Divine wisdom inspired the foundation of the Nigerian club the Mountain of Fire and Miracles. It was 1989 and Daniel Kolawole ‘DK’ Olukoya, a recent University of Reading masters graduate, summoned a prayer meeting in his Lagos living room. He was already a devout man and an adherent to the Pentecostal wave that hit Nigeria in the 1970s.

24 people showed up. Soon after, according to the church’s website, they began to experience miracles. Olukoya held more meetings. Attendance rose. Pretty soon he was a minor celebrity, and in 1994 he opened the Mountain of Fire and Miracles Ministries: a church whose name, he says, was revealed to him during prayer.

Today MFM is a global sensation. Headquartered in Ponder’s End, London, it has branches on six continents and millions of followers. Its spiritual home is still Lagos, however – specifically a giant former slum in the historic district of Yaba, just yards from the spot where it all began. It is devoted to “the revival of Apostolic signs and Holy Ghost fireworks”.

I travelled to MFM’s Yaba headquarters in January 2018. It is easily the biggest church I’ve ever seen. The road signs and street lamps that mark its multi-acre perimeter are daubed in the ministry’s talismanic purple. At the entrance is a poster warning that short skirts and trendy haircuts will earn you eternal damnation.

Inside, it is a maze of lighting rigs, temporary seating and circus tent-like canopied roofs. There are huge separate auditoriums for Praise, Favour, Success and other virtues. One poster, courtesy of the “Full Time Prayer Warrior Department”, welcomed guests to HOURS OF HOLY WAR, illustrated by an angel wielding a flaming sword. Even when I visited, on an overcast Thursday mid-morning, the ministry was packed with people cheering, dancing and speaking in tongues. As a heathen, I couldn’t help feeling a touch alarmed.

Probably a good job, then, that soon after I arrived a couple of heavies apprehended me and ordered me to delete my photos. My saviour at that moment was Jude, a tall, broad-shouldered club secretary who spirited me off to the headquarters of MFM FC – a tiny, one-room office to the side of the church.

There, squeezed between a DK Olukoya portrait, three trophies and fifteen sacks of purple club shirts, Jude and his four-man team were building a club entirely from scratch.

Olukoya grew up a football fanatic. His father, a policeman, made him the kit-man of his division’s weekend team and he played as an outside right, idolising Pelé and Teslim “Thunder” Balogun, a Nigerian striker who scored three goals for Queens Park Rangers in their 1956-57 Third Division South campaign.

Lagos’s biggest team was Julius Berger (now Bridge FC), a club that produced world-class talent including Taribo West, Yakubu Aiyegbeni and Sunday Oliseh. Olukoya preferred Stationery Stores, with whom they shared the picturesque Onikan Stadium that overlooked the Gulf of Guinea.

By the mid-2000s, however, both clubs had fallen on tough times. Stationery Stores ran out of cash and dropped out of the Nigerian Premier League in 2004. Julius Berger were relegated two years later and shuttered in 2008. That left Lagos, Africa’s largest city with a population of around 20 million, without a top-flight football club.

Olukoya wanted to bring the game back to Lagos and inspire the city’s youngsters. MFM FC would be part of his ministry’s agenda to “bring more youths to Christ,” Jude told me. “Football is one of the greatest channels through which to change the lives of youth.”

The club first competed at the DK Olukoya Cup in 2008, at MFM’s Prayer City, a sprawling complex outside Lagos built at a reported cost of £100m that is big enough to hold half a million revellers. Soon after, they applied for a spot in the Nigerian National League, the country’s second tier, but wouldn’t win many headlines until 2014, when they beat a Colombian team in Goa, India, to win the Unity World Cup, a religious tournament held to decide which Christians are best at football. The newly crowned Best Church in the World gained promotion to the Nigerian Professional Football League (NPFL) in 2015 and avoided relegation on goal difference the following year. They moved in at the historic Agege Stadium, in the heart of old Lagos.

In 2017 the miracles kept coming. MFM won 19 of 38 games to finish league runners-up to Plateau United, earning a spot in the CAF Champions League. Their young coach, Fidelis Ikechukwu, adopted a form of Gegenpressing that stifled opposition, creating space to spring the star strikers Sikiru Olatunbosun and Stephen Odey.

“We try to attack our opponents from the wing, from the middle,” the team coach Geoffrey Aghogi told me. “That has been our system. We have young players, who play this high-pressing game when they have young players who can create so well. These young boys are full of energy, full of strength, stamina.”

Throughout MFM’s rise, the church played a key role. It scouted players from Lagosian congregations. It capitalised on its flock around Nigeria to pack away ends. At the beginning of each half the crowd stood with the players to sing Gospel songs and a big steel band accompanied the team at each match. MFM has at least ten churches in each major city, Fisayo Dairo, chief football writer at ACLSports, told me. “I think MFM is one of the best brands I’ve ever seen.”

“It’s just the grace of God,” a fan said. “And determination.”

I travelled to the Agege in January to watch MFM take on Ifeanyi Uba in the NPFL. MFM’s band lilted their way through the entire 90 minutes without pause, a fitting tribute to Hugh Masekela, the South African trumpeter who had died the previous day. Jets boomed over the stadium on their descent into Murtala Muhammed Airport, just a few kilometres away. It was an electric atmosphere.

MFM won 2-1 that day, and looked pretty good doing so. “I feel at home every time I play in this place,” said Chukwuka Onuwa, the team captain. “The fans turn out with great joy and they really try to stay behind us. They’re very good for us.”

Some of the 5,000 or so fans had dressed the part too, decking themselves in the ministry’s trademark purple. One of them, who called himself Popcorn, told me he’d taken an hour to cover himself in makeup for the match. MFM is where “everybody can get together and celebrate Lagos,” he told me, clutching a vuvuzela. The club’s next match was against Real Bamako, of Mali, in the Champions League. Popcorn and the others were hopeful, but they didn’t expect much.

Church-affiliated clubs are as old as the game. In 1531 the Puritan pastor Thomas Eliot scolded footballers for their “beastly and extreme violence,” but by the beginning of the 20th century churches were the foundations of 11 major English clubs, including Aston Villa, Everton, Manchester City, Southampton and Spurs. Celtic were formed by members of a Glaswegian Catholic church to alleviate poverty among the city’s Irish population.

These days European religiosity has dampened. That is not the case in Nigeria. According to Gallup it is the world’s second most religious nation behind Thailand. Of Nigeria’s 187m people, 46.3% are Christian, most of whom are located in the south, and 46% are Muslim, many of whose heartland is in the arid north.

In the southern city of Lagos adverts for televangelists and pastors are plastered all over billboards, LED screens and street signs. One night in the city I met an American evangelist preacher about to embark on a countrywide tour selling “miracle” fertiliser. Nigeria, he said gleefully, was a perfect place to contact God.

Nigeria has a particularly strong Christian fundamentalist movement and Pentecostals like DK Olukoya sit at its vanguard. When I visited MFM Ministries I picked up a couple of copies of Fire in the Word, the church’s magazine. It is full of caustic commands and eschatology. Prayer is the cornerstone of faith. “No matter how weak a Christian is, Satan trembles when he finds you on your knees,” one passage read.

Evangelism is big business in Nigeria. “Pastorpreneurs” often fly to sermons in private jets. Some have criticised them as cynical flim-flam men who make millions off the poor. One day I drove past an MFM school in the city of Benin, in south-east Nigeria. My guide, a Catholic, tutted his disapproval. “It’s not very Christian.”

Sometimes the disparity can be fatal. TB Joshua, a Nigerian mega-pastor who has also dabbled in football by buying the Ghanaian club Wassaman United and renaming it Emmanuel Stars, blamed a mysterious overhead plane when a guesthouse inside his huge Lagos compound collapsed, killing 115 visitors. The popularity of pastorpreneurs is symptomatic of a population which, disgruntled by graft and cronyism at the top of society, has turned its hopes on snake-charmers and tongue-speakers, many Nigerians told me.

Olukoya has not escaped scrutiny. Last year MFM was implicated in a fraud case in the US state of Maryland. Worse still, an MFM pastor in Liverpool was taped leading chants against homosexuality that included the phrase “die in the fire”. When a gay journalist then questioned the leader involved, he was offered a course of conversion therapy. I contacted Olukoya’s London office around half a dozen times for this story. Each time I was told he was unavailable, or that I simply couldn’t speak with him.

At the Uba match I asked Jude if MFM had any Muslim players. He assured me they did, and played down the importance of the ministry on the players. The next day he wasn’t so equivocal and told me the squad had to “go along” with the church. There were some Muslim players before, he added. But they converted. Aghogi disagreed and said Muslims have always played for the club.

Still, Olukoya has seen his star rise even further through his association with MFM FC, whose team are often called the “Olukoya Boys”. He doesn’t go to many games, club staff told me: they usually send him videos. But his prestige is still felt: In November Lagos State governor Akinwunmi Ambode pledged £100,000 to the club for its Champions League qualification. It looked to have paid off when, this February, MFM stunned Real Bamako 2-1 on aggregate to reach the second round.

There, they would face MC Alger of Algiers. A 2-1 victory at the Agege gave them hope. But it was quickly snuffed out across the Sahara, where Alger went four goals up in the first half hour. By the end it was six, and MFM had been taught a lesson in new money.

In truth it was no surprise – and money was a big factor. Nigeria has, by some distance, Africa’s largest GDP. But its football clubs have struggled to make an impact on the continent. Since 1964 just one Nigerian club has won the Champions League: Enyimba, from the oil-rich Niger Delta, who won back-to-back titles in 2003 and 2004.  No Nigerian club has ever won the CAF Confederations Cup, Africa’s equivalent of the Europa League.

That is mostly down to decades of shambolic post-colonial military rule that has sucked up funds and fuelled corruption. That graft has drifted into football and players and clubs are often stung by the many fake agents who ply young men with dreams of foreign riches and teams with promises of the Next Big Thing. Accusations of match-fixing are rife too: when the referee gave an iffy decision at the game I attended, around two dozen fans hurtled from their seats to the sideline, screaming abuse. Every fan I interviewed afterwards said that MFM had won despite foul play from the officials.

All of this contributes to the fact that, today, Nigerian clubs are still poor compared with those in neighbouring countries. The minimum NPFL salary is £293 per month. Players get bonuses for matches on foreign soil. But they are usually confined to double-digit stipends. Dairo told me MFM’s is the lowest of them all.

While big African teams such as Raja Casablanca, Al Ahly and Orlando Pirates can sign players for hundreds of thousands of pounds, and keep them on lucrative contracts, Nigerian clubs rely on local talent that leaves soon after it flourishes. Olatunbosun and Odey, MFM’s star duo last year, have both left for Swiss side FC Zürich. Of the Nigeria team that faced Algeria in their last World Cup qualifier in November, just one, the Enyimba goalkeeper Ikechukwu Ezenwa, played domestically. Fans often prefer to watch Premier League matches on TV than the NPFL in person: big gate receipts are tough to find.

The biggest effect Nigerian teams’ lack of money has on their Champions League chances, Dairo told me, was logistics. Unable to pay for expensive flights, clubs are often forced to take lengthy connecting flights, or even coaches. For MFM’s away leg in Mali their squad flew for a day across Africa to Addis Ababa, then to Bamako. The direct route takes less than three hours.

Shortly after I saw them MFM FC’s team bus was involved in a crash on bumpy roads coming back from a loss in the central city of Jos, 15 hours away. Flights take one hour. “That cash is the biggest reason Nigerian teams suffer,” Dairo said.

Perhaps because of that, MFM have failed to deliver on expectations this season, although the threat of relegation looked to have been staved off before the break for the World Cup. Their African exploits have spluttered too: having lost to Alger they were handed a CAF Confederation Cup tie against Djoliba AC, also from Bamako. It looked a good draw. But Mohamed Cisse’s 75th-minute strike sunk the Olukoya Boys 1-0 in Lagos and they drew the second leg 0-0.

MFM may not be the only top-flight team in Lagos State for long: Ikorodu United and Spartans FC are both battling for promotion to next season’s NPFL. If they competed alongside MFM, perhaps some fans would drift away from the club.

Then again, perhaps not. And despite what happens this season, the rise of Mountain of Fire and Miracles FC has been one of African football’s great modern tales. Whether it can keep on moving upwards depends on many things – not least cash. That will not stop its fans and staff praying for success. “We believe in our strength, we believe in our physique,” Aghogi told me. “But even more the power of God will help us.”