Few saw a third Africa Cup of Nations title in reach for Côte d'Ivoire’s men’s national team when they fired their coach at the beginning of the continent’s biggest football (soccer) tournament. Or when they failed to land their desired next coach. Or when they were the last team that advanced out of the AFCON group round.

But somewhere along the way, as the team surmounted these setbacks and won elimination games in dramatic fashion, Elephants’ fans—Christians and Muslims alike—began to see their prayers as the reasons for their team’s success.

“During games at the tournament, many fans use the halftime break to find a quiet corner or space at the back of the stands to lay down their prayer mats and pray,” noted The Associated Press. “Supporters kneel with their heads bowed in the same direction.”

On Sunday, Côte d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast) beat Nigeria at home 2–1 for the championship, ending a thrilling tournament that included comebacks, overtime, penalties, the suspension of multiple top players, and winning a match where they were down a player for more than half of the game. So maybe these prayers worked?

CT asked African leaders in South Africa, Ghana, Sierra Leone, Togo, Nigeria, and Kenya about how the divine plays a role in victories—and defeats. Does God reward faithful athletes and fans with wins? Does God affect the performance of teams who have fan bases full of people who love Jesus? For teams with numerous Christian athletes, does God bless them with wins?

Responses have been edited for length and clarity and are arranged from yes to no.

Magloire Pilabana, chaplain, Athletes In Action, Togo:

The Ivory Coast team won the Africa Cup in an incredible way. They scored at the last minute in multiple matches. They fired their coach after the first round and later promoted a former player. Some have started to say that the team has gris-gris.

Some say this success is from the prayer of Christians. Some players have said it’s God. But which God? How many players from Ivory Coast are evangelical Christians? How many Ivorian players are there who pay witch doctors? How many pastors have mobilized Christians to pray for their team?

Personally, I believe the victories and qualifications of the Ivorian team have exceeded what a witch doctor can cause. I think that’s why everyone says it’s God.

In my experience with athletes and teams, when athletes believe in Christ, they perform well. If the team has many believers, this helps foster unity and sacrificial behavior because players work together better.

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Paul Nyama, national director of Operation Mobilisation, from Sierra Leone, based in Ghana:

Yes, God does reward faithful athletes and fans. This is because 1 Corinthians 15:58 says, “Nothing you do for the Lord is ever useless” (NLT). I emphasize nothing. This includes sports. Therefore, when the sports arena is your evangelism ground, you’re making God happy.

Further, yes, God hears the cries of his children whether for a sickness to be healed or a team to win. God is a caring father; he’s just cool like that.

Finally, Christian players receive both victories and failures, and I believe there are lessons to be learned both ways. God uses all things to work together for our good. Proud players are humbled by defeat. Painful but true.

Abigail Mensah, director of Beautiful Feet, a sports ministry in Ghana:

Yes, I believe that God can bless athletes and fans with wins or victories.

Before I explain my stand, let us agree that God rewards hard work and diligence. These attributes should actually be a part of a faithful follower of Christ. We have many examples of faithful and diligent servants of God for whom God gave spectacular victories.

Let’s talk about faithful Daniel, whom Scripture says was not negligent. Or about Joseph, to whom a promise of victory was declared, yet he worked diligently in his slave master’s house in a such a way that he was put in charge.

Having said that, God declares in his Word that he rewards those who delight in Him (Ps. 37:4). In Psalm 1:1–3, the Bible describes the life of a faithful follower: He bears fruits in its season, and in all that he does, he prospers. Jesus said our heavenly Father knows how to give good gifts to his children (Matt. 7:7–11).

Cassie Carstens, chaplain of the 1995 South African Rugby World Cup winning team and co-founder of the International Sports Leadership School:

Christians live by grace and not reward. God may, can, and does intervene sometimes, not as reward, but with intention to advance his kingdom. The more open the players or fans are to capture the moment (win or lose) to glorify God without gloating, the more Kingdom creativity and energy they apply, the more willing God will be to intervene. Christians live by the principle: whether we eat or drink or whatever we do (sport, labor etc.) we do it all for the glory of God! (1 Cor 10:31).

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Osam Temple, a visiting professor from Nigeria currently at Daystar University, Kenya:

Oh, those fervent Nigerians. Amid the tumbling exchange rate of the Naira, rising inflation rates, and growing insecurity, some looked forward to the eventual victory of their beloved team, the Super Eagles, as one possible way God would comfort Nigerians and give them hope this season. And yet Nigeria lost to Côte d'Ivoire on Sunday.

Hilariously, some Nigerian youths prayed earnestly that God would blind eyes of the South African goalkeeper during the semifinal penalty shootout. One pastor regularly posted during Afcon, including one video where he emphatically declared that God had told him that Nigeria would win the cup.

So did God give the cup to Ivory Coast? Did God decide the outcome of the Afcon finals match? Was he swayed by the prayers of Ivorian Christians and ignoring the prayers of his Nigerian children?

Perhaps we should remove God totally from the conversation. But can we do so and still be Christians? Is there anything on earth that is outside God’s knowledge? Is football less important to God than economics, politics, or religion?

God is present in all spheres of life, and he intervenes in the affairs of this world. I also believe that he rewards hard work and answers prayers. We may not exactly know why Ivory Coast lifted that cup. Skills, talents, morale, and strategies all played a role, but there are also many invisible things at play that some may call luck, chance, or God’s providence. God favored Ivory Coast for reasons we may never get to know. We can only see in part and know in part!

Blessing Mpofu, editor in chief, ChurchMag, South Africa:

Football (the proper one) is a perfect example of how, for Africans, everything is spiritual. Nothing is beneath God; if it is important to us, it is worth getting God’s attention. We will seek divine intervention for anything important to us. The spiritual realm is as real as the flags and other paraphernalia we have in our hands as we watch matches.

If our team does not win, it is not God’s fault. There is a reason he might not have allowed the win. It might be us—something we missed. There must be a great purpose, which we do not know now but hope for in the future.

It is not likely that the other team prayed better. Whatever it is, it is for us to figure out. Our faith in God is never shaken, and we will be praying with the same or even greater fervor for the next game.

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All in all God is never blamed. When things go our way, it is God, and when they do not, we write it off as not being God’s will for this time.

Moss Ntlha, general secretary of the Evangelical Alliance of South Africa:

Jesus likes to watch a fair game, without any performance enhancing drugs given to the players. I don't see why he would want to turn losers into winners, except if the other side is using some underhand methods to win.

Further, we often learn more by losing, from the standpoint of character building and personal development, than by winning.

Joan Mwangi from Kenya, a volunteer with INcontext International:

I attended the Democratic Republic of Congo’s (DRC) games and prayed that they would win. I believed the DRC’s win would be an encouragement to the entire country that is faced with fighting and killings in Eastern Congo. But I’m limited in my thoughts and desires, and God is sovereign in all his doings.

In the past I would have concluded that God rewards faithful athletes and fans with wins, but as I grow in my walk with God, I understand he rewards the athletes and fans with his faithfulness, aimed at drawing them closer to himself.

Statistically the Nigeria team has more Christians players and many who have boldly professed their faith in God on their social media. We saw them gather to pray before the match and even at the end of the first half, but they lost to Côte d'Ivoire.

At the same time, Côte d'Ivoire has one player, Jean-Michael Seri, who was awarded man of the match when they played with Senegal in the round of 16. He is a believer and has boldly professed his faith and attributed their victory to God.

The biggest challenge that I have seen is we do not have people that help fans and athletes to process whatever outcome of the competition. This makes it quite hard for many to acknowledge God’s goodness in wins and losses unless one is deeply rooted in Christ and has learned that, whatever happens, Christ is glorified and we are to be drawn closer to him.

Ray Mensah, executive director of OneWay Africa, Ghana:

Last week, the Methodist Church of Ghana invited me to speak to their youth leaders on using sports as a tool for evangelism and discipleship.

They plan to start a football league soon in the districts across Ghana. I asked them, “What would happen if the focus of the league is only about winning?” They said there would be lots of fights, bribery, cheating, and even occultism just to win.

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Then I asked a second question: “What would God do when two teams both from the Methodist Church are playing and they both as good Christians pray to God, asking for a win? Which team’s prayer should God answer when they are all his children?”

I therefore do not pray for teams to win. If I pray for a team to win and they win, and I pray again and they win a second time, I become like a witch doctor to them as they will always want me to pray for them before they play a match.

When I pray for teams, I therefore pray that they would do their best and bring God glory no matter the results. I pray that they will be safe and have endurance and good attitudes throughout the game.

Desmond Henry, international director of the Global Network of Evangelists for the Luis Palau Association, Johannesburg, South Africa:

The idea that God parcels out victories to the most faithful, setting up a celestial leaderboard of sorts, is a tempting narrative but lacks theological grounding. The Scriptures remind us that while talent and opportunity are divine blessings, humility is the virtue God esteems above all (James 4:6). Viewing sports through this lens helps guard against spiritual pride, which can easily ensnare us, especially when believers compete on the field. Victories in sports should not be seen as a measure of one’s faithfulness or divine favor.

While the fervent prayers of fans and the faith of athletes are important aspects of their spiritual life, it’s essential to recognize that the outcome of a game is not a direct reflection of divine will in terms of victory or defeat. History shows us that faithful athletes and teams experience both, irrespective of their prayers or piety. It’s possible that God works through these events for purposes that extend beyond the immediate outcome, teaching lessons that resonate far deeper than the thrill of victory.

Triumphs can rally a nation together and potentially draw its people closer to God, as a friend recently pointed out to me. Conversely, he also noted the grace shown by a faith-rooted school team in defeat can teach invaluable lessons in resilience and sportsmanship, perhaps glorifying God even more than the win itself.

As followers of Christ, our engagement with sports, whether as participants or fans, should be framed by an understanding that transcends wins and losses. We are called to appreciate the deeper values of unity, kindness, and humility—attributes that can indeed bring glory to God in profound ways. Let’s cheer, play, and live out our faith in the arena of sports with this balanced perspective, remembering that in every high and low, our ultimate aim is to reflect the character and love of Christ.

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