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AFCON 2023 Semi-Finals: Nigeria vs South Africa, History, Trade, and Rivalry Beyond the Pitch

AFCON 2023 Semi-Finals: Nigeria vs South Africa, History, Trade, and Rivalry Beyond the Pitch

Nigeria South Africa Head to Head

Beyond the sporting rivalry, Nigeria and South Africa also share a strong bond of friendship and cooperation, especially since the end of apartheid and the return of democracy in both countries.

By Tuka Letura

Nigeria and South Africa are set to renew their rivalry on the pitch as they clash in the semi-finals of the 2024 Africa Cup of Nations. The match, which will take place at the Stade de la Paix in Bouaké, Ivory Coast, on Wednesday, 7th February 2024, promises to be a thrilling encounter between two of the continent’s most powerful and influential nations.

Both teams have a rich history of competing against each other, both in football and in other spheres of life. In football, they have met 14 times in all competitions, with Nigeria winning seven, South Africa winning two, and five ending in draws. The first meeting was in October 1992, when Nigeria thrashed South Africa 4-0 in a FIFA World Cup qualifier in Lagos, with Rashidi Yekini scoring a brace. The most recent was in July 2019, also at the Africa Cup of Nations. Williams Troost-Ekong headed home the winner for Nigeria after Bonang Zungi had scored the equaliser, cancelling out Samuel Chukwueze’s first-half goal.

Nigeria South Africa Head to Head

Beyond the sporting rivalry, Nigeria and South Africa also share a strong bond of friendship and cooperation, especially since the end of apartheid and the return of democracy in both countries.

In Trade

Since the restoration of democratic governance in Nigeria and South Africa, bilateral relations between the continent’s two largest economies have remained friendly, strengthened by the creation of the Nigeria-South Africa Bi-National Commission in 1999. This has led to continual trade between both countries.

In 2021, Nigeria shipped goods worth $2.23 billion to South Africa. The primary exports from Nigeria included crude petroleum ($2.17 billion), petroleum gas ($46 million), and rubber ($8.8 million). Over the past 26 years, Nigeria’s exports to South Africa have grown steadily at an average annual rate of 24.7%, rising from $7.25 million in 1995 to $2.23 billion in 2021.

In the same year, South Africa exported goods valued at $569 million to Nigeria. The main exports were propylene polymers ($96.1 million), apples and pears ($39.2 million), and delivery trucks ($24.9 million). In the last 26 years, South Africa’s exports to Nigeria have also increased, with an average annual growth rate of 9.69%, climbing from $51.3 million in 1995 to $569 million in 2021. 

Nigeria and South Africa’s biggest pay-TV service providers are South African brand, Multichoice Group, which operates both DSTV and GoTV across sub-Saharan Africa. There are at least 80 other South African businesses operating in the West African nation, including MTN Group, ShopRite, and a host of others.

Apartheid and Xenophobia 

The relationship between Nigeria and South Africa has evolved significantly over the years, marked by complex dynamics shaped by historical, political, and socio-economic factors.

Since gaining independence in 1960, Nigeria consistently opposed apartheid in South Africa. On October 7, 1960, just six days after achieving independence, Nigeria publicly declared its commitment, along with other nations in the United Nations Organisation, to ending apartheid in South Africa and restoring human dignity. Nigeria’s involvement began primarily in response to the Sharpuille Massacre of 1960, during which 69 black individuals were killed and approximately 180 wounded. This led to Nigerian university students voluntarily contributing to the liberation cause by forgoing their lunch for a month to make donations, which was referred to as the “Mandela tax” against apartheid.

However, since the post-apartheid South Africa era in 1994, there has been a consistent occurrence of xenophobic attacks on fellow black individuals from other African countries by South Africans. These attacks have resulted in significant destruction of both human and material resources, the extent of which is difficult to measure. This unfortunate trend has inevitably strained relations between South Africa and other African countries, particularly Nigeria. The effects of these attacks on Nigerians in South Africa can be analysed from political, diplomatic, socio-cultural, and economic perspectives.

In October 2007, gunmen shot and killed South African reggae star Lucky Dube in front of his children in one of the country’s highest-profile murders, after reportedly mistaking him for a Nigerian. Dube’s murderers were sentenced to life in prison.

There have also been multiple instances of Nigerians and Nigerian businesses being targets of xenophobic attacks in South Africa. The most recent instance of this on a large scale was in 2018 when at least two Nigerians were burned and their shops looted and set ablaze as well.

On February 6, 2024, ahead of the semi-final fixture between both countries, the Nigerian High Commission in South Africa sounded an alarm regarding the dangers faced by Nigerians in the country to this effect. The advisory cautions against engaging in provocative celebrations in the event of a Super Eagles victory, citing inflammatory remarks made online by certain South African citizens towards Nigerians. These remarks contain veiled threats against Nigerians and their cultural customs, such as preparing jollof rice, should Bafana Bafana suffer a defeat.

In return, South Africa’s Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO) says the advisory issued by the High Commission of the Federal Republic of Nigeria in Pretoria is “regrettable because it seems to create alarm and unnecessary tension between the citizens of South Africa and Nigerians living in or visiting South Africa.”

DIRCO concluded that it is confident that the sports-loving nation of South Africa poses no threat to Nigerian citizens, and the body does not agree with the apprehension expressed by the Nigerian High Commission.

Squad Composition

The Nigerian and South African squads consist of starkly opposite make-ups in terms of where their players actively play. Over 90% of Nigeria’s squad for AFCON consists of players plying their trade in Europe, while the South Africans boast a side consisting of over 90% locally-based players and playing in the Premier Soccer League in South Africa.

José Peserio, Nigeria’s coach, praised the makeup of Bafana Bafana, noting that the abundance of players from the same league and even more starters from the same club sides aided in the team’s deeper understanding of each other. Conversely, Hugo Broos, South Africa’s coach, expressed his team’s indifference regarding Nigeria’s squad, which is primarily composed of European-based players. He referenced Morocco as another team with a similar composition and highlighted how his team managed to overcome them regardless.

The starting goalkeepers for both sides play in the PSL. Nigeria’s Stanley Nwabali, who has kept four clean sheets so far in the competition and yet to concede a goal in over seven hours, plays for Chippa United. Ronwen Williams, who is level on clean sheets with Nwabali and was South Africa’s hero in the quarter-finals’ penalty shootout against Cameroon, plays for Supersport United.

Thapelo Maseko has a grade 3 muscle injury and has been ruled out of the tournament. Broos confirmed in his post-match press conference that Maseko will not be replaced and that he will stay with the squad for the rest of the competition. Nigeria has no injury concerns after Victor Osimhen’s abdominal discomfort was deemed resolved, just over 24 hours before the game.

Tactical Setup

Just like Peserio, Broos’ Bafana Bafana has regularly been tweaked to match the opposition in all competitions. There have been few personnel changes to this effect, but the core of either squad has remained the same.

Nigeria has created more big chances at this AFCON but has also missed the most. It is expected that they will start cashing in on those missed opportunities on Wednesday and set themselves up properly. Peserio has earlier admitted that it is indeed something they are working on, but it isn’t their primary focus in the competition.

Victor Osimhen was an unused substitute the last time Nigeria lost a game to South Africa. Now, he’s Africa’s Best Player of the Year, one of Nigeria’s most important players at AFCON 2023, and amongst the country’s highest-ever goal scorers. This year, he’s missed the most big chances, and at 21%, he has the third worst shot accuracy of any player with at least 10 shots attempted, behind Yacine Belali of Algeria at 20% and Bebé of Cape Verde at 6%. Victor Osimhen

Ronwen Williams has saved two-thirds of the last 15 penalties he has faced, including shootouts. Since IFAB updated the rules and stated that the goalkeeper must remain between the goalposts on their goal line until the ball has been kicked, the conversion rate for penalties has increased from 73% to 78%. However, Williams has reduced that margin to a narrow 33% in his last 15 penalties.

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Williams became the first goalkeeper to ever save four penalties in a single AFCON shootout after keeping out four of Morocco’s five kicks. It will come as no surprise if South Africa also tries to push this game into penalties if they can’t get past Nigeria in regulation time.

Ronwen Williams Goalkeeper
Ronwen Williams Goalkeeper

Players to Watch | South Africa

Ronwen Williams: His heroics on the international stage are well documented, and after his performance against Morocco and penalty saves against Cape Verde, they’ve been further solidified. The South African captain has also been excellent at his club and in the Premier Soccer League. He has kept the most clean sheets among all goalkeepers in the competition. At 90%, he also has the highest save percentage among goalkeepers in the competition.

Teboho Mokoena: The high-quality, high-performance midfielder has been very vital for Bafana Bafana. His stoppage-time rifled shot into Yacine Bounou’s net was Morocco’s ticket home. But Mokoena is more than just that. The current PSL champion is a very important piece of the squad; he’s the gear that connects defence to attack and can cause worry for Nigeria’s shoestring midfield.

Aubrey Modiba: Similar to Mokoena, Aubrey Modiba plays for Mamelodi Sundowns, the current champions of the PSL and the African Super League. Modiba’s combination play with Percy Tau enlivens the left side of the South African side. His recovery pace sets him apart, just as much as his ability to win the ball aerially and physically. He’s also quick-footed.

Players to Watch | Nigeria

Ademola Lookman: The Atalanta forward is now the player with the most goals and goal involvement left in the competition. Nigerians will be looking to him to provide or score goals himself just as much as he will be looking to add to his tally. 

Ola Aina: Aina has gone about locking Nigeria’s right-hand side very tidily and mopping up when need be. He’s also made himself very important when the Eagles move up the pitch;  picking out players in good spaces, being an option for his midfielders, and recovering very well. 

Calvin Bassey: Just like Ola Aina, Bassey has gone about his duties for the Super Eagles quietly. Delivering all that’s expected of him defensively as well as offensively. He’s started every game and has been part of all four clean sheets the Eagles have kept, while also providing the assist for Ademola Lookman’s second goal against Cameroon. 

This will be Nigeria’s fourth-ever game in Bouaké. Three of their group matches in the 1984 AFCON were held here against Algeria, Ghana, and Malawi. Nigeria is yet to lose an AFCON game at this venue. They picked up one win and two draws in their previous appearances here in a year where they would finish as runners-up to Cameroon after losing the finals in Abidjan.

Wednesday’s match is also a repeat of 24 years ago when Nigeria faced South Africa in an Africa Cup of Nations semi-final but as hosts. Nigeria will be looking to repeat the outcome of that game or even do better.

For South Africa, the aim would be very simple: get into the finals for the first time in 26 years, and try to win it for the first time since they did so in 1996. Although skipper, Ronwen Williams, highlighted in the post-match press conference that Nigeria were the last team to knock them out of the competition when they last made an appearance in 2019, they won’t be planning revenge.

Whatever the case, everyone’s hope is that the battle stays on the pitch and not off it or back home for either side. Nigeria and South Africa will meet again in June to start their journey towards qualification for the 2026 World Cup. 

Tuka Letura is an experienced sports writer with over five years of experience in the craft. He uses data and statistics to provide analysis and commentary. From regional to worldwide competitions, he has covered a wide range of sports-related events and topics. He is devoted to sharing his enthusiasm for sports with his audience and engaging them with interesting anecdotes and viewpoints.

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