Nigeria can make a strong case for recognition as the most soccer-crazed country in the world. In recent surveys, the most populous nation in Africa, with the continent’s largest economy, shows an unparalleled interest and participation in the sport. And Nigeria’s World Cup TV ratings would count as dazzling by the standards of the U.S.
According to a 2013 poll by market researcher Repucom, 83 percent of Nigerians report interest in soccer and 65 percent play the sport. Both results put Nigeria atop the 33 nations polled. The U.S., by comparison, has 27 percent interest and 10 percent participation. Here are the top 15 nations by soccer interest:
Repucom surveyed a sample of 1,000 people in each market between the ages of 16 and 69. In Nigeria, surveys were conducted in person. To gauge soccer participation, Repucom spoke only with adults who play any kind of sport at least once a week. In Nigeria, that’s 37 percent of the larger population—meaning that the overall participation rate in soccer is 24 percent. Below are the top 15 nations by participation:
“Nigeria is a football crazy nation,” says Mike Wragg, Repucom’s global head of research. Unlike most large countries, Wragg says, the sport has no real rival. “There isn’t a second sport, like baseball or basketball, that has any kind of tradition at all.”
During the national team’s first World Cup match against Iran on Monday, 17.5 million Nigerians over the age of 15 tuned in to watch, according to surveys by GeoPoll, a Denver company that offers overnight audience measurement in Ghana, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, and Nigeria. Every four hours, GeoPoll asks a sample of Nigerians about their recent TV viewing via text message. The company polls from a panel of more than 2,000 regular media consumers.
Max Richman, GeoPoll’s chief data scientist, says roughly 73 percent of Nigeria’s over-15 population of 100 million watches TV at least once a month. That means nearly a quarter of all adult TV viewers in Nigeria tuned into the World Cup match on Monday at 8 p.m. local time.
In the U.S. the first national team match drew a combined audience of 15.9 million on ESPN and Univision. That number, which includes all viewers over the age of 2, was considered cause for celebration. And Nigeria has a total population (177 million) a little more than half as big as the U.S. (316 million).
Repucom’s Wragg says soccer is a key factor uniting Nigeria, a country with more than 250 ethnic groups and an almost even split between Muslims and Christians. “Whatever the political situation is in Nigeria,” says Wragg, “the one thing that everybody can get behind is the national football team.”
Still, there’s a vocal minority of Islamic extremists who view the sport as a Western decadence. At a public screening in the northern city of Damaturu of the World Cup match between Brazil and Mexico on Tuesday, at least 21 people were killed by a suicide bomber. Such screenings have been banned because of threats by Boko Haram, the same terrorist group responsible for the kidnapping of 276 teenage girls in April.
Still, Nigerians come out to watch. “We just hope that it does not get us,” one Nigerian soccer fan told the BBC, “but it is not enough to make people stop going to viewing centers.”