18 January 2008

Nigeria: The Dead Heroes

Lagos — Although ranked among the favourites to win the African Nations Cup, which kicks off in Ghana from Sunday, based on the performance of Nigeria in past editions, it is important that we remember some of the players who have passed on so that our heroes' past efforts in the success story shall not be in vain writes Femi Solaja

Emmanuel Omiunu

Omiunu, who was the first goalkeeper to captain the national team, had a long career with the Police team, winning the Challenge Cup in 1962. He was between the posts when he captained Nigeria to the 1963 African Nations Cup in Ghana, conceding a whooping six goals in the opening game against Egypt (Nigeria lost 6-3). It was the second time he would concede six goals in his international career and ironically, against the same team. Egypt had beaten Nigeria 6-2 in an Olympic qualifier in 1959.

Godwin Achebe

Achebe, was a former captain of Enugu Rangers and Green Eagles. He also played for Lagos Railway and ECN. He was part of the Nigerian team that made its first appearance at the Nations Cup in 1963 in Ghana.

Capped 41 times for Nigeria having a long international span from October 10 1959 against Ghana till the All Africa Games in 1973 where Nigeria won the soccer gold has host at the just completed National Stadium in Lagos. He died in December 2006.

Patrick Okala

He was the younger brother to former national team captain Emmanuel, who held sway in the golden era of Rangers International FC of Enugu. The young Okala, made his debut at the Nations Cup final at Cote d'Ivoire'84 where Nigeria reached the final of the tournament but lost 3-1 to the Indomitable Lions of Cameroon.

The senior Okala look-alike made brief appearances for the national team after the Nations Cup finals before he took a bow and died in the mid-80s after an undisclosed illness.

Tunde Bamidele

The former defunct Taraba FC defender shot into limelight following his move to the then IICC Shooting Stars at the star of the National League then made up of 12 teams in the 80s. He was discovered by the Ibadan-based side during the zonal league round of matches in Port Harcourt.

Nicknamed 'Rock of Gibraltar' by late ace radio commentator, Ernest Okonkwo, Bamidele was paired with Captain Christian Chukwu for most of his time in the national team.

He was on duty through out during the final of the 1980 Nations Cup which Nigeria hosted and won.

The 6.5 ft tall defender made his final national team appearance at the 1982 tournament in Libya where the Green Eagles not only failed to defend the cup they won two years earlier but were bundled out in the group matches especially the 3-0 bashing by Zambia.

The former international took to coaching after his stints at both club and national level but died in late 1997.

Eyo Matins

The member of the 1980 Nations Cup winning team came into lime light with the defunct ACB of Lagos. The attacking midfielder, was, however, not given much time to prove himself during the tournament in Lagos.He was a member of the national team till 1981 when Nigeria failed in its bid to qualify for the World Cup finals (Spain'82). He died in 2003.

Kunle Awesu

The skinny left winger was a member of the Green Eagles that won a bronze medal at the 1976 Nations Cup finals hosted by Ethiopia behind winners Morocco and Guinea. The former IICC Shooting Stars star was voted the best left winger of the tournament while Baba Otu Mohamed was voted the best right winger.

Awesu, noted for his pace down the left wing coupled with his accurate crosses into the vital area, was an asset to the likes of Segun Odegbami, who utilized the crosses effectively and some times the skinny player even crossed the ball into opponent's goal.

He was a member of IICC Shooting Stars African Winners Cup winning squad in 1976 when they triumphed over (Tonnerrre) Kalala of Cameroon 5-2 on aggregate. What could have been a reunion with his former team mate, Odegbami was not to be at the finals of the World Cup in America.

Awesu was expected to visit the Nigerian camp on the eve of the second round match against Italy but died same day!

Samuel Okwaraji

Nigerian has had several dark days in its history but August 12th 1989 will rank among the most painful in the country's football history.

Unlike these days when players battle the NFA over match bonuses, Okwaraji was an exemplary patriotic Nigerian. The midfielder, who plied his trade with Belgian first division side Antwerp FC, was ready to don the jersey first and get paid if it came later!

He was on holiday in Owerri when the officials of the then Iwuayanwu Nationale alerted NFA of the lad's skills and he was subsequently invited to camp for Nigeria's home tie against Algeria in the final Olympic qualifying game to Seoul '88. The match played in Enugu saw Nigeria winning 2-0 and qualifying for the finals.

Okwaraji, a strong and inspiring midfielder, popularised dreadlocks in the country. His ability to hold onto the ball made him one of the best in the play maker role on the continent.

At the Maroc'88 Nations Cup finals, he scored on the best goals of the tournament and perhaps the fastest goal in the history of the tournament before Ayan Monsieur of Egypt erased it at 1998 edition in Burkina Faso. In the second group match against Cameroon after a brilliant 3-0 win over Kenya in the opening match, Okwaraji released a blinder at the edge of the vital area moments after the Green Eagles took the kick off that caught goalie Antoine Bell napping for the opening goal. However, Roger Milla equalised some minutes later to leave the final score line at 1-1.

The prolific player had the ambition to play at the World Cup finals in Italy in 1990 and was involved in virtually all the matches until the crucial match on 12th August at home to Angola.

Although Nigeria won the match by a lone goal scored by Stephen Keshi after Eguavoen failed to convert a penalty, Okwaraji slumped and died on the field with less that 10 minutes left to play.

Muda Lawal

The former IICC Shooting stars captain and member of the Green Eagles to the 1976 Nations Cup final in Ethiopia, was voted 'Man of the Match' in the decisive match against Egypt when Eagles won 3-2 with the player scoring the final goal.

After the match the First lady of Ethiopia was said to have presented Muda with her necklace because of the brilliant play of the Nigerian star.

Muda holds the record of having played in five consecutive finals from 1976-84 and to his credit he has the second highest number Nations Cup medals behind Austin Okocha.

The midfield maestro was to have been part of the Nigerian team to the Montreal Olympic Games but the Nigerian government joined other African nations in boycotting the event in an effort to put pressure on the racists' regime then in South Africa.

Muda won two bronze, one silver and one gold medal to his credit and but perhaps more importantly all he has the highest number of matches played in the national team.

Gifted with longevity on the field of play, he was the last to quit the stage among his contemporary having stayed till 1991 with Shooting Stars of Ibadan where he died of heart failure.

He scored the final goal in the 3-0 bashing of the Desert Warriors of Algeria in the 1980 final played at the National Stadium, Lagos.

Coach Otto Gloria

The late Brazilian coach was in charge when the then Green Eagles won the Nations Cup in 1980. He had previously handled the Brazilian team to the 1966 World Cup finals hosted by England and had a brief stint in Angola before the then Director General of the National Sports Commission, Late Issac Akioye engaged him to handle the national team.

Otto Gloria was a hero after Nigeria won the cup in 1980 but saw the other side of the coin when he failed to qualify Nigeria to the World Cup in Spain in 1982. The NSC declined to renew his contract after the Nations Cup finals in Libya in 1982 where the Eagles failed to go beyond the group matches.

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