Some might remember where they were on Sunday 11th August 1985 when an NTA programme on channel 10 was interrupted to bring the news that Nigeria had defeated West Germany 2-0 to win the Maiden edition of what is now the FIFA U17 World Cup in China.
The tournament started in late July. Not many Nigerians were even aware of it. The team played one qualifier – an aggregate victory over Togo. That match was followed with criticisms following the involvement of two players who were clearly over the age limit – keeper and skipper Peter Igiebor and Taiwo Oloyede who played for Stationary Stores. They were subsequently dropped and did not make the trip to China.
“We left the country uncelebrated, unheralded” was how Coach Sebastien Brodericks Imasuen described the team’s departure from Nigeria for the tournament. “At the airport, because we were dressed in native attire, a custom official asked ‘Ogunde’s people were travelling again?’” says the goalkeeper Lucky Agbonsebvafe of their airport experience and echoing how they were leaving as unknowns.
It did not end at their departure. None of the group matches was shown live on TV. In fact to this day the opening match victory over Italy was never shown. Even then, the name of the actual goal scorer in that 1 nil victory was only confirmed just before the semi-final. Initially, it was given to Yhaya Mohammed who in the end we found out never got on the pitch. The goal was scored by Billa Momoh who went on to be the team’s top scorer.
Eventually, the tournament caught the imagination of Nigerians when the team got to the semi-final. In those days, when a Nigerian team at any tournament starts to perform well, a goodwill delegation is sent. After defeating Guinea in the semi-final, a delegation was scrambled to get to China to deliver the support of the Federal Government for the ‘Baby Eagles’ or ‘Eaglets’ as they were being called variously in the press.
As it is with Nigeria, the team left without adequate kits “the players were shocked at how better prepared their opponents were in terms of kits and accessories but I told them not to focus on this but to just go ahead and win for Nigeria”said Coach Sebastien Brodericks Imasuen. However, funds could be found for the delegation to go support them for the final. THE MORE THINGS CHANGE THE MORE THINGS STAY THE SAME.
West Germany had defeated Brazil and in Marcel Witeczek they had the tournament’s top scorer going into that final. They were favourites and rightly so. However, Nigeria had a fast start. Inside the first five minutes, Fatai Atere slipped the ball inside the left back, into the path of the speedy Babatunde Joseph. That one pass unhinged the back line as Joseph ran onto it, took what could have been three touches too many but he managed to cross into the box where Jonathan Akpoborie and Sani Adamu both made lunges at the loose ball. The striker made the connection to give Nigeria the lead.
A lead that was held comfortably until Australian referee Chris Bambridge had had enough of Duere Tonworinmi’s persistent fouls, gave him a second yellow card thereby reducing Nigeria to 10 men. Backs to the wall from then on but the defence of Nduka Ugbade, Binebi Numa and Kingsley Akhionbare held firm. The technical crew chose not to bring on a defender to replace Tonworimi, instead the speedy Salisu Nakade came on for Akpoborie with Joseph dropping into the full back position.
With only 2 minutes to go one of the most iconic moments in Nigerian history unfolded before the eyes of the watching nation. Victor Igbinoba had come into the final with 3 goals to his name from his no 10 role. He had passed on an opportunity to take a penalty in the s-final allowing Nakade to take and miss the kick. “Coach Sabara was shouting at me from the bench “Victor if we lose this match we go tell Nigerians that you caused it’” Igbinoba said of that semi-final incident. “Later I was substituted and I was so nervous during the penalty shoot-out but very relieved after we won”.
As Nigeria hung on to that lead in the final, Ugbade hoofed a ball upfield. “I just wanted to kick the ball as far away as I could” Ugbade said. “When I saw Victor (Igbinoba) running onto the ball I was shouting to him to kick it further away”. The midfielder had different thoughts “As soon as I got it all I was thinking was to get into a good position to take a shot”. He dragged the ball from that right side edge of the box and across the box before letting fly a left footer into the roof of the net.
“Many times in training Victor scored many efforts like that” says Keeper Agbonsebvafe. “Some people implied that I wanted to kick the ball away that it was an accident it went in” Igbinoba says with a look of scorn and amusement in his eyes. “I was battling with Bila (Momoh) for who will score more for the team and I had this chance and people think I wanted to kick it away. Sorry, I was aiming to score”.
For close to 2 years that Igbinoba goal was shown everyday on Network TV. How did the scorer feel? “I was very proud and happy. Many times I will be doing something away from the TV, it will come on and someone will shout my name to tell me they are showing it again. It used to fill me with pride to be honest”.
Nduka Ugbade picked up the trophy from the then FIFA President Joao Havelange “When I got the trophy I was in a daze. I was just thinking back immediately to all the hours of training we used to go through at St Gregory’s College Obalende, Lagos and the many things before then…I was just too happy”.
That win at the Workers Stadium, Beijing, China changed the face of Nigerian football forever. On the positive side, it made Nigerians aware that they can actually go and conquer the world in football – at this time the country had never qualified for the FIFA World Cup. The negative side of it was the fixation of subsequent Nigerian administrators to the quick fix of age-group competitions.
That team that left Nigeria “unheralded” returned to the most raucous of celebrations “When we touched down in Lagos, we had to wait nearly 2 hours to get off the plane” Agbonsebvafe said. “We were asking why we are still on the plane and we were informed that the crowd waiting to see us was too big so it was not safe to get out yet”. Streets were named after the players in their states of origin, Chief Commander Ebenezer Obey released an album for them, the U17s were rechristened to Golden Eaglets were a few of the things done in their honour.
There are many who will have things against that 1985 U16/17 World Champions, what they might not be able to disprove though is the assertion that their win changed Nigerian football forever.