It was a hot Saturday afternoon when Tunisia came calling for what was our final match in the three team final round of matches. As at that time the general feeling was that a win will put Nigeria through to Argentina. The country was geared up for a win – at least the Surulere part of Lagos part of the country.
The sports pages of the newspapers carried stories and opinion pieces saying that a win will take Nigeria to Argentina. The trick in West Africa at the time was to play matches against North African teams around 2pm when the sun was at its highest. The idea was that they were not used to the kind of heat from the Nigerian sun.
Those matches used to be played in Lagos so I doubt if the city could have been hotter than Rabat/Marrakesh/Algiers/Cairo/Alexandria and the other cities in North Africa. It is even laughable now thinking about it.
Anyway, back to the Tunisia match. Again there was live TV blackout while the ticket prices were increased. So, no TV coverage, no problem. Okonkwo and the Radio Nigeria crew were at the ready. I was a nervous wreck from the morning of the match till the 2pm kick off. There is actually very little of the day I can remember. Very little of the commentary I can remember in terms of action or match incidents. What I do remember ever so clearly was when Okonkwo screamed “it is a goal” and I started to celebrate believing surely that my heroes had scored.
I was quickly shouted to keep quiet by my father as Okonkwo continued “…a goal by Nigeria against Nigeria“. What made me realise immediately that something was terribly wrong was the silence coming from the radio. This silence was also all around me, no shouting in the neighbourhood. It was Tunisia with the lead courtesy of an own goal by Godwin Odiye. The rest of the commentary was a blur. Don’t remember.
Game ended in a defeat. Campaign over. There will be no Argentina ’78 World Cup for Nigeria. Hours later the match was on TV. I was ready to watch it. Was even watching it. See the tricks the mind plays on you: I can recall the earlier victory over Egypt but this Tunisia match, I don’t remember much. Except that I remember Muda Lawal seemed to cover every blade of grass on the National Stadium, Surulere, pitch that afternoon.
I grieved over that defeat for long. How much that match or those qualifiers shaped my love and passion for the National Team I don’t know but I bet it set me up nicely down this path.
Sometime in 2009 I stumbled on footage of that match complete with Odiye heading into his own net. 3 years later I was at the San Francisco airport after an 11 hour flight from Heathrow. I was waiting for Godwin Odiye to pick me up.
He picked me up and dropped me off at my hotel. The next day he arrived at my hotel to pick me and we were scheduled to go to his house.
For a few years we had been talking on the phone but he could not understand why I was so interested in meeting him. This was a man totally unaware of his status or notoriety in Nigerian football folklore I thought. Anyway, we drove to his house. He lived in a leafy area of San Francisco, the kind of area which we in Nigeria back then believed all Americans lived in. Rich looking, exclusive looking even.
“When I first moved in here the Police used to pull me over a lot” Odiye said. “They didn’t think I could afford to live here being a black man. I had to write a strongly worded letter to the Police department before the patrol cars stopped”. He is saying this with no ounce of bitterness. A trait I noticed as I interacted with him. He bore no grudges. He seemed at peace with life and all that it entailed.
Got to the house and he opened the garage with the remote control so we could drive in. Inside was a quite modern place. Really beautiful house. He was single again and had no kids in the house. I had made a DVD copy of the AFCON ’80 highlights and that short clip of the Tunisia match. After he had made me coffee he went and slotted in the DVD.
I poured my coffee in a mug and moved towards the living room where he was watching the DVD. I had to stop. I looked at Bros, watching the screen with a look on his face that was that of one in mourning. I had stumbled on a private grief. I kept quiet. He rewound the Tunisia clip at least 3 times. After the third time or so he sighed deeply, looked up, noticed my presence and smiled “thank you for this. You know I have not seen this since that year it happened” which is not surprising as Nigerian TV folks always manage to keep away defeats and rarely ever rerun such. See the goal here.
How do you feel watching it again? I asked him.
“Brought back all the memories leading to the game, the game itself and after the match” he replied. He stared straight, deep in thoughts. “A lot of things were not right going into the match. The officials increased ticket prices saying they did it so they could pay us bonuses – which was a big lie”.
I was too young to have even known that part; I did read that the tickets for the match were more expensive than normal. Didn’t matter to me as I had no chance of going – my dad feared crowds and was not going to take his sons to a packed National Stadium.
“When we came out on to the field our own fans booed us”. That was news to me. To be fair the Lagos fans were notorious for being harsh on their own players for many years if they feel aggrieved.
I noticed from the clip that only keeper Emmanuel Okala came to Odiye after that own goal. “Oh that man is a great man. I will forever cherish what he said to me as I laid on the pitch. He told me to ‘get up abeg, why dem no score for front'”. Odiye said, still staring ahead, recalling that afternoon. “He gave me the courage to continue the match. Everybody else left me alone”
A certain generation of Nigerian national team followers will remember Yakubu Aiyegbeni’s miss at the South Africa based World Cup in 2010. They will also remember Sani Kaita’s sending off Vs Greece in the same tournament. Some might remember Kenneth Omeruo’s performance Vs South Africa in the last qualifier for the 2015 AFCON. Odiye’s own goal of 1977 lasted many generations. Ask your dads or grandads who Odiye was or what “doing an Odiye” is and you will most probably hear “the man who cost Nigeria participation at the 1978 world cup”.
That accusation was not true. Had Nigeria only drawn that match we would still not have qualified. Had Nigeria even won, we would have relied on Egypt – who were already out – to beat Tunisia in Tunis for Nigeria to qualify. It took my adult years to realise these from my own research. I had believed that Odiye cost us the World Cup because that was what was all over the press and TV at the time.
Odiye’s video interview is here
Excerpt from my upcoming book Eagles In Flight