NIKE x NIGERIA: Changing the Face of International Shirts


It must have been at the 2006 Africa Cup of Nations.

That wasn’t my first time watching Nigeria, but against my homeland Ghana, the occasion held special interest. My 13-year-old mind was gripped, my bespectacled eyes fixed. Nigeria won — 1-0 the score — in a manner that should have intensified any animosity felt toward Ghana’s great West African adversaries; Taye Taiwo’s ‘stolen’ goal from a hurriedly taken freekick, remember?

Somehow, though, I went to bed that night feeling the opposite: sheer admiration for the Super Eagles. Over the course of the tournament (Nigeria went on to finish third) and in subsequent years, that emotion steadily blossomed into real passion and Nigeria became my national team of choice, regardless of who the opponent was. I couldn’t tell you exactly what it was about the Nigerian team that initially had me seduced — perhaps a certain je ne sais quoi . . . but definitely not the kits.

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Nigeria were fitted out by Adidas at the time, and while the designs weren’t bad, they were hardly spectacular; run-of-the-mill, at best. A reversal to Nike in 2015 (the pair had a previous relationship that ran from 1994-2004) didn’t switch things up immediately, but then came the 2018 Fifa World Cup when, for once, Nigeria’s jerseys really began to draw headlines.

The African side whose apparel had caused a big stir in the past — and not exactly positive — was Cameroon, during the Indomitable Lions’ dominant years. Now, though, it was Nigeria, Cameroon’s neighbors and rivals, that were the talk of the town.

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Even in an era when football kits are spoken of as though they weren’t merely pieces of fabric, Nigeria’s merited every applause and naira they drew. The first replicas didn’t take too long to sell out, but the generous reviews continued all summer. Nigeria looked as good as better than any team in Russia for the Mundial did, and their fans — as well as most neutrals — were disappointed by the Eagles’ failure to advance beyond the first round.

Even so, at the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations, those stand-out uniforms made their second — and last — appearance at a major tournament, this time inspiring Nigeria to bronze. By the end of the year, Nike had announced the launch of new Nigeria gear in early 2020. The world, ever expectant, wondered: could they possibly make anything better?

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Well, as it turned out, Nike just pulled it off with flying colors, arguably the finest the Eagles could ever look in green-and-white. It’s a complete deviation from the last set, but much — much, much — better in nearly every way.

“The home kit,” Nike explains, “fuses the traditional aesthetic of an agbada robe with modern football design. The kit’s pattern was hand drawn and is highly symbolic of Nigerian heritage with nods to nobility and family.”

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The away alternative, as dark as a Nigeria kit could get, has its highlights in the trim details that are “inspired by Onaism, a traditional artistic movement central to Nigerian design and craft.”

These shirts might not have the wings of a soon-to-commence competition on which to soar — the next Afcon is a whole year away, if Nigeria qualifies — but that needn’t affect their significance. If the previous version reached deep into Nigeria’s glorious history (look no farther than the halcyon nineties, really), its successor looks like a sure reference point and template for future editions.

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All of this means more, though, and not just for Nigeria. Not since Puma’s daring experiment with vintage Cameroon in the early 2000s has a major sportswear manufacturer broken the mold and truly pushed the boundaries for an African national team (Puma did try with Ghana in 2014). But Nike has set the bar so high — and it only seems to get higher with each new offering — that other sides it adorns are reaping richly, too.

“Building upon the learnings from the successful 2018 Nigeria Collection,” the Oregon-headquartered firm shared on its website, “Nike undertook deep cultural immersions and collaborated with each federation to ensure the designs truly resonated.”

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Such innovation has yielded striking new prints for the USA ‘States’ and South Korea, unveiled alongside Nigeria’s latest. Clearly, Nike’s twists on the three-time African champions’ wardrobe has proven a game-changer. Some of the juicier bits of kit designs had always been reserved for clubs, with international products barely evolving over time, perhaps in a bid to preserve long-held traditions.

Henceforth, however, it only gets bolder for Nigeria — and for everyone else.

NY Frimpong — Daily Mail GH

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