Every year for the past decade five local government areas in Kogi state,Nigeria has come together to celebrate Arsenal Day, a two-day celebration of Arsenal football club.
Thousands of fans in their red and white jerseys sing songs, dance and eat together, and enjoy a slice of Arsenal themed cake.
“Our reason to start [Arsenal Day] is to celebrate Arsenal club and the players,” says Ilyas Abdulsalam, director of Arsenal fans club Ebiraland, the organizers of the event.
‘As an Arsenal fan you learn how to tolerate’
Abdulsalam says the fan club, which was founded 12 years ago, has 16,000 registered members and is made up of 22 subgroups, three of which are specifically for women.
Arsenal Day was inspired by the Gunners record breaking unbeaten run in the 2004 season and despite the fact the London-based club has not won a Premier League trophy since 2004, Abdulsalam says the trophy drought has taught fans an important lesson.
“We’ve been expecting a trophy from the team and we’ve not been getting it but we’re very patient,” he says.
“Our patience had cropped up a proverb in our area. If you’re an Arsenal fan you can never divorce your wife, if you can stick with Arsenal with no trophy you can learn how to tolerate.”
Abdulsalam says it is difficult to calculate the exact number of last year’s Arsenal Day attendees, since so many were standing, but 9,000 seats were filled.
This is just one example of the love millions of Nigerians have for the English Premier League, ‘the world’s most popular domestic competition of the world’s most popular sport’.
An estimated 276 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa watch the Premier League every year, making it one of the League’s fastest growing audiences, with huge potential financial benefits.
Football fans in Lagos watching a Premier League match
Arsenal and Manchester United, two of the most popular clubs in Nigeria, already have partnerships with top Nigerian brands, like telecommunications company Airtel and beer and in 2014 Lagos was second to London for the number of replica Chelsea shirts sold worldwide.
Nigeria has an established Premier League of it’s own, with 20 teams and international partnerships including one with Spanish La Liga, so why is the English one so popular?
“Nigerians follow the English Premier league because it’s the most competitive league in the world, Ukan Idagbo, Manchester United fan said .
“You can never tell whose going to win a game…games can go any way.”
In Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial capital, the popularity of the Premier League is hard to miss. From commercial buses adorned with club stickers, to advertising billboards featuring Premier League stars.
“The English Premier League being marketed as the best league in the world contributed to the frenzy,” says Lolade Adewuyi, former editor of Goal.com Nigeria.
“Also, the visibility that the Premier League gets on cable TV and radio stations as well as in the local press.”
“The Nigerian domestic scene has not yet harnessed that marketability to make it popular among locals due to the perception of poor management and poor playing facilities as well as bad refereeing, among many other issues.”
“The [Nigerian] League is not well organized,” adds Chelsea fan Cyril Okereafor. ” Safety is not always guaranteed when you go to the stadiums and the quality is very poor.”
“Many Nigerians play in the English Premier League so one can easily relate to compared to other leagues.”
‘We had to support English football’
There are currently 8 Nigerian players in the English Premier League and some of the country’s biggest and most successful footballing exports have played top flight football in England.
“We speak the English language so we know what the commentators are saying,” says Chelsea fan Austin Oke.
“We had our players, plying their trade in England, Nwankwo Kanu, Austin Jay Jay Okocha, Dan “The Bull” Amokachi, so we had to support English football.”
As the League gets underway millions of Nigerians will tune in and Arsenal fans club Ebiraland will start preparations for the 2017 edition. But now they too face competition from other clubs.
“Arsenal started it and others joined,” says Abdulsalam. “Chelsea, Man U and Real Madrid and Barcelona have now copied.”
Abdulsalam is confident that Arsenal Day 2017 will be a success and as for Arsenal’s Premier League chances?
“We’re optimistic that there’s a chance,” he says.