Yaounde, Cameroon – Nigeria’s Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) elimination in the last-16 at the hands of Tunisia was a deep disappointment for the team’s followers.
The Super Eagles were not only favourites to win the tie but also to go all the way to the final, where the prospect of an all-time grudge match against hosts Cameroon was in the offing.
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The basis of this confidence was a perfect group stage campaign – Augustine Eguavoen’s side had taken the maximum possible nine points and averaged two goals per match.
But the 1-0 loss for 10-man Nigeria marked the team’s first failure to reach the AFCON last eight since 1984.
The reaction was predictably heated. In particular, two individuals were singled out for significant abuse, much of it hateful.
Having appeared to have been deceived by Youssef Msakni low, swerving winner in the last-16, goalkeeper Maduka Okoye was hounded by Nigeria fans on social media with comments ranging from trolling over his looks to death wishes upon him and his loved ones.
One comment declared he would pass away in a plane crash within a month; another issued a veiled threat if Okoye ever returned to Nigeria.
One user called for divine retribution upon the goalkeeper’s family and accused him of match-fixing.
Okoye had no choice but to disable comments on Instagram posts.
Alex Iwobi, a second-half substitute, was shown a red card within five minutes of his introduction for an inadvertent stamp. He also faced a lot of flak online. In response, he archived all his Instagram posts.
The response to the hate and abuse from inside the Nigeria camp was swift and disapproving.
“People need to act responsibly and not turn their disappointments into hate speech and threats against some players,” coach Eguavoen told Al Jazeera.
“These players gave their everything and there is no way you can single them out for blame. Playing for Nigeria comes with a lot of pressure, but you cannot bully, threaten or abuse someone for defending the honour of the country because you have access to social media. This is wrong and irresponsible.”
Nantes winger Moses Simon, who was a target of uncharitable comments in the lead-up to his outstanding performances at AFCON, stressed an oft-forgotten aspect of the discourse: the players read these comments and that affects their temperament and emotional wellbeing.
“Players are humans too,” said Simon. “When you insult or threaten someone, it demoralises them and leaves a negative impact. I’ve been on the receiving end of vile insults and abuse too. But as a player, you can only continue to give your best all the time.”
I predicted Nigeria, Cameroon and Senegal to go the distance. As it is, two of them will make the final. Nigeria opted out. #AFCON2021
— JJ. Omojuwa (@Omojuwa) January 30, 2022
At the heart of those emotions lay the sense that the players perhaps do not care as much and are not as invested in the success of the team.
This seemed to be the angle of the abuse directed at Okoye, who was born in Dusseldorf and only made his international debut in late 2019.
Reports from inside the dressing room indicate quite the opposite.
The day after the elimination, photographers caught a glimpse of right back Ola Aina looking forlorn on his hotel balcony.
“He [Okoye] was gutted by the defeat and the abuse he received. But I told him ‘you’ve had an amazing tournament’,” defender Kenneth Omeruo, Okoye’s roommate during the tournament, revealed.
Deactivating their social media accounts as a means to get away from the negative feedback is the only resort the players seem to have.
“One thing I do after such tournaments is to deactivate my social media because you find people who, some of them, don’t even know football,” Omeruo added.
That aggressive reaction to Nigeria’s ouster was slightly surprising, especially considering that the level of expectation coming into the tournament was minimal.
A home defeat against the 124th-ranked Central African Republic in October was followed by a draw against Cape Verde a month later.
Former coach Gernot Rohr, who was in charge for more than five years, was relieved of his position in mid-December with public approval of the team at an all-time low.
But when Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) technical director Eguavoen was given the responsibility to take charge for the AFCON, fans braced for the worst.
What they got instead was energetic, effective football – at least in the group stage, with the Super Eagles making quick work of seven-time African champions Egypt, beating Sudan convincingly and turning Guinea-Bissau over with a second string.
As performances improved, so did hope and expectations.
Nigeria got the best shot in this year’s #AFCON2021 the more we keep watching the more we realised that game against Tunisia we lost is a big mess,the more I am pained. That team could have won it. #TeamNigeria
— Xceptional Jhydefash ⛑ 🦅💡🦍 (@jhydefash78) January 30, 2022
The method of expressing the disappointment painted a picture of Nigerian fan culture and society in general.
There are no strong rules protecting individuals from online abuse in Nigeria. Cyberstalking is criminalised by the Nigerian government with the act covering cyberbullying, blackmail/extortion and revenge porn.
Former Nigeria international Yakubu Aiyegbeni is the country’s third-highest international goal scorer.
His open-goal miss against South Korea at the 2010 World Cup tainted his image in the eyes of Nigerian fans to the point that last year Aiyegbeni admitted he still receives hateful messages about that miss, in person and online.
“Sometimes when I’m at a restaurant, people go on about it,” said Aiyegbeni. “I need to tell them, ‘Please, let’s all eat and go home, we can’t be talking about what happened 11 years ago’.
“I’ve received threats and sometimes very strong ones, too. I have always done my best to help my country, but this is weird.”
In 2018, former Watford and Manchester United striker Odion Ighalo came close to quitting international football after receiving death threats – aimed at himself and his family – online.
It followed Nigeria’s defeat to Argentina at Russia 2018, where Ighalo missed an opportunity with the score 1-1.
Eguavoen himself admitted in 2019 that fans were still taking him to task for conceding an extra-time penalty against Italy at the 1994 World Cup that led to Nigeria’s elimination.
Following the loss against Tunisia earlier this month, Eguavoen tried to calm the situation by taking some of the blame over team selection and also questioning some of the refereeing decisions.
But he knows such rationalisations are unlikely to sway public opinion.