonial era to having within its confines, an array of stars, and a beautiful history to look upon.

Etim Henshaw
Etim Henshaw was the first-ever official captain of Nigeria’s national football team.

However, the Nigerian Football Team was not known as the Super Eagles from its inception in 1949. The football team was known as the UK Tourists, then the Red Devils and later, the Green Eagles before transitioning to the Super Eagles of Nigeria. A nickname we are now familiar with.

This article chronicles the history of the Nigerian Football Team, detailing its evolution from the colonial era to the present day.

Football in Colonial Nigeria

The colonisation of the geographical entity today known as Nigeria by the British came with its negatives and positives, the game of football being one of them. Football is regarded today as a national sport, and rightly so. However, this was not always the case.

Cricket was the first popular sport that the colonial masters introduced to West Africa. At the beginning of the 20th century, cricket teams played in the first sports league in Nigeria.

In the beginning, the colonial masters created a system of entertainment which served their interests as residents of the country.

Jonathan Adagogo Green
Bonny Cricket Eleven of the Bonny Cricket Club, Bonny Island, Southern Nigeria, c.1897/Jonathan Adagogo Green, Nigeria’s First Professional Photographer.

The world of football was dark, and the spirit of cricket hovered over the Nigerian territory. The game of cricket was the most widely played sport in Nigeria at the time. In fact, the sport received wide coverage for the pleasure of the British residents in the country.

However, over the years, the game of football displaced cricket and would become the most popular sport in Nigeria, even to this day.

So, how did this happen?

How Nigerian Football became popular

The beautiful game of football was introduced in Nigeria by British colonial masters. The first ever-played football match was held in June 1904 between Hope Waddell Training Institute and the crew of the British gunboat HMS Thistle. The match ended 3-2 in favour of the Nigerians. By 1906, football clubs had started to be formed in the country.

The sport would evolve, becoming not only a form of entertainment but also serving as inspiration for achieving political freedom. At the time, national consciousness and the emancipation of the common man had become a movement in the country.

In 1938, Nnamdi Azikiwe, who later became Nigeria’s president, established his own club, Zik’s Athletic Club, ZAC. The club became a symbol of determination and nationalism in the country.

Azikiwe was engrossed in football and popularised the game, making it a part of the country’s national identity.

At the end of the Second World War, football had become a huge part of Nigeria’s culture.

The Nigeria Football Federation (NFF)

The Nigeria Football Federation, NFF, the official and national governing body regulating football in the country was first created on August 21, 1933, as the Nigeria Football Association, NFA. Although, according to the organisation’s record, it was formed in 1945. Earlier records, however, particularly an article published in the Daily Times of August 21, 1933, prove otherwise.

At the time, it was called the Lagos District Amateur Football Association (LDAFA). A cup competition known as the War Memorial Challenge was started in 1942. The competition was limited to only Lagos-based teams. Teams such as ZAC Bombers, Lagos Marine, Lagos Railways and so on, took part in the competition.

The first major task of the body was uniting all the teams in the country. Hence, the War Memorial Challenge cup competition was replaced with the Governor’s Cup. The Governor’s Cup allowed teams from other parts of the country to take part in the competition. The first winners of the cup were the Lagos Marines. By 1948, measures were put in place to form a national team. At the time, the national team was centred around players who were discovered at the Governor’s Cup competition.

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In 1949, Nigeria formed its first national football team – they were known as the UK tourists and they played barefooted. Ten years later in 1959, the country joined the Confederation of African Football, CAF. Since 2008, the organisation has been known as the Nigeria Football Federation, NFF.

At Nigeria’s independence on October 1, 1960, the country became a registered member of the Federation Internationale de Football Association, FIFA. Just six years later, Nigeria would join other African countries to boycott the 1966 FIFA World Cup that was hosted by England that year.

The UK Tourists

The Governor’s Cup saw the likes of Dan Anyiam, Peter Anieke and Teslim Balogun emerge as stars. The first Nigerian football team was named the UK Tourists. After a few, unofficial warm-up games, they would travel to the United Kingdom for a footballing tour.

On August 16, 1949, the Nigerian football team went on board the RMSS Apapa for a playing tour of England and arrived in Liverpool 13 days later.

Players who made the team at the time were: Goalkeepers Sam Ibiam and Isaac Akioye; Defenders Justin Onwudiwe, Olisa Chukwura, ATB Ottun, Isiaka Shittu, John Dankaro, Hope Lawson, Dan Anyiam, and Okoronkwo Kanu; Forwards Mesembe Otu, Peter Anieke, Sokari Dokubo, Godwin Anosike, Teslim Balogun, Titus Okere, Etim Henshaw and Edet Ben.

Image of the Nigerian football team without boots.
The Nigerian football team, UK Tourists, without boots, 1949/Wikimedia Commons.

Etim Henshaw was the team’s captain, hence, making him the first-ever official captain of the Nigerian football team.

The team was managed by Jack Finch, an English man. He oversaw several mouth-watering friendly matches against several opponents from different countries.

The team’s first official game was against Marine Cosby. The match ended 5-2 in favour of the Tourists. At the time, the team played with no boots. They had no shoes on while they played.

The next match saw the Nigerian football team face the Athenian League XI. The English side however refused to play if the Tourists had no boots on. The Tourists eventually wore boots and were walloped 8 goals to nothing. The third match and which was generally agreed as the best, was against a Corinthians League XI. The match ended in a stalemate: 2-2.

Teslim Balogun
Teslim Balogun was an undeniable star of the 1949 UK Tourists Nigerian football team.

The tour saw the Nigerian football team play a total of nine matches with a record of two wins, two draws, and five losses. All five losses were matches where they had their boots on.

On their journey back home, the UK Tourists took on a new name, the “Red Devils.” They were so-called for their red-topped kits, a symbol of English oppression.

The Red Devils

The UK Tourists, now known as the Red Devils, stopped over in the city of Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone. The team would face the national team of Sierra Leone on October 8, 1949. It was the first match Nigeria ever played with another country. The match ended 2-nil in favour of the Red Devils, courtesy of goals from star player, Teslim Balogun, and an own goal from Ashman.

The Nigerian football team would retain its nickname until after independence. Prior to independence, the team engaged in a series of other friendly matches. The most remarkable of them all was a 7-nil trashing in the hands of the Black Stars of Ghana in 1955. The match would go down as the team’s worst defeat against another national team.

Image of Sam Ibiam, the Black Magnet
Sam Henshaw Ibiam (1925-2016), Nigeria’s First Goalkeeper (1949-1958), did not concede a single goal in eight of the nine years he represented Nigeria. In all his nine years with the team, he conceded just five goals, which he did against one team – Ghana.

The move for independence and the growing consciousness of national identity would lead to a change of the nickname for the Nigerian football team.

The Green Eagles

The year 1960 brought tremendous change to the Nigerian national football team as the West African country gained its independence from the British. Known as the Red Devils prior to independence, the team became known as the Green Eagles. A year before independence, the NFA joined CAF and followed up by joining FIFA in 1960.

During the qualifiers for the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome, the team played against Egypt, adorning green jerseys instead of the red-topped kits they used to wear. The Egyptian team trashed the Green Eagles, thus, dashing their hopes of qualifying for the Olympic Games. At the time, Fabian Duru was the captain of the team. He was the last Red Devils captain and the first-ever Green Eagles captain.

Segun Odegbami 1980
The Mathematical Segun Odegbami in action for the Green Eagles of Nigeria against the Desert Foxes of Algeria during the 1980 AFCON final held at the National Stadium in Lagos. Nigeria won 3-0 to clinch its fist AFCON title.

The team would go on to qualify for the African Cup of Nations (AFCON) for the first time in 1963. The competition, hosted by Ghana, saw the team eliminated in the first round. Nigeria conceded ten goals in the tournament. The worst ever in the history of the team.

After the Nigeria-Biafra War, the Nigerian national football team witnessed a new generation of players with the likes of Haruna Ilerika, Segun Odegbami, Muda Lawal, Christian Chukwu and Emmanuel Okala.

This set of players qualified the nation for the 1976 AFCON hosted by Ethiopia. It was a successful outing as the team clinched bronze. The subsequent tournament held in Ghana in 1978 saw the team clinch another bronze medal.

The 1980 AFCON tournament was hosted by Nigeria itself for the first time and it was a huge success. The Green Eagles won the tournament, cruising past Algeria 3-nil in the final.

The team had gradually become a force to reckon with in the African continent.

The Super Eagles

The year 1988 saw another change of nickname for the Nigerian football team. The Green Eagles qualified for the 1988 African Cup of Nations hosted by Morocco.

The team comprised the likes of Peter Rufai, Henry Nwosu, Stephen Keshi, Augustine Eguavoen, Bright Omokaro and Samuel Okwaraji. Although the team lost 1-nil to Cameroon in the final, the boys were treated to a hero’s welcome on arrival in Lagos.

The gaffer of the team at the time was Manfred Höner. It was at the reception held in Lagos that the team’s nickname was officially changed to the Super Eagles.

1994 World Cup Squad
Nigeria’s 1994 World Cup Squad has been described as the best ever. The team finished 5th place in world football in the April 1994 FIFA Men’s Ranking. A record for an African team that still stands.

The Nigerian national football team would go on to enjoy a series of successes in subsequent tournaments.

Adjudged by many prolific sports enthusiasts as the best team the country ever had, the 1994 team was ranked the 5th best in the world in April 1994. To this day, it remains the highest the country has gotten in terms of the world rankings in football.

The team, managed by Clemens Westerhof, qualified for the World Cup for the first time ever in 1994. Drawn against Argentina, Bulgaria and Greece, the team defeated Bulgaria 3-nil, lost 1-2 to Argentina, and rounded up a beautiful group stage with a 2-nil victory over Greece. The team would qualify for the next round by topping their group.

Unfortunately, they were eliminated in the next round, courtesy of a world-class performance from Roberto Baggio, who scored a brace to seal the victory for the Italian national team.

The Dream Team

The 1996 Olympic Games held in Atlanta, USA, would witness an array of stars such as Austine Jay-Jay Okocha, Nwankwo Kanu, Emmanuel Amunike, Victor Ikpeba, Emmanuel Babayaro, and Joseph Dosu, among others.

The team, nicknamed the Dream Team were exceptional as they shocked the world after defeating countries such as Mexico, Brazil, in the semi-finals, and Argentina in the finals.

Dream Team
The Olympic Dream Team of 1996.

Led by Dutchman Bonfrere Jo and assisted by Musa Abdullahi, the Dream Team had Nwankwo Kanu as the captain of the side. The team would come from a two-goal deficit in the semi-finals to defeat a star-studded Brazilian side 4-3 to qualify for the final of the Games. In the final, they defeated Argentina 3-2 to clinch the gold medal for the country.

The whole world was stunned!

Over the years, the team has evolved, winning the AFCON tournament twice afterwards and representing Africa in international competitions.

Achievements

The Nigerian National Football Team, popularly known as the Super Eagles of Nigeria, has cemented its place on the global stage of the beautiful game of football. Churning out an array of legends, skilful dribblers, prolific strikers, cheetah-like midfielders, solid-rock defenders, and shot-stopping goalkeepers, the team is arguably one of the finest on the continent and the world in general.

NIGERIA-ZAMBIA-1994
Nigeria’s Super Eagles won its second AFCON title in 1994.

Here are some of the achievements of the national team:

The team has won the African Cup of Nations, AFCON, thrice (1980, 1994, and 2013).

Runners-up in the AFCON tournament four times (1984, 1988, 1990, and 2000).

Third place in the AFCON tournament for a whooping eight times (1976, 1978, 1992, 2002, 2004, 2006, 2010, 2019).

The team has qualified for the Round of 16 of the FIFA World Cup three times (1994, 1998, and 2014).

The team has been named the African National Team of the Year four times (1992, 1993, 1994, and 2013).

The team was named the World Team of the Year in 1996.

Gold Medal at the All-African Games in 1976.

Gold Medal at the Olympic Games in 1996, a silver medal in 2008, and a bronze medal in 2016.

Records

As of today, Rashidi Yekini, Nigeria’s most prolific striker in history, remains the highest goal scorer of the national team, with 37 goals and 62 caps.

Ahmed Musa is the most capped player with 107 appearances and 16 goals, with two of those goals against Iceland at the 2018 FIFA World Cup.

Vincent Enyeama holds the record as the goalkeeper with the most appearances – 101.

Nigeria recorded its biggest victory when it demolished Sao Tome and Principe in a qualifier match for the African Cup of Nations on June 13, 2022.

Austin ‘Jay Jay’ Okocha holds the record for the Most Dribbles completed in a FIFA World Cup game since 1966 (15 for Nigeria against Italy in 1994).

No African country has scored more goals nor garnered more points than Nigeria at the FIFA World Cup – 23 goals and 21 points in 21 games.

More about the Super Eagles at the FIFA World Cup in our next article.

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