Heroes

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by Segun Odegbami © Segun Odegbami (March 22nd 2015)

AFCON 1980 Triumph

35 years ago today, I was one of sixteen young Nigerian football players that walked onto the turf of the National Stadium, Surulere, Lagos full of nerves, but exhilarated by the atmosphere and the expectations of my nation. Nigeria had never won the African Cup of Nations.

The tournament started in 1957. It was time for us to take our place at the summit of African football for the first time. A crowd of some 100,000 Nigerians packed in a 60,000 capacity stadium like sardines to witness our attempt to create history.

Making History

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90 minutes of football later, driven by the passion of a hundred million other Nigerians, the goal was achieved. The Green Eagles played beyond their capacities and soared high above the Desert Warriors. In doing so, we destroyed the invincibility of an Algerian team that was at its peak – an obviously more experienced and probably even better team than the Eagles.

Remember that just two years later only larceny of the most shameful kind could rob that Algerian team of World Cup glory. The eventual World Cup finalists West Germany and Austria contrived in the Disgrace of Gijón to fix a result that saw both progress to the second round at Algeriaʼs expense. It was one of the worst moments in World Cup history, but it showed how big a threat Algeria was and how good a team they really were.

On the night, Nigeria could not be stopped, having come through some really difficult early matches. We played our best match of the championship, scored the highest number of goals and won the Africa Cup of Nations for the first time in our country’s history.

Duty
The President of Nigeria at the time, Alhaji Shehu Shagari, led the sea of Nigerians that physically watched the event live at the stadium. As young men, we were over the moon. We had worked very hard and prepared well under the guidance of professional sports managers and administrators. Nigeria had well-established sports institutions, a clear sports policy, a clear strategy and vision for sports development.

We saw ourselves as ambassadors and patriots serving our country willingly in answer to our nationʼs call to duty. Our victory in 1980 was the culmination of a process that started in 1976 when the national team went to Dire Dawa and against all odds returned with bronze medals for the first time in our history. That was the impetus needed to aim higher and we did. In that spirit, we went to Ghana for AFCON 1978 and reinforced our confidence.

Cometh the Hour!

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When 1980 came and the event was held in our country we believed we had to win and were ready. The preparations were hard but meticulous, driven by our single-mindedness to be part of history. The entire country was involved on March 22, 1980. It was a day none of us that played in that match will ever forget. We soared like eagles – super-eagles.

In the end, hard work: good luck, the people’s support, our government’s commitment, all paid off. We won. And we were deservedly rewarded well without any solicitation by us. Football in Nigeria had never been the same and would never be the same for us any more.

Celebrations
This day, 35 years after that victory, I can still play back in my mind almost every minute of the final match – the blaring trumpet of the late musician Zeal Onyia marshalling Nigerians to the great battle, the vociferous singing of 100,000 Nigerians at the stadium, and the rampaging supercharged Green Eagles with humble me scoring a brace and coming closest to winning the continent’s best player award that year.

It was a day when the elements had no choice but to side with the eagles, and to provide Nigerians with the cause to truly celebrate. 35 years after that victory, the heroes of 1980 are still remembered by most Nigerians. Six of them have passed on to the beyond – Muda Babatunde Lawal, Best Ogedegbe, Okey Isima, Alloysius Atuegbu, Martin Eyo and Tunde Bamidele.

The rest are alive and kicking, not by our strength, but by the Grace of God, grateful for the opportunity of life, and of that day, March 22, 1980 when our names were written in Gold in the archives of African football.

On behalf of all 22 of us, including Emmanuel Okala, Sylvanus Okpala, Felix Owolabi, Shefiu Mohammed, John Orlando, Frank Nwachi, Christian Chukwu, Ifeanyi Onyedika, Henry Nwosu, Moses Effiong, Charles Bassey, Godwin Odiye, David Adiele, Kadiri Ikhana, Adokie Amiesimaka and me, I use this opportunity to say thank you once again to all Africans for their support and love, which since 1980 has occasionally still been showered lavishly on us.

Segun at Wembley

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A New Experience

by Segun Odegbami © Segun Odegbami (December 6th 2014)

Return to Tunisia

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I am definitely outside my comfort zone – in a strange environment, amongst stranger people. I’m back in Tunisia – a country that has pleasant memories for me – but this trip has nothing to do with football. I have not read any newspapers or watched any news channel on television since I arrived here a week ago.

Tunisia is a French and Arabic speaking country and there are no English speaking news channel such as CNN, BBC, or even Aljazeera, etc. on television here. Although there is a channel that shows some sports, including some football matches and analysis, that too is in Arabic and only once did I see a recorded Barclays Premier League match with Arabic commentaries.

So, do not blame me if my column this week has nothing of my regular comments and analysis on football matters. Having said that, permit me and enjoy me tell you a little of my experiences.

Memories

In the past one week I have been in Tunisia. The last time I visited the North African country was some 20 years ago on the occasion of the 1994 African Cup of Nations. The Eagles won the championship,Tunisia ’94 then, marking the second time Nigeria won the prestigious African competition.

The first time was in 1980.1 In that same year, 1994, the Green Eagles were re-christened Super Eagles, and qualified for the first time to represent Africa as one of Africa’s five representatives to the 1994 World Cup. So, I have very fond memories of Tunisia, which was unlike any other North African Arab country I know. Although it is a Muslim country, it does not shove religion in the faces of visitors.

So, from my visit 20 years ago I remember Tunis, Souse and also Carthage – a city rich in history and culture that Rome owed its emergence as a world power to and which could not be fully erased from history despite Romeʼs best efforts.

Segun at Wembley

A footballer at the 2014 African Basketball Championship

I did not know about Sfax then. But here I am in the city attending the 2014 African Basketball Club Championship for Women in my capacity as consultant to one of the two Nigerian clubs at the championship, the First Bank Basketball Club. The team is known as the Elephant Girls.

Seven days in Sfax have been some sort of education and also baptism for me into the world of international basketball. It is a world that I find completely different from football. It is simpler and less political, even though it also not without its own idiosyncrasies and intrigues.

In the past two years I have been involved in basketball as well as footbball. This is my first international trip with the current national women’s basketball champions of Nigeria, and make no mistake, they are serious contenders for the African title here in Sfax.

I am learning pretty fast. I am interacting at close quarters with some of Africa’s top female basketball players and administrators;. I am observing how the championship is run, meeting with those that run it and exchanging information and views about the differences and similarities between football and basketball administration. I am sharing experiences and expectations; observing the teams and sharing their moments of joyful celebration as well as painful losses.

In short, with all its headaches (and there are a few) this trip has provided me the opportunity to peep into the world of basketball.

The Sfax Experience

Sfax is a large seaport situated some 270 kilometres east of Tunis on the Mediterranean coast. I am told it has the largest fishing trawlers in Africa and has the world’s second largest deposit of Phosphate. However, for some reason Sfax is dusty. The entire city is covered always in white dust blown probably from the desert located to the south.

There is a regular pall and smell of tobacco in the air. It is everywhere. As our guide, Mahmoud, told me, (I guess he may be exaggerating) about 90% of all adult Tunisians smoke heavily. That’s probably why there is no law prohibiting smoking anywhere in Tunisia, public places inclusive.

The hotel we are staying in must be one of the most polluted places in the world. You need to see and experience it to understand what I am talking about. Every corridor, the restaurant, the lobby, the lounges, the bar, everywhere is filled with the reeking smell and fumes of cigarette smoke. It assaults the eyes and nostrils everywhere you turn to.

Marginally Worse

There is, however, one other place worse than the hotel – the indoor sports hall of the CS Sfax Sports Club – venue of the ongoing African Women’s Basketball Championship. Although it is a massive beautiful edifice with excellent state-of-the-art facilities, the place has little ventilation and, so, regularly suffocates with the acrid smell and fumes from tobacco consumed freely within this enclosure.

It is often packed with thousands of cigarette-smoking spectators whenever CS Sfax Sport Club, is playing. In one week I must have involuntarily inhaled more cigarette-fumes into my lungs than I have done in the totality of the rest of my life. It is that serious. This totally negates the health intentions of sports.

Something Different

Beyond that, Sfax is really different. Here, no one uses seat belts whilst driving their cars. There may also be no enforcement of restrictions about answering mobile phones whilst driving, as everyone’s driving with a handset in one hand. Cars are parked randomly everywhere.

Despite being a predominantly Muslim country alcohol is available in every hotel bar.

Credit and debit cards are only sparingly used, if at all, and in my experience, only in the banks. The Internet is not easily accessible. I hope all of this is limited to Sfax.  

When we attended an official reception for the heads of delegates of all the participating countries at the championship, the entire programme was conducted in French and Arabic. No one interpreted for those that did not understand either of the languages and no apologies were offered. Yet there were participants from Nigeria, Kenya and Angola.

Life in Sfax is leisurely. The unofficial clothing of the people is jeans. Two out of every three Tunisians (male and female) wear jeans on a regular basis. It is everywhere. This simple act itself tells a lot about their liberal society. There are hardly any security personnel visible around the town. We are told there is no need for them.

Finally, the championships we came for itself has been excellent and the matches competitive, particularly with the addition of professional players in all the participating teams. The practice is that when clubs qualify for the African championships they are allowed to recruit a certain number of professionals from outside their country to strengthen them. That way the standard of the matches is higher and sponsors are attracted.

First Bank Basketball Club has three Nigerian players from the USA. They are making a big impression here and have been great ambassadors of the sport. The championship ends this Sunday. It’s been a truly new and different experience, I mean, for a footballer to experience life in the world of basketball.

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1Odegbami played a vital role in the success of 1980. He was Nigeriaʼs best player and scored 2 of his teamʼs goals against Algeria in the 3-0 triumph, which resulted in Nigeria winning the African Cup of Nations trophy for the first time. He was rewarded with the captaincy. He retired from international football the following year. Nigeriaʼs second title came in 1994, ending Zambiaʼs impossible dream to win the trophy months after the devastating Gabon Plane Disaster, which killed the Golden Generation of the Chipolopolo with the exception of perhaps their greatest ever player and current President of the Zambian Football Association, Kalusha Bwalya. The Super-Eagles won it for the third time last year: The Editor.