[By Jonathan Coffey]

Nearly 5000 kilometres separate London from the Stade de la Paix in Bouaké, Ivory Coast, the stage for Nigeria’s dramatic penalty shootout victory over South Africa during the just-ended Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) semi-finals. 

Distant as Ivorian shores are, Londoners needed only hop on the Jubilee line for a taste of the continent. A five-minute stroll from Southwark station takes one to The Africa Centre on Great Suffolk Street, an iconic cultural institution continuing its sixty-year mission of educating, connecting, and advocating for Africa and its global diaspora. On a giant screen in its beautifully decorated Malangatana Lounge space, all tournament games are screened live, bringing diverse communities into the space, and creating an atmosphere just as electric as in the various tournament stadia across Ivory Coast.

“The opportunity to showcase the AFCON games is something we are very excited about. We feel honoured to be able to bring African diaspora communities here in London together to get a taste of home, a sense of home and to celebrate,” says Belvin Tawuya, Chief Marketing and Communications Officer at the Centre. 

Whether it's Abura’s African cocktails, Cally Munchy’s Jollof Rice, or the contemporary African art displayed throughout the building, that sense of home infuses the centre’s four floors. 

“It could not be the Africa Centre without all those elements, we want The Africa Centre to be that one place that anyone can visit and have an authentic experience of what Africa feels like, tastes like, sounds like,” says Belvin. 

As with any successful cultural space, though, it is the people who make it. The house is packed as South Africa’s Bafana Bafana meet Nigeria’s Super Eagles. Nonchalant echoes of excited chatter fill the space in the few minutes leading up to kick-off. However, it doesn’t take long into the game for drama to unfold and for the audience to quickly transform from happy-go-lucky to hyperventilation, bordering on anxiety.

Super Eagles fans are in the majority and the South Africans have seen mixed success in their recruitment of Ghanaian supporters, amongst other potential allies. Naturally, nerves pervade, and indictments begin as Bafana Bafana makes the stronger start.

Half-time arrives with the scores level and respite awaits the Nigerians after the break. A roar erupts as Victor Osimhen is brought down by Mothobi Mvala inside the South African box during the 67th minute. “In Troost we trust” is the shout as captain William Troost-Ekong takes aim from twelve yards and a second roar follows as an unconvincing strike finds the net. The excitement is too much for one fan, who spontaneously busts some impressive uncle dance moves in celebration. 

The party continues when Osimhen taps home in the 85th minute. Cheers drown out the faint crack of a glass being smashed underfoot, sounding the belief that a score has been settled. Or so it seemed!

As a lengthy VAR review overturns the goal, awarding South Africa a penalty at the other end instead, that festive feeling fades. Teboho Mokoena steps up to the Centre’s chorus of “over di bar,” but the South African makes no mistake with his penalty. 

Neither side adds to their tally in the additional period and so the game goes to the dreaded penalty shootout. Ronwen Williams’s prolific penalty-saving had seen South Africa through against Cape Verde in the quarterfinals, but it was Nigeria’s Stanley Nwabali playing hero this time. The Nigerian goalkeeper denies Mokoena in their second showdown and then parries Evidence Makgopa’s effort - “There is no evidence!” exclaims one spectator. 

Kelechi Iheanacho approaches the spot with the chance to send Nigeria to the final and arrows his effort into the right-hand corner — cue wild celebrations in the Stade de la Paix and The Africa Centre too. Nigerian fan Benjamin may have been visiting the Centre for the first time, but he makes a strong impression with his celebrations from the front row. 

“Everyone came out in full force, it was great to be around Nigerians and people who just wanted Nigeria to win, the energy was insane,” he said. 

Though a fourth men’s AFCON title slipped through the Super Eagles’ fingers during their 2-1 defeat in the final against hosts Ivory Coast, memories of a sweet victory over rivals South Africa will offer some consolation. After South African artist Tyla beat several Nigerian performers to the Best African Music Performance award at the Grammys, the Super Eagles had to balance the scales. “South Africa already took one away from us with the Grammys this week, so we had to get the comeback through football,” Benjamin laughs. 

All in all, a fantastic tournament, and a rewarding experience at The Africa Centre, truly a home away from home for the African diaspora in London.