Nigeria’s Kenneth Omeruo plays in Friday’s match against Iceland.
By Shaun Botterill/Getty Images.
In the end, the standout jersey of the World Cup was only worn once. Nigeria was knocked out of the tournament on Tuesday by a cruel, late, thoroughly surprising goal by the Argentine defender Marcos Rojo. The team’s performances had been feverishly anticipated, and only partly because at least one of them promised the appearance of Nigeria’s now impossible-to-find home jersey. To the extent that it’s possible to pick out a single neutral’s favorite in the tournament, Nigeria was a leading candidate (perhaps with Iceland in the mix, a team coached by a sometime dentist that also crashed out today).
Nigeria’s team was celebrated for its beautiful soccer and how plainly its members were enjoying playing alongside one another, but they were also the wearers of one of the most coveted sports jerseys on earth. At an event in London in February, Nike Football unveiled its World Cup jerseys for Nigeria and England. England’s uniforms were simple, streamlined designs in their traditional red, white, and blue, and they receded from memory immediately. Nigeria’s neon chevron stripes, on the other hand, inspired lines up and down Oxford Street the moment they became available in June.
It’s common enough for a particular jersey, especially a one-off World Cup edition, to become a cult item among soccer fans. But Nigeria’s crossover into streetwear was swift and comprehensive. Nike reportedly took three million pre-orders for the jersey, and it instantly sold out for good. Croatian fans devised a tribute to the shirt that will confound anyone unfamiliar with the checkered history of half-and-half scarves. It helped, too, that non-Nigerian players have taken up the cause. Gabonese attacker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang didn’t qualify for the tournament, but made his allegiances clear:
There was a counterfeit market for Nigeria’s jersey—and a secondary market that saw it resell for three and four times its $85 retail price—before they even got a chance to wear it at the World Cup. But once they did, on Friday, striker Ahmed Musa scored a pair of artful, clinical goals against Iceland, and the typically reliable Gylfi Sigurðsson sent a penalty kick into the stands while wearing an unremarkable jersey.
Later in the day, Nike released a short documentary, This Is Naija: A Nigerian Football Story, directed by the Nigerian filmmaker Andrew Dosunmu. Featuring interviews with current players Odion Ighalo and Wilfred Ndidi, and 1980 Africa Cup of Nations winner Segun Odegbami, the film offers a vivid glimpse of soccer culture in the country. The film’s soundtrack of Nigerian music meant that a devoted World Cup watcher could start the day by wondering if today would be the day for the jersey, and end it by diving into William Onyeabor’s funk discography.
There is some precedent for the unexpected in soccer jerseys: Juventus’s Drake-endorsed pink kit; Barcelona’s consistently adventurous alternate shirts, especially the controversial “Sunny Delight” one; Liverpool’s recent “Toxic Thunder” experiment; and most important, Hull City’s exceedingly rare (and depressingly expensive on eBay) early 90s tiger stripes. Even Nigeria’s current jersey was designed as a callback to its 1994 edition, when the Super Eagles first competed in the World Cup. In most of these cases, though, a band of traditionalists, or self-styled soccer purists, have sat waiting to inveigh against what they perceive to be the jersey’s showiness. There have been decades of solid white, red, or navy English jerseys, when the country’s “Three Lions” symbology is practically begging to be put to imaginative use.
“Ultimately, our client is the board, the president of Nigerian soccer has to sign off on this,” Nike design director Pete Hoppins recently told The Fader. “We had more traditional backup options, in case they didn’t go for it. Some wouldn’t; we’d never push this on England.” Their jersey is far from the only thing to remember about the country’s World Cup, but those Musa goals did come in that Nigeria shirt, and the image of them is unshakeable. Hoppins might change his tune for 2022; England, too.