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Nigeria plays through country's pain

BRASILIA, Brazil -- It is not often that the de-facto epicenter of human suffering on this planet prepares to play in a World Cup elimination game. So Sunday morning, at 9:15 sharp, I walked over to the two buses idling in the media parking lot outside the Estádio Nacional Mané Garrincha.

In a mass email sent by the FIFA Media Office on Saturday, the international media had been informed that shuttles would be chartered -- free of charge -- to ferry any journalists who wished to observe Nigeria's training session at a club team's field nearby. Fearing that I was late, I first checked the windows of the rear coach. It was empty. Rushing onto the bus in front, I found exactly two people sitting inside.

One of my fellow passengers was a bespectacled man in a black baseball cap named Adewale Emosu, the sports editor of the Nigerian Tribune in Ibadan. He shook my hand when I entered, almost as if he was relieved to see another human being. Then, a few minutes later, when a female photographer who said she was from Ghana walked in, Emosu couldn't help himself.

"African solidarity!" he shouted.

"We are all we have," she replied, grinning.

The bus waited. And it waited. Outside, I could see a throng of people with backpacks and cameras gathering at the main security check-in, where they'd enter the stadium. France, Nigeria's heavily favored opponent Monday afternoon, had a press conference at 11:15; we'd be back well before then, FIFA had said. The doors of the buses, roughly a corner kick away, remained wide open. By the time we rumbled off toward the training session, the final number of passengers was five.

Match 53
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On the ride over, I took out my iPhone and re-familiarized myself with a Word document I'd thrown together that was more or less a scrapbook of near-weekly nightmares. While we Americans have apparently seen the last gasps of the national, hashtag-inflected conversation around Boko Haram -- the terrorist group that infamously kidnapped almost 300 schoolgirls -- so much more tragedy has befallen Nigeria since. And that's true even if you simply look through the lens of this sport.

There was the story last month about Ogenyi Onazi, a midfielder on this Nigeria team, who was wandering through the main market in his hometown of Jos. Fifteen minutes later, two car bombs went off, successively, right where the 21-year-old had just been shopping. "Suddenly, people were just running," Onazi told the BBC. "There was chaos and pandemonium. There was smoke, I was confused, lost and just wondered what had happened." At last count, 118 people had been killed.

Three days later, there was another bombing in the same city -- this time targeting fans watching the European Champions League final. The assailant's improvised explosive device detonated prematurely, holding the immediate death toll to three.

Nigeria surprised many by making it into the round of 16. They'll face a stiff test against France with a quarterfinal spot on the line.

Then, less than two weeks ago, yet another car bomb went off, this time targeting an outdoor World Cup viewing party for the Brazil-Mexico game in Damaturu. The most recent tally showed at least 14 people dead and 26 injured.

In any other country, but especially the United States, the intersection of so much death with the national pastime would birth endless coverage. But for Nigeria, during this summer of endless disaster, all of that is just another set of headlines, buried by fresher reports of a mall bombing in Abuja that killed at least 22 people; the murder of at least 21 soldiers at a military checkpoint; and roughly 90 more kidnappings, some 60 of whom are women and young girls. Those three things occurred in the past seven days alone, as the Super Eagles were busy advancing to the third Round of 16 in Nigerian history.

When the bus pulled in, I walked to the field with Emosu and asked him about Boko Haram -- which had publicly taken credit for some, but not all, of these atrocities -- and the horrors I'd been reading about.

"It's disturbing," he said. "If you ask me, I don't know what those people are after. They kill indiscriminately, both the young and the old. What is the focus? What is their target? As a human being, you should be disturbed. If you have blood flowing through your veins, you have to be disturbed."

He shook his head. "Almost every day," Emosu told me, "I just pray something drastic happens soon that will wipe them out."

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When we reached the field, which stretched out under a cloudless sky in Brasilia, the mood leavened. According to the team's media officer, Ben Alaiya, Nigeria had been given what amounted to a day off. Sunday's preferred training method, in an attempt to minimize injury before Monday's all-or-nothing match, was to play team handball in front of one of the goals. The players, cheering, loved it.

I walked up to the fence separating us from the field and asked Alaiya if there was anything he wanted an audience of Americans, perhaps watching Nigeria for the first time Monday, to know about his country. "We want them to know that we've always been a footballing nation, a great one at that," Alaiya said.

He proceeded to remind me that in 1994, at the United States World Cup, Nigeria had made it this far, only to lose to eventual finalist Italy. "Americans should remember us," he said, smiling.

But when I asked about the news back home, his smile broke. He suddenly looked exhausted.

"It's sad," Alaiya said. "But there's nothing we can do about it. The players, the time these stories get to them, they are downcast. But what else can one do?"

Hours later, after the buses had taken us back to the Estádio Nacional Mané Garrincha, the team's official news conference began inside the stadium. I'd been expecting a flood of questions more or less pulled from my iPhone. But they never came.

Maybe it was because they'd all been addressed before, prior to earlier matches in the group stage; maybe it was because, this week, an admittedly juicy mini-scandal had emerged wherein the team canceled a training session over a dispute about player payment, since resolved.

Messi Revisited
Nigeria played Argentina to the finish, but couldn't overcome a two-goal outing from Lionel Messi.

I asked John Obi Mikel, who, like Onazi, is a midfielder from Jos, about how the team was coping with so much tragedy during a World Cup.

"It's been quite a tragedy, but we're here," Mikel said. "We've got a job to do. We've got to play the games. We have to get on with it. That's the job. The things that are going on back home, we shouldn't let them affect us."

Then he struck a more hopeful note. "We want to do well," he added, "and hopefully, if we keep playing the way we're playing, and keep progressing, football is what will unite everyone back home in Nigeria. Everyone loves football. As long as we keep doing well, football alone can bring unity to various places where we're having problems."

To be clear: I'd never presupposed that these players could help stanch their country's non-stop bleeding. Mikel, out of sheer enthusiasm or optimism, or both, had volunteered a solution to a question I'd never imagined asking. Reading it back now, it seems like an unbelievable burden to self-impose.

But as he said these things, I will admit: I found myself nodding along, sincerely. I found myself wanting to believe him.

What else can one do?

A senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and based in New York. You can watch him every week on TV shows such as Around the Horn, The Sports Reporters and Olbermann. Follow him on Instagram (@pstorre) and Twitter (@PabloTorre).