The Super Eagles' biggest fan ... is Japanese?

Ighalo: If I score, I'll tell my kids (0:53)

Odion Ighalo talks about potentially scoring for Nigeria at the World Cup and explains why getting out of the group is a realistic objective. (0:53)

A young boy sat in his living room on 3 August 1996, entranced by the action on his TV screen, and cheered with unbridled joy as Nigeria's Super Eagles came from behind to beat Argentina 3-2 in the Atlanta Olympics' football final.

Over 86 000 watched that win in the stadium and millions more followed each kick from their homes and pubs in Nigeria. But this boy, Koichi Suga, watched from his lounge in Tokyo, Japan, and it set him on a lifelong path of adoration for an unlikely team.

Koichi firmly believes he is the Super Eagles' number one fan. His being Japanese is irrelevant, to him, and he will be supporting his team at the World Cup in Russia. He got permission from his wife to do so.

As a college student, he scrimped and saved to buy tickets to watch the men in green at Japan-Korea 2002, endured heartbreak when they failed to qualify for the 2006 event in Germany, then saved even more desperately to travel 9 000 miles to South Africa in 2010.

Now, he will travel another 5 000-plus miles, from his home in California, to see them compete.

But why Nigeria, of all teams?

Kid Koichi felt the first stirrings of love when the 'Dream Team' defeated Japan in the group stages in Atlanta. The average fan would be disappointed to see their team lose, and probably turn against their conquerors, but not this fan.

"I was neutral since I was not paying attention to Olympic Games so much," he tells KweséESPN. "But since I am a Japanese, I was slightly supporting the Japanese side."

It blossomed into true love though, with a Golden Goal semi-final win over Brazil, and the thrilling Gold medal game against Argentina.

"I have to say, it was really versus Brazil, versus Argentina... it completely changed my life and my outlook of soccer as itself," he says. "I was surprised that such a big comeback and giant-killing can happen. Honestly, I didn't know about Super Eagles before that game.

"And to me, Brazil and Argentina were really the best teams in the world. But the Eagles changed my life."

By the time the World Cup rolled around two years later in 1998, Koichi was a full-fledged, unapologetic Super Eagles fan.

He was entranced by the skills of Austin 'Jay-Jay' Okocha, the suave intelligence of Nwankwo Kanu, enthralled by Sunday Oliseh's slick passing, and awed by Daniel Amokachi's brute force.

"I was a junior high school kid at that time and I used to play attacker," he says. "The Super Eagles became my idols and I tried to imitate their playing style as much as possible at that time.

"I don't know how many times I rewatched these games on VHS. I can say the same things too against Spain in 1998 [Nigeria won 3-2 in the group stage]."

He avidly watched every single game, and was as heartbroken as any Nigerian when the Super Eagles were dismantled 4-1 by Denmark in the round of 16.

"It was a very sad day for me," he says, still dismayed by it 20 years later.

So great is his love for the Super Eagles that he ranks them above the Japan national team. The sides met in a friendly in August 2003, and Koichi watched the game wearing his Nigeria jersey rather than Japan's blue.

"If Nigeria play Japan, I support Nigeria," he says, with not an iota of hesitation. "When they played that friendly match, I wore my Nigerian jersey and went to the stadium, even though some of my friends laughed because we lost 3-0."

"We" being Nigeria.

Koichi has six different Nigeria jerseys, multiple scarves, mugs, pins, and different Super Eagles paraphernalia. He will not hesitate to buy the new, hugely popular, 2018 Nigeria kit as soon he possibly can.

While it's not been easy on his bank balance, between the trips and the jerseys, supporting Nigeria has not been easy on Koichi's heart.

By some twist of fate, Nigeria's next World Cup appearance was Korea-Japan 2002, right in his backyard. The young man saved up money to buy tickets to go watch them play and was disappointed to see them eliminated in the first round.

Four years later, he was even more distressed when the team failed to qualify for Germany 2006. To console himself, Koichi saved up some more money and travelled to Europe, where he watched Kanu and John Utaka play for Portsmouth, and Ike Uche with Recreativo Huelva. A few years later, he also watched Okocha play for Bolton.

Many would have seen their spirits dampened by these recurring disappointments. but not Koichi.

Nigeria's qualification for the 2010 World Cup proved another opportunity to go see his team in the flesh, and he took it, even though he had to work multiple jobs to pay for it.

"I don't know [how much] exactly but it depends," he says. "Maybe $2 000 to $3 000 per time. As a student I did part time jobs. It is not so easy now because I have a family."

He was not deterred by the expense, and he made it to South Africa, only to see Nigeria eliminated, again at the group stage. Sani Kaita's red card and Yakubu Aiyegbeni's miss against Korea ensured that Nigeria again left the party early.

But Koichi's love grew stronger still, and he points to his favourite all-time players as Okocha, Pius Ikedia, Amokachi, Emmanuel Amunike, Chinedu Obasi, George Finidi, Tijani Babangida, Kanu, and Obafemi Martins.

Of the current crop, he also has more than a few favourites: "I like Victor Moses, Moses Simon, Wilfred Ndidi, Kelechi Iheanacho, Odion Ighalo and Alex Iwobi."

So... the whole team, basically.


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Work commitments meant he could not make it to Brazil in 2014, and with a new family, he had to ask permission from his wife to go to Russia to watch at least one Nigeria game, against Argentina.

"Recently, due to having a family, I don't have a freedom of time and money like before. Now, I have to persuade my wife," he says, not entirely jokingly.

Thankfully, she was magnanimous enough to say yes, and so Koichi will be in St Petersburg to cheer his favourite team against Argentina, and then go on to Volgograd to watch his second favourite team, Japan.

He has also bought a ticket for the round of 16 game in Kazan. "Hopefully Naija," he says with optimism, using the country's nickname.

There is another thing that would thrill this fan who dreams about many things regarding his team, and that is to have a shirt signed by one of his favourite Nigeria players.

"If I have to choose, Jay Jay Okocha is the one I would like to have. From current squad, Victor Moses or Odion Ighalo."

Another Koichi favourite, Wifred Ndidi, when asked about Koichi's fandom and desire for a signed kit, told KweséESPN: "That is so nice. I don't even know what to say. It's amazing.

"Of course, I will be happy to sign his shirt for him. We appreciate all our fans and for someone like him to do this [travel to Russia for the team], that is special."

And if the entire team were to sign a shirt for him?

"That would be amazing! It sounds like a dream... I don't want to dream much," Koichi hedges.

After that, there is one last item that Koichi hopes to cross off his bucket list: Going to Nigeria to watch the Super Eagles play at home.

"That is definitely one of my dreams. But I have to ask my wife," he sighs.