By Lolade Adewuyi in Cuiaba
It was quiet in the Nigeria camp on Tuesday after news filtered through that there had been a suicide attack on football fans watching the game between Brazil and Mexico back home.
Players and coaches turned in early after their evening training with one thing in mind - how to console a nation in sorrow. A unifying force for Nigeria’s more than 250 unique ethnicities, football has been the rallying point for most of its people. Whenever the Super Eagles play, the whole country stands still and prays in one breath for their victory.
Winning the Africa Cup of Nations in South Africa last year after more than 19 years took the levels of happiness in a football-loving country to another place. And the Eagles knew that coming to Brazil this year carried a lot of expectations with it, not least the hopes of more than 160 million people.
There is now increased pressure after Tuesday’s bomb blast in Damaturu that left more than 20 dead and several hospitalised. The team has spoken of seeking a victory against Bosnia-Herzegovina in their next game for their departed countrymen.
While the fever of football has caught on across the globe, people in north-eastern Nigeria live under constant fear. Fear that they could be attacked simply for exercising their rights to freedom of association and gathering at football viewing centres to watch live matches on television. Their communal method of keeping up with the game has come under attack by enemies of freedom.
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The Super Eagles have stood by them, with a promise to play to lift the broken spirits of the nation after Monday’s drab draw in Curitiba. Many of them have families based in the north of the country and are hoping that they remain safe during this testing time.
The trio of John Obi Mikel, Ahmed Musa and Ogenyi Onazi have families in Jos, the central city that was recently attacked. Midfielder Onazi has revealed how he escaped being caught in an attack in Jos having left the central market barely 15 minutes before a massive explosion went off killing almost a hundred people.
“Football is the biggest unifying factor in Nigeria. It is shocking that some people should engage in such callous acts by killing fellow human beings at a time that the world is in celebratory mood for the biggest sporting event in the world,” said the team’s media officer, Ben Alaiya, on Wednesday.
“Our heart goes out to them, we feel very pained and we want to win for them. Even if we win the trophy it would not bring back the lives that we’ve lost. The players want to win, they want to do well for those lives that were lost and for the Nigerian people who have seen football as the force to bring them together all the time."
While the Super Eagles will look to be driven to succeed by the carnage at home, they will face a Bosnian side that know the realities of war only too well, and have been united by their difficult past through playing football.
Many of the Bosnian players grew up in a country that was destroyed by civil war between 1992 and 1995, leaving family members dead, missing or displaced. They have spoken about drawing strength from that sad chapter in their history in order to make their people happy.
Both nations have used football as a means to unite, with the three ethnic nationalities of Bosnia finding common ground through the sport.
In Saturday’s match in sweltering Cuiaba, two teams with something to prove will face each other. While the Super Eagles' application was questioned against Iran, events in Nigeria will ensure they head into the clash with Bosnia supremely motivated.
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