African football – What’s in a nickname?

Get a lowdown into what the various nicknames for African football teams mean and what the history behind them is.

nigeria football fans
Nigerian fans, meanwhile, are missing from this tournament [Getty Images]

Team nicknames stand for an awful lot in African football – it not only gives a sense of identity to the fans but also motivates and gives players an air of superiority over their opponents.

In Europe, teams prefer to keep it simple – the Italians have gone with Azurri (the sky blue) while the Germans are known as Die Mannschaft (the team).

Africa, however, is a fertile ground for nicknames.

Teams’ nicknames
Algeria – Les Fennecs (The Foxes)
Burkina Faso – Les Etalons (The Stallions)
Cameroon – Les Lions (The Indomitable Lions)
Cape Verde islands – Tubarões Azuis (Blue Sharks)
Congo Brazzaville – Diables Rouges (Red Devils)
DR Congo – Les Léopards (The Leopards)
Eq Guinea – Nzalang Nacional (National Thunder)
Gabon – Les Panthères (The Panthers)
Ghana – Black Stars (The Black Stars)
Guinea – Syli Nationale (National Elephants)
Ivory Coast – Les Éléphants (The Elephants)
Mali – Les Aigles (The Eagles)
Senegal -Les Lions de la Teranga (The Lions of Teranga)
South Africa – Bafana Bafana (Boys Boys or Go Boys, Go Boys)
Tunisia – Les Aigles de Carthage (The Carthage Eagles)
Zambia – Chipolopolo (The Copper Bullets)

They form a big part of football culture in the continent and is evident at the on-going Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) in Equatorial Guinea that it is intended to imbue players and fans alike with a sense of identity and pride in characteristics associated with those labels.

Algeria, the continent’s top-ranked team, goes by Les Fennecs – homage to the small nocturnal fox native to northern Africa. As hosts, the foxes outfoxed all at the 1990 tournament – their only success – and they are still waiting to win the trophy away from home.

Currency and animal

The 1976 runners-up Guinea are known as Syli Nationale. Syli is a word in Sousou, a Guinean language, which means Elephant. Elephants are found in the north-eastern part of the West African country. The name also holds huge significance because it was once the name of the country’s currency from 1971 to 1985.

However, despite the massive size of this Elephant, Guinea are yet to intimidate, trumpet or rumble their way to a continental title.

Zambia’s nickname – Chipolopolo – means copper bullets, the word coming from the copper mines in Kitwe. Formerly known as the KK 11, after the founding president Kenneth Kaunda, the team opted for the frightening bullet nickname in 1993 to reflect an area of commerce in the country.

The copper bullets pierced through the hearts of Lions, Falcons of Jediane (Sudan) and Ivory Coast as they conquered the continent in 2012.


For South Africa’s Bafana Bafana – which means ‘Boys Boys’ – was coined by journalist Sibusiso Mseleku in 1992 after the country was re-admitted into the international fold.

Stepping out of apartheid, chants of ‘go boys, go boys’ duly motivated fans from the rainbow nation to have ‘pride in the new boys’ and it inspired the team to success on home soil in 1996. The name is good for nation building but it appears the boys from down south are struggling to catch up with the top men of African football.

Four-time African champions Cameroon and Democratic Republic of Congo, both Central African nations, have their nicknames derived from animals that exist in their different countries.

The name Indomitable Lions is quite fitting for Cameroon who always parades a strong, burly and physical team. They are aptly named after an animal highly revered as the king of the jungle, a strong reminder of the country’s lion-preservation efforts.

Back in the day, they were known as the Lions until they finished in third place at the 1972 Cup on home soil. In a bid to revive national pride, then-president Ahmadou Ahidjo swiftly renamed the team Indomitable Lions – a psychological reawakening.

It works whenever they face the likes of Atlas Lions of Morocco or Teranga Lions of Senegal, they tend to maintain their supremacy. On the pitch, the Cameroon Lions are indomitable – African titles in 1984, 1988, 2000 and 2002.

Leopard cap

DR Congo, then known as Zaire, won the 1968 and 1974 tournaments when they were known as the Leopards. Their number-one fan, former dictator and leader Mobutu Sese Seko, famously wore a trademark leopard skin cap to remind the world that the animals are found in the country.

Renamed the Simbas (Swahili for Lions) in 1997, following Seko’s ouster, the national side got their previous name back following the promulgation of a new constitution for the country in 2006.

The fourth time that the national team, the first African country from south of the Sahara to make it to the World Cup (in 1974), was having a name change.

Between 1960 and 1965, they were called the Lions. They were then called the Leopards in 1965 until the change took place in 1997. It is also found on their coat of arms, but not on the flag. But when are they going to leave claw marks on opponents again and use vocal signals to mark their territory at the AFCON? That’s the big question.

Black Stars is a reference to the sole black star on Ghana’s flag and the players of the national team are stars to their fans.

The West Africans have won the Nations Cup on four occasions and current captain Asamoah Gyan is quick to educate those lacking deep knowledge of the African game.

“The black star is a characteristic of our performance. In football we are regarded as shining stars and masters of the game,” Gyan told Al Jazeera. “When you put on that shirt with the stars, you just want to die for your country. That is the pride and inspiration that comes with the nickname.”

Pre-tournament favourites Ivory Coast are known as ‘The Elephants’ due to their part in the 19th century Ivory trade.
Some say it is a little odd that this large animal has only conquered the continent once (in 1992) and their loyal fans are already showing discontent, something star forward Salomon Kalou is aware of.

“Football is much more than just a sport – it’s a representation of the country, so we’re loved and respected if we do well,” sid Kalou. “It’s a double-edged sword, though, if things don’t go well.”

Absentee sleeping giants

With seven Africa Cup of Nations titles, Egypt’s nickname reflects a great dominance, civilisation, identity and a great history, all of which is summed up in one word – Pharaohs.

The most successful nation in AFCON history have been absent from the last three continental gatherings but the north Africans have a menacing nickname that put fear of God into their opponents.

Nigeria’s nickname is homage to the Eagle in the country’s Coat of Arms. They metamorphosed from the Green Eagles to the Super Eagles after losing to Cameroon in the 1988 Africa Cup of Nations final, something that is rooted in classic one-upmanship.

They have bounced back from their slumbering beginnings by qualifying for the World Cup on five occasions, making it to the knockouts three times while landing the same number of titles.

Nicknames not only add some fun to the game but are part of the very essence of the African game alongside colourful fans and their drums.

Make no mistake though as there is no chance of survival for a small animal in the tough and scary jungle of African football.

Additional reporting by Sulaiman Folarin

Source: Al Jazeera