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Maine's Nigerian community cheers on home team from afar in African soccer championship

Fans gather at The Zoo in Portland on Sunday to watch the Nigeria and Ivory Coast face off in the final match of the African Cup of Nations.
Ari Snider
/
Maine Public
Chef Young Francis serving patrons at the watch party on Sunday in Portland. Francis specializes in suya, a popular West African style of barbecue.

It’s Super Bowl Sunday, but you wouldn’t know it from the scene at The Portland Zoo, a bar in the East Bayside neighborhood.

A green and white Nigerian flag fluttered outside. Patrons dug into spiced jollof rice and West African barbecue. And all eyes were on Nigeria's men’s national soccer team, which was squaring off against the Ivory Coast in the final match of the African Cup of Nations, a continent-wide tournament.

Ayo Oyinlade, an IT worker from Scarborough, said he moved to Maine nine years ago, and it took him months to meet another Nigerian. Being here with a couple dozen countrymen today, he said, is a big deal — and evidence of the community’s growth.

"Being able to see Nigerians and see the Nigerian flag flowing, see Nigerians around me, it's so beautiful, to be able to witness that growth," Oyinlade said.

Temitope Omokinde, center left, in red jacket, watches closely as his home team, Nigeria, faces off against Ivory Coast in the African Cup of Nations championship match.
Ari Snider
/
Maine Public
Temitope Omokinde, center left, in red jacket, watches closely as his home team, Nigeria, faces off against Ivory Coast in the African Cup of Nations championship match.

Uzochi Achumba arrived in Portland last year for a masters program the Roux Institute in Portland. She said today is a welcome slice of home.

"Oh my god, it feels so good!" she said. "I feel like I'm in Nigeria again. And I’m watching the match with everybody."

Meanwhile, Temitope Omokinde, a civil engineering consultant, was glued to the screen. The match was tied 0-0 in the first half, but Omokinde was worried.

"To be frank and sincere, at the moment, I think the Ivory Coast — they're doing better than us," he said.

But, just then, on a corner kick, Nigeria's captain knocked a header past the Ivory Coast goalkeeper. Omokinde lept out of his seat, cheering as the bar erupted in a joyous frenzy.

"Yeah! That is the spirit!" he shouted, beaming. "We scored! One-zero!"

Young Francis, center, speaks with a customer during the watch party. Francis, who is also from Nigeria, is the chef and co-owner of Oga Suya, a Nigerian barbecue popup.
Ari Snider
/
Maine Public
Young Francis, center, speaks with a customer during the watch party. Francis, who is also from Nigeria, is the chef and co-owner of Oga Suya, a Nigerian barbecue popup.

Match day meant brisk business for Young Francis, the chef and co-owner of the Nigerian barbecue popup Oga Suya.

"Today we have the beef kebab, the shrimp kebab," he said, bustling between the grill and warming dishes heaped with rice. "We have some jollof rice, some fried rice. We have some plantains."

And a special for today — goat meat and pepper stew.

"It's good for the cold, you know," Francis said.

Francis has lived in Maine for about five years, and has been running Oga Suya for about three.

Though he’s too busy to watch the match, he said it’s a pleasure to be grilling for the Nigerian community.

Fried plantains and grilled meat lofted a rich, nutty aroma over the open-air watch party.
Ari Snider
/
Maine Public
Fried plantains and grilled meat lofted a rich, nutty aroma over the open-air watch party.

In the second half, though, things began to slip away from Nigeria. Ivory Coast scored once to draw even, and again to take the lead. They held on to win, 2-1.

It was a disappointing ending for many at the bar. But Ayo Oyinlade said at least it was a good match, and a chance to see friends.

"You know you get to lose, you get to win, so that is life," Oyinlade said. "It was still nice to see my peoples around. Yeah, no doubt."

He said he planned to stick around a little longer, then maybe head home to watch the Super Bowl.

The watch party was organized by the Nigerian Community of Maine, and drew a few dozen people.
Ari Snider
/
Maine Public
The watch party was organized by the Nigerian Community of Maine, and drew a few dozen people.

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