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The Nigerian Spirit Is Special

By Zayd Ibn Isah It was an unforgettable night on the 22nd of May, 2024, for three Nigerian footballers: Victor Boniface, Ademola Lookman, and Nathan…

By Zayd Ibn Isah

It was an unforgettable night on the 22nd of May, 2024, for three Nigerian footballers: Victor Boniface, Ademola Lookman, and Nathan Tella, as their clubs faced off in the UEFA Europa League final. The long anticipated match kicked off at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin, and for Ademola Lookman, it was a night of pure glory, one whose significance would forever be etched deep into his heart. This was because the 26-year old sensational striker scored three goals to secure for his club, Atalanta, their first-ever Europa title in 117 years. There are few better fairy tales such as that in football, and the world of sporting in general.

In stark contrast, Victor Boniface and Nathan Tella had what could be best described as a downer of a night, one they would wish had been more favourable for them, crushed as they were by missed opportunities and the bitter taste of defeat.

What happened on Wednesday is even more incredible when one considers that Bayer Leverkusen had gone into the final as the top dog and clear favourites. And why not? After enjoying a 51-match unbeaten streak worldwide, one would expect that the final would be more or less a walk in the park for them. Add that to the anticipation of Xabi Alonso bringing Leverkusen into the hallowed realms of historic treble-winning campaigns after clinching the Bundesliga title. But then, such is the beauty of the round leather game that one can never really be certain about anything until the final whistle is blown. And of course, it would have been utterly arrogant of anyone to write off Atalanta as a walkover. The Serie A side have had nothing short of a stellar season, and who can easily forget how they trounced Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool by three goals to nothing at Anfield of all places?

For Atalanta, it just so happened that when they needed to overcome the odds stacked against them in Dublin as they squared off with Xabi Alonso’s formidable team of champions and record-breakers, Ademola Lookman stepped up to put all doubts to rest. And boy did he do it in spectacular style.

Nigerians from all walks of life, especially the diehard football fans, celebrated Atalanta’s victory in much the same way they would have celebrated with Bayern Leverkusen had it been the other way round. The underlying contest was clearly between the three Nigerians for whom the achievement of victory would have been irresistible, something to attain at all costs even. It was definitely not going to be a matter of “no victor, no vanquished.” It is also worthy noting that even though many people would have preferred a historic Bayern Leverkusen triumph, particularly one that would elevate the duo of Victor Boniface and Nathan Tella for being part of an invincible run, either way, the eventual results still proved to be a victory for Nigerian football.

And with the exhibition of hat-trick heroics, Ademola Lookman has now joined the league of Nigerian football legends who played significant roles in winning major titles for their clubs. Last year, the world of football was in awe of Victor Osimhen for bringing joy to the people of Naples after helping their home team, Napoli, win their first Scudetto in 33 years.

Sports aside, it should be clear to most people that Nigerians are a special breed of black Africans. There is just something special about the Nigerian that makes them resilient, determined, and capable of achieving greatness not only in sports, but also in other endeavors. In a variety of fields, Nigerians often stand out as record breakers and pacesetters. This was the reason why a BBC article in 2021 described Nigeria as “the country that loves to overachieve.” As much as that description is a tad hilarious, it echoes an undeniable truth, one instilled in most Nigerians right from childhood. If you conduct a survey on Nigerians across major social media platforms, you can be sure to draw in respondents who would affirm two distinct myths peculiar to the Nigerian experience: 1) the case of parents who, in order to encourage or scold their children, would claim to have been constantly at the top of their classes from primary to secondary school, and 2) the belief anything other than “first position” in one’s class at the end of each academic term, was simply failure.

According to a 2023 report from the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, USA, Nigerians in the United States are the most educated group of immigrants, with a significant percentage (61) holding more Bachelor’s than other immigrant groups and the locals as well. Not only that, but Nigerians, and those of Nigerian descent, are also among the most successful immigrant groups in the USA, with a lot of them living the American Dream as rich medical practitioners, tech-based professionals, lawyers, authors, athletes, entertainers, entrepreneurs and popular social media figures.

Even beyond the continental sprawl of the United States, Nigerians still succeed and thrive in various aspects of life, causing others to mark them out for being creative, enterprising, daring, resilient, smart and goal-oriented. In effect, the myth of the Nigerian spirit appears to be more than just that. In millennial/Gen Z terms, the hype is real. Or how does one explain the rate at which Nigeria is churning out winners of Guinness World Record breakers, football league champions, academic geniuses, Afrobeats pushers, literary talents, social media and streaming giants, athletic greats, tech and science innovators, and so on and so forth?

The rate at which Nigerians continue to inspire and elevate the nation on the global stage is worth envying, although critics often point out that Nigerians only seem to be able to excel beyond their own shores, due to the artificial limitations that stifle and bury potential within a country of over 200 million people. One might even go as far as to say that Nigerians also stand out in less flattering areas such as corruption, embezzlement, cyber fraud, insecurity and violence. While this is just being intentionally dishonest and biased, it is worth noting how often Nigerians are lumped under negative stereotypes with the consequence that a few bad eggs are allowed to define the entire crate.

Agreed, like any other society, we are not without our flaws. These flaws often come to light through the criminal actions of certain people who do not represent the truest essence of the Nigerian spirit. The actions of a few should never be allowed to define the many. This is why it is crucial that we tirelessly showcase those values which best define us: our diligence, our authenticity, our friendliness, our spirituality, and our zeal. In consciously adopting this strategy, we can begin countering the harmful “danger of a single story”, as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie famously put it.

The Nigerian spirit is a strong force, and it can be used for good. Our children can benefit from it in the sense that it can be used to help them embrace their identity, shoot for the stars in their pursuits, and strive to positively represent Nigeria in every space they venture within. Let us tell the young ones about Prof. Wole Soyinka, Aliko Dangote, Nnedi Okorafor, Tunde Onakoya, Hilda Baci, Jelani Aliyu, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Amina J. Muhammad, Victor Osimhen, Akinwumi Adesina and yes, Ademola Lookman. Let the young and upcoming generations launch themselves into greatness knowing that they come from a heritage of absolute supremacy.

And for the rest of us, let us flaunt our true colors and dazzle the world with the beauty that is Nigeria. This is so that as we work hard to prove we are a nation of dreamers and doers with much to offer humanity, we can proudly trumpet our triumphs and learn for the purpose of growth, constantly retaining the special mentality of doggedness and excellence that is the Nigerian spirit.

Zayd Ibn Isah can be used via [email protected]

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