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The Real Hardcore Fan Club: Cheers to Akinwunmi, founder of Nigeria's first accessible-to-all community Arsenal fan group

In 2024 Heineken are on a mission to redefine what it means to be a real hardcore football fan, shining a light on the many different faces that make up modern fandom and celebrating the different ways they express their devotion to the sport and team they love.

The fifth instalment in our unique series sees us meet Akinwunmi - Akin to his friends - an Arsenal supporter through and through, and the proud founder of Nigeria’s first accessible-to-all community fan group.

Cheers to Akinwunmi.

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Every season, without fail, Akinwunmi buys all three Arsenal kits - the home, away and the third. He buys them from his local vendor, where he has them print his last name; Odunsi - Eshilokun, proudly above the number 1 on the back. It’s a tradition that almost every football fan in Nigeria has.

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"People want to identify themselves with their club here… couples will write ‘my queen’ or ‘my king’ on the back and even wear the kits at their weddings. Some people put their nicknames on the back, some people even put their company’s name to promote their business.”

In Nigeria, having your name or nickname on the back of your shirt is a way of proving how authentic you are as a fan. Customising the shirt in your name is a sign you're a real fan here and not ‘playing around’. People will even buy second hand jerseys and put their names on the back. As Akinwunmi puts it… “sometimes I think the support here is deeper than it is in England, we don't play with Arsenal, we don't toy with this at all.”

For Akinwunmi, his passion for Arsenal came late in life… his older brother was already a fan - largely thanks to Kanu - yet it was that fateful defeat against Barcelona in 2006 that impacted him the most and cemented his support.

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Seeing Arsenal get snubbed that night made Akinwunmi, who was 20 at the time, fall in love with the club even more. “The (Jens) Lehmann red card… a Barcelona side who were already favourites on paper, and the way their players celebrated in Arsenal's faces afterwards… I was watching the game at home with my uncles. We all went to bed without eating. We were so sick with what happened.”

For Akinwunmi, it has always been about the sense of community that surrounds Arsenal. It’s not just watching the team, but living through their results with other people who “feel it just as much as me”.
 In the western world this simple match day ritual is something we likely take for granted, but not in Nigeria where access to the Premier League and the Champions League is particularly hard to come by. Without the necessary technology and infrastructure, access to the best football competitions in the world are reserved for the few, the wealthiest fans in Nigeria... or at least it used to be anyway.

Akinwunmi came up with the idea of bringing an Arsenal community together, after he’d heard this study on the radio about how the Gunners are the second most supported Premier League club in Nigeria behind Manchester United. This combined with his own negative experiences of Lagos’ football viewing centres and the important matches he’d missed over the years, led him to start a Twitter page back in 2019. Nigerian Arsenal Fans was its name and now the X page of the same name proudly boasts over 20,000 subscribers.

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The appetite for Arsenal was there for all to see. Not satisfied with his ever-growing list of subs, Akinwunmi wanted to create something more tangible, something that went against the grain of exclusivity and VIP only viewing parties.

On October 4th 2022, the Gunners were playing at home against Tottenham. A fierce north London derby, with an established North-Western African following... what better day to test the waters with Akinwunmi’s very first accessible-to-all-Arsenal-event.

“Over 60 people came out in support of me and Arsenal that day, and for all those people to come out, plus with thousands more connected via social media, I knew we had something.”

Over time, Akinwunmi’s events have become a staple for Arsenal fans in Lagos, hosting events for every Champions League game and others. Rather than the traditional viewing centre experience, Akinwunmi's fan-club-style events have become the space for Arsenal fans, out of which many have formed friendships, businesses and even families.

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Akinwunmi’s dream is to one day have a clubhouse for all Arsenal fans in Nigeria, one that brings the community together - not only on game days, but every day. A place where every season this community of fans, whose identities are uniquely tied to a club thousands of miles away, can feel closer to the thing they love.

"Being an Arsenal fan is a deep part of my identity you see I have no agenda when organising these events. I love my club, everybody knows it, and I just want to see my fellow arsenal fans come together. I want to see people wearing their shirts, enjoying themselves, singing together, snapping pictures. It’s our way to be closer to Arsenal, and not stuck in my room watching alone. It’s what I love!”

Check out more stories of hardcore football fandom with Heineken via the Hardcore Fan Club Hub.