As a child growing up I was a voracious reader about anything football and it was not just about football in Nigeria but any where in the world,
I remember before the World Cup in 1986 when I began to search for material about previous World Cups, especially the 1982 edition.
My friend and class mate in secondary school then, Samuel Ogali would regale us with stories about the stars of that Espana ’82 World Cup which I did not watch, but he did and it was interesting listening to him talk about Paulo Rossi, Claudio Gentile, Zico, Socrates, Lakhdar Belloumi, Roger Milla and the rest.
Pre- 1986 World Cup, I studied old editions of Complete Football Magazine as though I was reading for an examination and I began to look for videos too.
I watched, “The History of the World Cup”, “The most memorable goals of the World Cup”, “Pele: My life and the beautiful game” and many others all in a bid to get myself up to speed with the latest happenings in world football. I needed to be ready for the World Cup.
I watched these over and over again until it seemed as though I had been part of the FIFA World Cup since it began in the early 1900s. I had studied enough. I had almost memorised the words of the commentators as the games played.
And the World Cup story taught us, or me, that there were many heroes of World football.
There was Pele, who along with his crew gave reckoning to Brazilian football after the disaster of the 1950 World Cup; there was Geoff Hurst who got a lucky hat-trick in a World Cup final (1966) and there was Mario Kempes who inspired Argentina to a World Cup win in 1978 despite the political turmoil in the land at the time.
There was Paolo Rossi who, despite all the scandals and suspension scored the vital goals that helped Italy win the World Cup in 1982. These were real heroes.
But one picture and video I would never forget was that of Franz Beckenbaur, the German captain who broke his arm in the 1974 World Cup final. But rather than come off and get treatment, he decided to carry his arm in a sling and play out the game. Germany won the World Cup, beating Netherlands in the final and that memory remained etched in my heart forever.
Last week, I saw that photo again, of Franz Beckenbaur on social media depicting a hero who defied an injury to play for his country and the first thing I told myself was that the story of 1974, 46 years ago has continued to be told as though it was current when there have indeed been more heroes in Africa and Nigeria that need to be glorified.
I immediately made a random list.
This former Super Falcons flamboyant goalkeeper broke two fingers in the 8-0 loss to Norway at the 1995 World Cup but refused to come off. Her fingers bandaged and with so much pain she completed the game and also played the next two games for the Super Falcons.
But that was not all because five years later at the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games she was about 6 weeks pregnant and played in goal for the Super Falcons, completing all games for the country.
A month later at the Africa Women Championship and over three months pregnant, she defied the odds to play in goal for the team and win yet another Africa Women Championship gold for Nigeria, playing in every game. She is a true hero.
Do we remember the AFCON in Nigeria in 2000? In the quarter final, Nigeria was on the verge of being knocked out by Senegal.
Captain of the team, Sunday Oliseh was out with malaria and started on the bench, but when matter got to a head he told the coach, Bonfrere Jo that he had to go in… At least that was how they told us the story. In fact some will tell you that Sunday Oliseh practically forced the substitution that saw him go in.
Malaria is a tough thing to have and play a football match as difficult as the AFCON quarter final when you are chasing the game. We watched that game and saw Oliseh on the bench, screaming his lungs out and wishing he was out there on the pitch. He finally came on and helped Nigeria to come back to win that one and qualify. He provided an assist for one of the goals scored by the teenager, Julius Aghahowa.
Stephen Keshi, Henry Nwosu
In my books, the greatest ever Nigerian footballer is Stephen Keshi and Henry Nwosu is not too far behind.
In 1985 while both of them played for Benin side, New Nigeria Bank FC, they alongside three others, Sunday Eboigbe, Bright Omokaro and Humphrey Edobor were banned by the Nigeria Football Association from playing any form of football for one year. While the other four stayed back in Nigeria to serve out their ban, Keshi took his football to the Ivory Coast.
During the time they were suspended, Nigeria failed to qualify for the Mexico 86 World Cup. We managed a 1-0 win in Lagos against Tunisia and lost the return leg 2-0. We were playing without 5 of our best players. To put this in perspective, imagine the Super Eagles playing a World Cup Qualifying match today without William Troost Ekong, Wilfred Ndidi, Joe Aribo, Samuel Chukwueze and Victor Osimhen. Not that they are injured, but because they were banned by the NFF.
Now we were drawn to play against Zambia in the final AFCON qualifier and there was panic in the land, so the NFA squashed the ban.
Henry Nwosu was brought into a rag tag Eagles coached by Patrick Ekeji in a game that ended 0-0 in Lagos. I saw him cover every blade of grass on the day as the Eagles searched for a goal but it was all in vain. He was relentless. Nwosu took free kicks, corner kicks, throw ins, he was all over the place, but the game ended goaless and we lost the return leg 1-0 to miss the AFCON in 1986. This was a player that had just been banned unjustly by the NFA. He went on to play for Nigeria, six more years including the AFCON in 1988 before calling it quits with international football after falling out of favour with Clemens Westerhof and knowing he would miss the World Cup in 1994.
For Stephen Keshi, his story speaks for himself. No amount of pages can tell the story of Stephen’s dedication to Nigeria. These were true heroes of Nigerian football.
John Mikel Obi
Mikel Obi is a true hero of Nigerian football but always got vilified by the media and fans because, well, maybe he did not dribble and show boat like Austin Jay Jay Okocha.
But whenever Mikel played for Nigeria, he gave his all to the team. Matters came to a head when he was announced as team captain. He became more accessible, especially to the media, and he began to take up responsibilities in and out of the pitch.
The 2016 Olympic Games football team was crisis ridden from day 1. They were in so much financial troubles. Mikel Obi made a financial donation to the team that helped out in terms of transportation, allowances and all.
He paid money to a team he was part of, rather than wait to be paid. A true hero.
Liberia had come out of a bitter civil war and the country was on the brink and could not run itself. However, football had to go on and the country’s Lone Stars thought they could qualify for the World Cup in 2002.
The thing is the Liberian FA had no money to run its football. There was no money to organise games, to buy jerseys, to fly players in an out or even to pay match bonuses.
The only other option would have been to withdraw from the qualifying race until George Weah came to the rescue.
At that time, George Weah played for Marseille in the French League but he had previously been on the books of Monaco, PSG, AC Milan, Chelsea and Manchester City.
In 1995 he had won the Africa Player of The Year Award, European Player of the Year Award and World Player of the Year award and was probably the richest man in Liberia at the time.
Weah took the role of captain of the team, maybe, coach, FA Chairman, chief financier too.
He bought jerseys, paid flight tickets, paid match bonuses, accommodation, everything. George Weah was the man. He ran the National Team. They almost qualified for the World Cup in 2002 at the expense of Nigeria and Ghana but fell out at the last minute.
Today he is president of Liberia, which is not surprising, after all he did.
A true hero of the game.
The Super Eagles era of 1986 to 1990 was a time that Nigerian players based in Europe would always hold the country to ransom before accepting invitations to play.
Players then would demand appearance fees to play and these were not the regular match bonuses. The players would still not arrive in camp, in some cases until the eve of the game and still play the next day. That was the lot of the Eagles at the time.
But in 1987, Samuel Okwaraji came into the scene and we were told that he would pay his way from Germany to Nigeria to play and will not ask for ticket refunds. We also heard that he did not ask for appearance fees like some of the others and sometimes chose to let go of his match bonuses. Okwaraji was the perfect example of dying for your father land because he actually did.
A true hero of Nigerian football.
I could go on and on about this and no amount of books in the world will contain stories of heroes of Nigerian/ African sports, but I will stop here because I do not have more than 7 minutes to do this.
The point is that we cannot continue to be Euro-centric when talking about these things as we have a lot of our own that need to be highlighted.
I told Ann Chiejine while speaking to her last week that she is a true Nigerian hero and should have a statue mounted at the entrance of the Tesilim Balogun Stadium in Lagos or the National Stadium in Abuja and the same should be done for all these names mentioned above.
Let us think about it and begin to give credit to whom it is due. The next generation is watching.