Online abuse, death threats for Nigeria players after AFCON exit

Nigeria’s Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) elimination in the last-16 at the hands of Tunisia was a deep disappointment for the team’s followers.

The Super Eagles were not only favourites to win the tie but also to go all the way to the final, where the prospect of an all-time grudge match against hosts Cameroon was in the offing.

The basis of this confidence was a perfect group stage campaign – Augustine Eguavoen’s side had taken the maximum possible nine points and averaged two goals per match.

But the 1-0 loss for 10-man Nigeria marked the team’s first failure to reach the AFCON last eight since 1984.

The reaction was predictably heated. In particular, two individuals were singled out for significant abuse, much of it hateful.

Having appeared to have been deceived by Youssef Msakni low, swerving winner in the last-16, goalkeeper Maduka Okoye was hounded by Nigeria fans on social media with comments ranging from trolling over his looks to death wishes upon him and his loved ones.

One comment declared he would pass away in a plane crash within a month; another issued a veiled threat if Okoye ever returned to Nigeria.

One user called for divine retribution upon the goalkeeper’s family and accused him of match-fixing.

Okoye had no choice but to disable comments on Instagram posts.

Alex Iwobi, a second-half substitute, was shown a red card within five minutes of his introduction for an inadvertent stamp. He also faced a lot of flak online. In response, he archived all his Instagram posts.

The response to the hate and abuse from inside the Nigeria camp was swift and disapproving.

“People need to act responsibly and not turn their disappointments into hate speech and threats against some players,” coach Eguavoen told Al Jazeera.

“These players gave their everything and there is no way you can single them out for blame. Playing for Nigeria comes with a lot of pressure, but you cannot bully, threaten or abuse someone for defending the honour of the country because you have access to social media. This is wrong and irresponsible.”

Nantes winger Moses Simon, who was a target of uncharitable comments in the lead-up to his outstanding performances at AFCON, stressed an oft-forgotten aspect of the discourse: the players read these comments and that affects their temperament and emotional wellbeing.

“Players are humans too,” said Simon. “When you insult or threaten someone, it demoralises them and leaves a negative impact. I’ve been on the receiving end of vile insults and abuse too. But as a player, you can only continue to give your best all the time.”