One of the first things that hits you after landing in Lagos—apart from the customary welcome blanket of humidity and the piercing inspection of your dermis by Aedes aegypti— is the widespread proliferation of football jerseys.
After a few days, you become accustomed to being whistled at by Didier Drogba hawking ironing boards in between traffic, Samuel Eto’o working part-time at the local car-wash and Kaká monitoring a herd of reluctant, anorexic cattle alongside a dual carriageway. Retro-aficionados of the global religion would palpitate at the sheer variety of jerseys. Any given day could yield sightings of jerseys from Cruzeiro, Schalke, Kashima Antlers, Almeria etc…
However, a somewhat keener eye is needed to spot jerseys from teams which ply their trade in the top tier of the Nigerian domestic league.
You may spot the odd okada man weaving through traffic in a Kano Pillars jersey, or a suya-selling vendor sporting an Enyimba shirt. The frequency of local team sightings is dwarfed by the numbers of imported jerseys, mirroring the interest and viewing figures of the national league compared to the global juggernauts of the Bundesliga, La Liga, Premier League, Serie A and Ligue 1.
The post-millennium generation that flock to viewing centres and crash-visit their friend’s and/or neighbour’s houses just before kick-off have no knowledge of the days when local players entertained packed stadiums all over the country when games were televised live in the late seventies and early eighties.
It’s a time of sepia-tinged wonderment.
The economy was vibrant and high oil prices ensured that one naira equalled one British pound (over 500 naira to £1 now and rising). Afrobeat polyrhythms ruled the airwaves with fiery, sonic missives from King Sunny Ade, Fela Kuti and Chief Steven Osadebe. Initially, government agencies (Ports Authority, Railways, Water Corporation) sponsored football clubs; however, the national fever of football could not be controlled. Shortly, every industrialist/politician wanted their own club to cement their social status and display their benevolence.
There were so many teams: Leventis United and Stationery Stores from Lagos, Rangers and Vasco da Gama from Enugu, IICC Shooting Stars from Ibadan, Mighty Jets from Jos, Bendel Insurance from Benin City and Raccah Rovers from Kano. Supporters clubs travelled en masse to games by car or train on the now semi-defunct railway network. It created a festive atmosphere as home and away fans mixed freely within the stadium.
NASCENT STARS BEGIN TO SHINE
Those that could not make it to the stadiums listened to the familiar tones of Ernest Okonkwo on the radio who coined numerous player nicknames like Finidi the Finisher, Defence Marshal Yisa Sofoluwe, or the Big Boss - Stephen Keshi.
Players came through the system via a variety of means and amidst a curious atmosphere. Today, any child that shows a healthy predisposition to dribble or shoot is encouraged to continue developing their craft for a potential career. At the time, however, football was viewed through the debilitating prism of class: it was considered a game for peasants.
Many talented schoolboys had to hide their boots from over-zealous parents, who considered football a waste of time and were more interested in academic certificates, a route to university and economic progress.
Kenneth Boardman, who schooled in Enugu, sneaked out from his house to play a football game against a rival school at the main stadium.
Following a sterling performance by Boardman, a group of fans passed his house singing his name. His father overheard. On getting back to the house, Boardman was disciplined for disobedience—and then asked to give an account of his performance.
Kenneth signed for Enugu Rangers after finishing his secondary school education and went on to play for the Green Eagles (Senior Men’s Team). Many players were unearthed playing for schools and colleges, with most States running a yearly knock-out cup competition which was highly competitive and covered voraciously by print, radio and TV.
One of the most talented schoolboys, Henry Nwosu, was plucked out of St. Finbarr’s College at the age of 15 after impressing during a Benin Select XI friendly versus the Green Eagles. One of the Brazilian assistant coaches said that his playing style was reminiscent of the great midfield maestro, Didi. Nwosu played as a teenager for Nigeria at AFCON 80 and went on to play in further AFCON finals.
The vibrancy and liquidity of the Nigerian game attracted players from across the region. It was even known for some players to change nationality to ensure that they gained extra kudos in the Nigerian League.
A famous story occurred when the Green Eagles went to Accra to play in AFCON 78. On returning back to the hotel from training, one of the players, Annas Ahmed was greeted by a rowdy reception committee, pounding drums, wearing traditional Ghanaian cloth and bestowing beads and gifts around his neck.
It transpired that Annas was the first son of his recently deceased father, who was a traditional king from a community in Northern Ghana. As his father had passed, he was expected to fill his shoes. He actually turned down the responsibility to return to Kano and continue his career with Raccah Rovers. Annas spoke Hausa, the major lingua franca across the Sahel region, and so was able to obtain a Nigerian passport without administrators knowing his true nationality.
In 1976, a non-league team called Alyuf Salam Rocks of Ilorin—comprised of ten players from Ghana—made it to the finals of the national Challenge Cup. Utilising a passing and possession-based game, they were eventually defeated by Enugu Rangers. There were also Guineans, Sierra Leoneans, Cameroonians and Togolese players plying their trade in the league.
As well as players, coaching staff flocked into the country as clubs opened their war chests to become competitive. This influenced the style of football played in the stadiums.
Teofanis came from Greece to coach at Leventis. He moulded a team that played in a colourful, expansive style. Roberto Diaz travelled from Brazil followed by Janusz Kowalik from Poland to manage Enugu Rangers between 1976-1984. Alex Dominguez arrived from Argentina to coach Kaduna Ranchers Bees.
English coach Alan Hawkes came from the West Midlands to coach Shooting Stars through their most successful era. Shooting sent him to the World Cup in West Germany in 1974 and he fell in love with the German style of play, as opposed to the much admired Dutch. He abandoned the prevailing ‘kick and rush’ philosophy based on the football from England and instituted an attacking, pressing game combined with an aggressive offside trap to squeeze play into their opponent’s half.
Hawkes once ordered a new centre-back to walk home and glance over his shoulder every five yards to get used to checking where the forwards are.
Nigeria became an international laboratory as progressive coaching ideas merged with the national traits of strength, agility and dribbling/trickery. It provided an innovative blueprint for the future and ensured that the stadiums were packed. Attendances were regularly seen to be over 25,000—the biggest games attracted up to 50,000.
The 1990’s generation of Nigerian footballers, with the likes of Finidi George, Nwankwo Kanu, Jay-Jay Okocha and Daniel Amokachi thrilled football fans at the 94 and 98 World Cup Finals. Their Olympic success in 1996 ensured global recognition. There are, however, many who are adamant that the 70’s generation were even more talented.
Segun Odegbami was called the ‘Mathematician’ because of his skill and ability to bamboozle defenders. Tall and lean, he had the mesmerising dribble of a David Ginola or Chris Waddle combined with the ability to cross like Roberto Carlos and to shred a defender one on one like Garrincha. He visited the UK on holiday in 1979 and was invited for a trial at Spurs but turned it down—he was enjoying his football and was getting paid a good wage at home.
Aloysius Atuegbu was a stocky midfield powerhouse. Nicknamed ‘Blockbuster’ due to his ferocious shooting, he had the strength of Claude Makelele, the drive of Bryan Robson and the passing ability of Juan Sebastian Veron. A key member of the Enugu Rangers midfield, he won numerous trophies before retiring due to a knee injury.
Mudashiru Lawal was another player lauded for his ability and lung power. He possessed a graceful, magnetic relationship with the ball. He was a precursor to Carlos Valderrama and Juan Román Riquelme; a conductor that could marshal a baroque composition or a slow waltz. All passes he received were returned accurately. He was able to adapt his game to play as an attacking or defensive midfielder depending on tactical directions. He became the fulcrum of the Green Eagles’ midfield and raised the bar to a standard that few have managed to attain since.
‘Chairman’ Christian Chukwu was a no-nonsense central defender who combined a robust attitude with incisive short and long passes. He had the galvanising spirit of Ruud Gullit and the defensive awareness of Franco Baresi. He captained Enugu Rangers to numerous titles and led the national team to AFCON glory in 1980.
Thompson Usiyen was a striker who many suggest was the best natural finisher to wear the green jersey of the national team (1976-1981). He had a giant leap, was a beast in the air and had the finishing abilities of a snooker cue in the box. During a Green Eagles training camp, he spotted retired players hanging around the national camp seeking financial support from administrators and decided that the best route to guarantee his future was education. He decamped to the US mid-career to utilise a college education and managed to play professional football and work as a tax consultant simultaneously.
THE GREAT RIVALRIES AND TAKING ON THE CONTINENT
There have been numerous rivalries since the inception of the league in 1972. However the most ferocious were games between Rangers (Enugu) v IICC (Ibadan) which etched themselves into the national psyche. They were not only the best teams during the period of 1975-1978, there was also a post civil-war connotation.
Rangers carried the hopes of the Biafran people and the transition from a military battle to a sporting arena was not lost on many. Communal clashes did occur in Lagos around the period of a contested fixture, with lives lost at times. The battle on the pitch was a clash of styles: Rangers played a spartan, functional style while Shooting preferred a short, passing game. The history of the two sides would be intertwined over those few years.
In 1976, Shooting Stars became the first Nigerian club to win a continental trophy when they beat Tonnerre Yaounde 4-2 on aggregate over two legs in the Africa Cup Winners Cup trophy. The conclusion to the 1977 league campaign went down to the wire, with both Shooting and Rangers tied on both points and goals for and against.They could not be separated by league rules.
The National Sports Commission administrators met in a private session. They used the might of their collective brainpower and came to the conclusion that the best way to choose a winner was to toss a coin to decide which side would represent Nigeria in the upcoming Africa Club Championship. The coin landed on the side of Shooting Stars.
A year later, Enugu Rangers would beat Union Douala 5-2 on aggregate in the African Cup Winners Cup.
In 1980, the strong and impressive Bendel Insurance team reached the semi-final of the premier continental club tournament trophy against the Cameroonian team Canon Yaounde. The first-leg ended 0-0. Before the return leg, the team visited a local alfa - a Muslim cleric - who said that they will win if all of the players manage to avoid touching blood over the next five days. She was paid a large sum for her foresight.
A torrential downpour kissed the turf before kick-off. Benin pressed forward looking for an early breakthrough but went behind to a set-piece. Benin then equalised before Canon hit them on the break. Straight after the final whistle, the distraught Benin players were corralled aboard a minibus before they had a chance to change and were immediately driven back to the alfa by club management. She was surprised to see their sullen faces and asked all the players to sit down in a large circle before throwing a stream of cowrie shells onto the ground.
Having received further inspiration, she demanded to know which player had made love to a woman during menstruation, rendering her invocations ineffective.
A flurry of arguments ensued between the players before goalkeeper George Eborjor raised his hand and admitted that he visited a house of ill repute yesterday as a way to release the building tension. He apologised to his teammates, management and the rejuvenated alfa, before they left in a quiet storm of despondency.
A DOWNWARD SPIRAL
In the 1980’s, privately owned football clubs like Leventis or Abiola Babes won a swathe of national silverware and pushed state-financed clubs towards the margins. The social and political climate became tense as the military junta began to rule by decree and did not brook dissent. Inflation rose, oil revenues dropped and the country dipped into a financially tough period. The clubs now frustrated by league management and dwindling revenue faced a tough set of decisions: to either retrench operations or fold. Many clubs of the golden era disappeared.
Simultaneously, increasing television revenue and more intensive club scouting in other markets meant that Nigerian players began to be lured north to play in numerous leagues in search of hard currency and exposure. Competition between the remaining clubs over a decreasing pot of money ensured that success became a do-or-die affair resulting in the rise of bribery and the intimidation of officials to engineer results. Away wins could lead to riots on the pitch and around the stadium. Attendances dropped as only supporters with a militaristic mentality came to support their team.
The chronic state of the game reached its apogee on 9th September 1995. Stadium security were struggling to control rioting Stationery Stores fans after the referee awarded an 87th-minute penalty to Enugu Rangers which turned out to be the winner. Shots were fired and a stray bullet struck Rangers player Iginiwari George (the younger brother of Finidi) who was on the team coach.
George was quickly taken to a local hospital but it was found to have depleted stores of medical supplies. He died as he was being driven to another hospital. The majestic game had consumed its own fruit.
Stores were banned from competitive football for three years and have not returned to their glory days.
The national league descended into a potent cocktail of famine and farce in the nineties. Digital cable channels began to screen star-studded league football from all corners of the globe and made it the centrepiece of their package bundles. Nigerian football fans thus turned their gaze towards European football and shunned the local product. They began to despise the administrators who only seemed keen to amass as much money from FIFA and CAF as possible without looking to implement a long-term strategy to develop home-grown football.
Players and club officials felt the impact of the organisational malaise and began to take matters into their own hands. With the growth of online gambling, some leant towards match-fixing to boost their cash-flow. The much fabled lower division game between Plateau United Feeders and Akurba FC that finished 79-0 in 2013 serves as testament to the systemic rot that was able to settle into the game.
To add to the financial chaos, over the past six years players from clubs like Warri Wolves, Calabar Rovers, Taraba FC, Awka FC and Bendel Insurance FC have all protested against non-payment of player salaries (some for over nine months).
It was an international embarrassment that prodded the Nigerian FA out of inertia.
Since 2014, however, there has been something of a renaissance in the national game. A lucrative sponsorship with a telecommunications company was sealed, precipitating better officiating, improved seating arrangements and increased media coverage. A new generation of fans are being lured back into the stadiums. Local players are being noticed too, some have made the transition to the Super Eagles following the same trajectory as Yakubu Aiyegbeni, Ahmed Musa etc.
LOOKING TO THE FUTURE, REMEMBERING THE PAST
Rashidi Yekini (Shooting Stars, Vitoria de Setubal) was one of the stars of the World Cup in 1994. He passed away on the 4th May 2012. Having allegedly been suffering from mental health issues, he had fallen on hard times. Like other fallen legends of Nigerian football such as Muda Lawal, Aloysius Atuegbu and Stephen Keshi, there has been a distinct lack of honour to recognise the efforts of those who have left an indelible mark on the national game. Critics state that other countries would erect a statue or a stadium in honour of their efforts for club and country to ensure that their legacy is not forgotten.
The present generation does not know who these names are. There is a worry that if something is not done soon, their contribution will be limited to the frontal lobes of balding septuagenarians and Nigeria’s golden age will be forgotten.