The failure of the Green Eagles in missing out on AFCON ’86 and Mexico ’86 World Cup was somehow diluted by the qualifying campaign of the Flying Eagles for the Chile ’87 World Youth Championships. Christopher Udemezue had been sent back to coach to them while Paul Hamilton had been rewarded for the 3rd place finish in Moscow with a promotion to the senior side. Not so sure what sort of reward it really was in truth.
Back with the Flying Eagles Udemezue started to weave his magic again. Remember I pointed out earlier in this chapter how ages had become fluid? This Flying Eagles team’s first skipper was one Augustine Eguavoen! In 1986. Anyway, we move on. This was probably the last age group team I had an affinity with. Scratch that. I loved this team. I was getting ready for my final secondary school exams when they started their qualifying campaign.
It is possible to exaggerate the importance of an individual in how a people react to an ongoing national event so I will understand if I am accused of exaggeration here. With benefit of hindsight now I believe Mitchell Obi as Sports Editor of Guardian Express Newspapers – an evening newspaper then in Lagos and most of the South-west – was a huge factor in hyping the team. Throughout their qualifying campaign, a squad selection for the tournament and the tournament proper, Guardian Express Newspapers were there. Nobody who liked football will allow an evening end without a copy. They were magnificent in their coverage.
Back to the team. I am not exactly sure when it was that a Belgian side Ghent came to Nigeria. They played the Flying Eagles as Udemezue was starting to build a new team. Eguavoen played and Ikechukwu Ofoje then skipper of Rangers International also played. The match was notable for one reason only: a stocky right sided forward called Etim Esin led the Europeans’ defence on a merry dance all game. I think he scored at least one in a 3-1 win for the U20s.
There was a run from the right then infield and across the box where he proceeded to unleash a fierce left foot drive that whistled past the keeper’s left hand inside the post. It was a beautiful solo goal. Before this we had been hearing whispers of Esin at Calabar Rovers; now we have witnessed it in Lagos. After that goal and match Esin’s life changed. Forever.
After that encounter with the touring Belgians there was a huge outcry over the inclusions of Ofoje and Eguavoen in the team. A player at Calabar Rovers at the time Celestine Nzekwe was quoted as saying that Ofoje was definitely older than 19 because he (Ofoje) was Nzekwe’s senior in secondary school by at least 3 classes. At this time, Nzekwe was well over 20 years old having graduated from University of Calabar!
By the time the team played their first qualifier – a goalless draw in Lusaka against Zambia – both Ofoje and Eguavoen were not in the team. What I always remember as the team prepared for the return leg in Lagos was the huge press coverage. All the newspapers were in on it.
There was a buzz about the team that I wasn’t sure why at the time. On the morning of the match every paper I read had an interview with skipper and goalkeeper Wilfred Opara. What was so remarkable was how he insisted that because the team had Etim Esin they were certain they will get through. As at that time in my life I had not heard a Nigerian footballer actually so publicly endorse a team mate as a match winner.
That second leg Vs Zambia was live on TV and the first time the whole country was seeing them. It was a very difficult game and the Zambians gave as good as they got. Midway through the second half Nigeria got the winning goal. Esin showed remarkable burst of speed to get onto a through ball from Thompson Oliha and touch beyond the onrushing keeper. The packed National Stadium in Lagos exploded.
A swing of the draws with the return leg in Zambia and I am convinced the Zambians would have gone through. They were equally matched. In October of ’86, Egypt came calling for the Flying Eagles. That afternoon was the day the team was established in the consciousness of Nigerians. I still remember how the coverage started with the teams filing onto the pitch from the tunnel. The Egyptians were in Green, the Flying Eagles in an all white outfit.
The team had changed markedly from the one that best Zambia. John Okon who was only a sub in that match started. He was the conductor in the midfield trio that included Ikpowomsa Omoregie and Thompson Oliha. The fantastically fluid front three had Lawrence Ukaegbu, Etim Esin and new boy Adeolu Adekola.
To understand how Udemezue set up this front 3 you just needed to watch them. All three were two footed. Had speed off on and off the ball and were confident dribblers when in possession.
Egypt had no idea what hit them. The rampant hosts ran out 4-0 winners. Nosa Osadolor thumped home the first from a free kick. Adekola and Oliha scored the rest. One of them scored twice but I don’t remember which. It was not just the number of goals nor their individual qualities. It was the fantastic football the team put on display that had Nigerians purring.
This was 433 formation like we had not seen before. What we did not know at the time was that that particular match was going to haunt the team in future.
The second leg in Egypt 2 weeks later was on a Friday. Every Nigerian knows it is war when a match Vs a North African country is fixed for a Friday. It was also very cold but it seemed the Nigerian team were well prepared as the players wore gloves and had heavy stuff under their white shirts.
I had not even an iota of fear going into that match. The confidence I had in this team I was never to replicate in a Nigerian side again until Clemens Westerhof took over and after Algiers ’90 AFCON.
This match was live on TV and right from kick off our boys were up for it. They attacked with such confidence and force that when we took the lead it was not a surprise. Told you Udemezue was an innovative coach didnt I? The Nigerian goal was from a corner kick routine exactly the same as that which gave England the lead Vs Germany during the Euro ’96 semi-final.
Decoy runs in the box start with Adekola vacating the near post, Ukaegbu takes his place just in time to meet Osadolor’s delicately flighted corner. He flicks it on with his head into the path of Oliha. The midfielder arrives just in time to plant his free header into the roof of the net. Beautifully worked.
The tie was effectively over as far as we were concerned. Egypt gave it a good go and scored 2 goals to turn the match into a contest. Oliha found time to be sent off for some offence I don’t even recall. What I do recall was how reluctant he was to leave the pitch. Nduka Ugbade had to practically usher him off. Game ended 2-1 to the hosts but Nigeria went through 5-2 on aggregate.
As I write now it has just hit me that those two matches Vs Egypt were as good as it got for that team. They beat Somalia 2 nil on aggregate to qualify for the World Cup. They then beat Togo 5-1 on aggregate to retain the Tessema Cup for the age group in Africa.
I have no idea what happened or maybe it was the nature of the beating of Egypt that made sure there was no tension going into the other matches. Somalia was only tough because of numerous chances missed in Lagos. It was one way traffic all match. Adeolu Adekola scored the only goal just as he did in Mogadishu.
Before the matches against Togo came an incident that rocked the team, shocked Nigeria and Nigerians in a manner I had not experienced before.
Team’s talisman Etim Esin broke camp rules and went out at night. He was attacked by armed robbers and he was shot in the thigh. Again, Guardian Express Newspapers broke the news with a front page headline that screamed “Etim Esin shot by Robbers” or something to that effect. The report said he was in hospital. I was not sure of anything as the reports were flowing left, right and centre. Initial reports were scanty and no one knew if he was going to live. When it was confirmed that he was definitely going to live then the panic of if he was going to be fit for Chile!
If you remember the panic in England when both David Beckham (in 2002) and Wayne Rooney (2006) broke their toes just before the world cup then that’s what happened in Nigeria back then in 1987. Esin’s delinquent behaviour in camp had been a major source of angst for the coaching crew, this shooting just multiplied an exasperating situation. The choosing of the final squad for Chile ’87 was the first time politics was so glaring in the choice of players. Poor Udemezue must have hated it all.
There was this unshaken belief that Nigeria was going to win the tournament therefore it was important to some that they had their own choice of players in the squad. There were those who wanted promoted members of the China U16 winners there. Nduka Ugbade had cemented his place at left back.
Jonathan Akpoborie was a confirmed substitute for any of the front 3 but that was it. Keeper Agbonsebvafe was also a sub for Willy Opara. Victor Igbinoba had become terribly off form but was a squad member unable to shift any of the first choice midfielders. Sani Adamu was also always there.
After these Golden Eaglets, the politicking was for the remaining slots and it was not pretty. Different lists were released before the official list to FIFA. In all these the draws were made and Nigeria was in a tough group with Brazil, Italy and Canada. No round of 16 for best 3rd placed teams back in 1987.
Etim Esin recovered sufficiently enough to make the 18 man squad list sent to FIFA. Before the tournament started in Chile the Guardian Express Newspapers published a rare scouting report of the Brazil team. Brazil had taken part in that summer’s Toulon Tournament in France. I don’t remember if Brazil won it but what the report hammered on was on the free kick taking talent of Andre Cruz. Apparently he had scored a few in Toulon. That warning stuck in my mind at the time principally because it was unique in Nigerian sports reporting.
I will say this without any shame that when the boys left Nigeria I was 75% confident that they will beat Brazil and that they could even win the whole thing. I thought Udemezue’s brand of 4-3-3 was going to surprise the world and give us plenty to rejoice about. I spent days convincing or trying to convince those sceptics with my reading of our tactics and what I felt the tactics of the opposition would be. Being patriotic can make fools of many men and boys.
Nigeria’s opening group game was Vs Brazil. It was on Sunday October 11th and an evening kick off. Earlier that afternoon I had gone to play “set” as usual but we closed early to get home on time for the 8pm kick off. I got home, showered and was in the living room just in time to see the Brazil team running onto the pitch in the yellow and blue outfit with their flag held by the front 6 players.
At the sight of that iconic jersey of the Brazilians my heart sank. All the confidence I had built up in the weeks going into this competition evaporated in those few seconds as I watched those Brazil players.
Nigeria started with Etim Esin fit, started with the exact same team that beat Egypt nearly a year before. Opara; Osadolor, Ugbade, Ahmed, Babalola; Okon, Omoregie, Oliha; Adekola, Esin and Ukaegbu. I don’t even remember who kicked off first. This match was never shown again after – at least I don’t remember watching it again.
For the first 2o minutes or more the Nigerian team could not get a kick. Opara in goal was peppered with shots and crosses which he seemed to be doing well with. I feared some more when Opara launched a kick high and long into the Brazil half. The ball was coming down with snow on it but Andre Cruz, edge of the Brazil box coolly killed it on his chest, swivelled and side footed a volley to his keeper.
The nonchalant arrogance must have been soul destroying for the men in green around him. Eventually the deadlock was broken and Brazil scored through Alcindo who played from the right. Minutes later they had a free-kick, up stepped the number 6 Andre Cruz. The Centre Back curled an absolute beauty over the wall into the roof of the net. Opara just stood and watched helplessly. Our living room was deathly silent. I understood then that the feelings I had just before kick off were actually a premonition.
Midway through the first half Omoregie was booked. I kid you not, that was the first time in the game I was seeing the normally all action midfielder in the match! We were swamped. Nobody in green was getting a proper kick of the ball. Just before half time a rare Nigerian attack broke down, the South Americans countered ending with Oliviera scoring a 3rd goal. Contest over.
In the second half, Brazil just consolidated with a 3 nil lead they didn’t need to go looking for more goals. It was a complete nightmare for me as I watched. I just didn’t see this coming at all. This was the team that was going to break the Brazil hoodoo so what on earth was going on.
At some point in the second half Esin went on a run, exchanged passes with Oliha, ran a bit more before crashing a shot onto the underside of the Brazil bar. That was as good as it got for us. Eventually, Oliviera scored a 4th and final goal for the afternoon. When the final whistle went it was like we had a bereavement in the family. We were just silent. Stunned silence.
Remember the Egypt matches during the qualifiers? Remember how I had said that the 4-3-3 formation of Udemezue was innovative in the Nigerian context at the time or something like that? Ok. In the post match press conference the Brazil coach said they had videos of those matches Vs Egypt and made their tactical plans based on what they saw.
The plan was that they played a 4-5-1 system so they could outnumber Nigeria in the middle. Upfront they also targeted Osadolor the Nigerian right back because “we noticed he was slow on the recovery and on the turn”. When I read these in the Guardian the next evening my football thinking was drastically changed. I had never looked at Osadolor as slow but immediately after I started thinking back to his play and realised it was true.
A 2-2 draw with Canada followed the Brazil defeat. That knocked the stuffing out of a deflated lot especially as they were just minutes away from a win. A 2 nil defeat in the final group game to Italy meant they were deservedly knocked out.
Many years later I was able to speak to two members of the squad and they gave different reasons for the failure. Lucky Agbonsebvafe was the reserve goalie. “It was not a United squad at all. Esin did whatever he liked and was a bad influence on some others. There were also players who made the team due to influence from outside while there seemed to be a desire not to let the China 85 players dominate”.
That shocked me. “I still believe it is a big deal to go outside to represent your country in a major tournament. The majority of the players had not before and it showed. They were so nervous before the Brazil game and it showed. After we lost that we should have just returned home for there was no coming back after that defeat”.
Victor Igbinoba (China ’85 hero) was also in the squad but a bad ankle injury had caused him to lose form and was really fortunate – in the views of many – to make that 18 man squad.
“Our players were arrogant right from when we arrived Santiago. You know we were in the same hotel with the other teams in our group. So every time we passed the Brazil players they will be making comments and boasting at how they will show them on Sunday and things like that.
The worst part was the day before the game, one of the Brazil players – Oliviera I think it was – came to us and said it was his birthday. He invited us to come and join him and his team mates to cut cake and all of that. My guys just made fun of him saying how they will spoil his birthday with defeat. Some of us just couldn’t say much because we felt we were not going to even play. After the Brazil match all man chill na. Wey boasting again? Ehen na. I don’t know why they were so proud before a ball was kicked to this day”.
Only the Nigerian team to the France based 1998 world cup left with the same sort of goodwill and general optimism amongst Nigerians like there was for the Chile ’87 Flying Eagles. The crash in Santiago affected me so badly that I went off Nigerian age group teams to this day. Initially because I didn’t want to be hurt but later, because I thought the country’s football people were short changing us.
Coach Udemezue was sacked or removed from his post in the aftermath. From that squad only Ugbade from the first choice back four played for the senior side. In midfield, Oliha was winning a senior cap early the next year. The first to graduate to a senior cap. He went on to be at AFCONs 90 and 94 also playing at the US ’94 world cup.
Adekola won a senior cap in 1991, then football oblivion. Esin seemed destined to have a long run as he started winning senior caps in 1989 through to 1991. He then derailed through off field matters and destroyed what might have been a great career.
Jonathan Akpoborie went on to have a sterling career in the Bundesliga and won many caps. Politics cost him a deserved place at the France ’98 world cup. That’s about it. Why was I so fond of the team in the end? Ah well, how does one explain love really?
Adapted from my unpublished book Eagles In Flight