For over 15 years, they were the stars of Nigerian football. Such was their fame that they ranked among the best pop idols Nigerian football lovers had ever known.At the 1992 African Nations Cup in Senegal, they held a country that lives its football in a spell such that even when Ghana eventually cut short Nigeria's journey in the semifinals of the competition, the team was given a heroic welcome.
After all, they finally defeated old enemies, Cameroun, in the third place match.1994 was the defining moment of the nation's love with its icons, who were forgiven all their past 'sins,' which included not being able to win the Nations Cup after qualifying for three previous finals in 1984, 1988 and 1990.Nigeria embraced a new crop of heroes, who had the world in their feet. It was the age of Austin 'Jay Jay' Okocha, Daniel 'Da Bull' Amokachi, Austin 'Cerezo' Eguavoen, Mutiu 'Headmaster' Adepoju, Ben Iroha, Uche 'Gentle Giant' Okechukwu, Rashidi 'Gangling' Yekini, Finidi George and Emmanuel Amuneke, among others.
At the height of their fame, they mesmerised the football world to the extent that FIFA ranked Nigeria as the fifth best team on earth.At the 1994 World Cup, the Super Eagles were adjudged as the most entertaining team in the world. Okocha, Amokachi, Eguavoen, Okechukwu and Adepoju were prominent players in the team. Most of the players, especially Okocha, were courted by the biggest teams in Europe because of the freshness they brought to the game. That was then.
All these players have retired form active football, but some among them have found new careers in the coaching business. However, their fame still opens doors for them because the people have not forgotten what they brought to the country. Although the football they play these days are celebrity games, they still remind football fans of a time in the nation's history when Nigeria was noted for its prowess in football.Tuesday was one of such days at the Godswill Akpabio Stadium. The event was the 'Unmissable Match,' which was part of the UEFA Champions League Trophy Tour sponsored by Heineken.
In the line up were two sides, Team Chairman led by former Spain and Barcelona captain, Carles Puyol, and Team Shine Shine Bobo led by the publicly acclaimed football magician, Austin 'Jay Jay' Okocha. In Okocha's team were Uche Okechukwu, Daniel Amokachi, Austin Eguavoen and Mutiu Adepoju, as well as some players from Uyo-based club, Akwa United, who completed the squad.
In Puyol's team were players of Akwa United, some Akwa Ibom State government officials, as well as some staff of Nigerian Breweries Plc.The 30,000 capacity stadium was filled to the brim by a hopeful horde of nostalgic fans, who came to see their idols one more time. They cheered every move made by the players and yearned for the days when men were still boys.
Rather than laugh when Okocha attempted one of his patented moves and fell down while trying, the crowd cheered and encouraged him to get up. To them, the stars' mere presence in the field was enough satisfaction. One of the fans, Utibe Uko summed up the emotions, "Seeing these guys in action after all these years brings back a lot of memories.
"I remember the first time I saw Okocha in action at the National Stadium in Lagos. That was a World Cup qualifier against Cote d'Ivoire in 1993 and he showed that he was destined for stardom."The skills are still there, even though he finds it difficult now to do some things now. "The effects of the knee injury that cut short Amokachi's career still show. You can see he cannot run as a much as he used to. "Age has really caught up with these guys, but they have made our day."