From Ibeabuchi to Keshi: My Nigerian football greats

From Ibeabuchi to Keshi: My Nigerian football greats

I can never be sure exactly when it was I fell in love with football but I know it has been something I have loved above anything else. Football; footballers, memories given to me by footballers and football matches I have watched that I have managed to store in my memory bank.

For my 50th Birthday I do this list of players that helped me fall in love with the game, some famous names there but many not so famous.

Ogidi Ibeabuchi was a left winger for my first football love Rangers International. I discovered football and this team at the same time and Ogidi stood out for me because of his name and the speed of his play. He was on the left while Emeka Onyedika was on the right as Rangers captured the 1977 Cup Winners Cup retaining it for the country as IICC Shooting Stars of Ibadan had won it the previous year.

In that final first leg versus Canon Sportif of Yaounde, Cameroon, Ogidi won two penalties both from his speed. I have this memory of him crawling off the pitch, on all fours, so the pen could be taken. He died tragically in a car crash not long after he stopped playing for Rangers.

As I was growing up I had this belief that Emmanuel Okala was not a human being for such was the tone in which older people around me used to speak about him. He was a giant of a man though and towered over all his team mates. Okala kept goal for Rangers and the Green Eagles during my childhood. I remember a Champions Cup match in which my Rangers went to Algeria for a 2nd leg s/final match vs Moloudia Chadia in 1976. Rangers went there defending a 2 goal lead but that night in Algiers my heroes never got a kick.

Commentary was on Radio Nigeria and Ernest Okonkwo kept on and on “…Okala is there again for Rangers”, “a terrific shot but saved by Okala” and many many more. Despite his many efforts including saving a penalty, Rangers lost 3 nil and were knocked out. I did find out that way back in 1972 that a young Okala had been first choice for the Green Eagles for the Gold Medal football event final. Unfortunately he got injured early and was taken off, eight years later he surprisingly lost his place to Best Ogedegbe as the Green Eagles hosted and won AFCON ’80.

Segun Odegbami was Nigeria’s first football national football star. In a country totally riven with tribal sentiments, Odegbami was the one man who was universally accepted as a star. As a boy, watching him then was like looking up to a god. Tall, sleek of movement and good looking, he was just what one wanted to be like on the playground but never quite able to.

Trying to describe him or his play will be a waste of time. His performance at the 1980 AFCON final vs Algeria is yet to be matched by any Nigerian. I dedicate a chapter to him in my book.

Christian Chukwu. Captain of Rangers International and the Green Eagles, Chukwu seemed to be that rock at the back for the two teams. He was also a goalscorer when he goes on his sorties upfield. During that run up to the CWC win of 77 for Rangers, he scored a free-kick versus ECN of Addis Ababa. In the same season he did score a deflected effort versus Egypt during the futile WC ’78 World Cup qualifier.

As skipper, he was also the MVP as Nigeria won the 1980 AFCON in Lagos. Chukwu was my first football hero and I have a few experiences with him that make me chuckle. In 1991 I was at the airport in Lagos with the Universiade squad getting ready to fly to Sheffield, England. That same night, the Super Eagles were flying to Papendal, Holland for a training camp, Chukwu at the head. A few of my team mates went up to Chukwu to say hello to him but I was way too shy to even get anywhere near him. I just stood back and watched.

A decade ago I was able to interview him in Enugu I managed to tuck in my awe as I was able to carry out the interview. I still feel very good when he allowed me to pay for groceries he had bought to take home to his family.

Mudashiru Babatunde Lawal: Hajji Muda was a phenomenal football for club and country. He lit up Dire-Dawa, Ethiopia during Nigeria’s first AFCON appearance and went on to score in two different AFCON final matches – 1980 and 1984.

He was a tireless runner and dribbler in midfield, scored a lot of goals and as his career wound down started playing from deep midfield. My abiding moment of him was his performance in that match vs Tunisia in November 1977, I am 100% certain he covered every blade of grass at the Surulere pitch o the national stadium, Lagos.

Hajj Muda’s skillset was such that I am certain he would have made a career even now. Engine, check; passing, check; goals, check; team play, check. A proper midfielder.

Felix Owolabi (Owo Blow). With a powerful left foot and a dribbling ability that was so forceful and energised the fans, Owo Blow was able to play in 3 different positions for the Green Eagles on that left side: LB, LW and Left side midfield. His introduction in the opening game at AFCON ’80 rescued a flagging Eagles with a dribbling run, cross that was headed in by Odegbami. A goal that was the 3rd that finally subdued the game Taifa Stars of Tanzania.

Adokiye Amiesimaka. A born dribbler at a time when dribbling was actively encouraged. A law student at the University of Lagos when he became a regular for the Green Eagles attending the 1978 AFCON in Ghana and All Africa Games in Algeria.

During that Argentina ’78 qualifying campaign, Amiesimaka on the left, Odegbami on the right gave Nigeria speed, skills and goals. The left winger made a goal for right winger in the four-nil demolition of Egypt, such was their penetration as an attacking force.

When I had the honour of interviewing many years ago I reminded him of a game in Dakar with the Green Eagles in 1977 rescued a draw for the Green Eagles. He was genuinely surprised and proceeded to tell me stuff that went on in the match.

In December of 1981 the Flying Eagles captained by Franklin Howard had a qualifier in Lagos vs Tunisia for the Australia based U20 World Cup. I saw this young left winger for the team who seemed so physically different from the others because he looked he should be in primary school. He had a magical left foot though and was lightening quick.

The Flying Eagles won this leg 4 nil. Two weeks later they went to a freezing Sousse for the second leg. The Tunisians were rampant in the return and went 3 nil up rather quickly. That Flying left winger got a ball and peeled away down the flank, he flung a cross in the general direction of the box and goal, ball was caught in the wind and looped over the keeper and into the net. A vital away goal. Tunisia got another but that fluke from Humprey Edobor saw Nigeria through. Cameroon eventually stopped Nigeria but the name Edobor was to last long.

Two years later he was part of the first Nigerian team to qualify for a FIFA World Cup as the Flying Eagles made Mexico ’83. Humphrey Edobor was just a dream to watch. Nicknamed “elastic Edobor” by Ernest Okonkwo on radio commentaries, he was quick, could dribble, had a cracking shot on him with that left foot and to this day we are yet to have a better left footed crosser of the ball for the national team. Between 1983 and 1988 he was one of the best players in the country.

Henry Nowsu. EVERY young boy with more than a passing interest in football of my generation was given hope of a career in the sport just by watching Nwosu. A truly special footballer. He actually had it all. Won AFCON 1980 as a teenager and was robbed of another win in 1988 by the diabolical refereeing of Idrissa Saar in Morocco.

He dribbled, he passed, he had the tricks and flicks and still had the kick of a mule in his ferocious shooting. Time and chance is a thing because there is not ONE footballer playing football for Nigeria in the last 10 years that could match Nwosu for ability yet he was never able to play in Europe because amongst other things he could not deal with cold weather.

Stephen Keshi. Terrific footballer and a born leader of men. By far Nigeria’s most influential football person of my generation. No one comes close.

Rashidi Yekini. Nigeria’s greatest goalscorer at the national team. Goalsfather was just a machine. I remember being so nervous hours before Nigeria’s first ever world cup match vs Bulgaria at US ’94. Then I reminded myself that Yekini was going to play and I immediately calmed down. That was the kind of confidence he gave many of us.

This list is not even exhaustive even though I had limited it to those of my younger years. A lot of these players helped cement my love for the sport while giving me great memories that I am hoping not to forget.

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