“The labours of our heroes past shall never be in vain” is a key component of the Nigerian national anthem. This should be a major driving force in Nigeria’s current internationals but the experiences of the ex-internationals, some of whom had passed through excruciating circumstances after retirement without due attention from the nation, have been a deterrent.
This is largely responsible for the modern day internationals holding the nation by the jugular in terms of financial demands. Their posture is to get as much as they can from the nation now that they are active and their services are needed since they can’t trust the same nation to stand by them in their times of need after their careers.
Gone is the good old talk of ‘dying for the nation’. Today’s athletes are largely labelled as not exhibiting the patriotism shown by the past heroes. But should one actually blame these younger ones? They will readily ponder; What became of the family of Late Sam Okwaraji’s who died in action against Angola in a World Cup qualifier on August 12, 1989 donning his eighth cap? Okwaraji is famed for footing his bills to honour national invitations, sometimes at the risk of losing his place at club level. Today’s internationals would wonder; if Okwaraji’s family could be ignored, could their cases be different?
Then there is the case of Late Rashidi Yekini, who is the nation’s all-time leading scorer with 37 goals in 60 appearances. Yekini it was whose eight goals during the qualifiers fired Nigeria to a debut appearance at the World Cup in 1994. He duly scored the nation’s first ever World Cup goal against Bulgaria. The man nicknamed ‘Goalsfather’ was also the first Nigerian to win the African Player of the Year in 1993. Since Yekini’s death, which some opine was due to negligence from the nation, his aged mother had lacked attention from the nation her son diligently served.
These are former internationals who laboured for the country but hitherto, it seemed those ‘labours were in vain’ hence discouraging the new generation of Nigerian internationals. Minister for Sports Sunday Dare has moved to change this whole narrative. Dare has chosen an auspicious time like the lockdown necessitated by the Covid-19 pandemic to shower love and attention on the families of the departed ex-internationals as well as some who are currently down with life-threatening ailments.
It was only fitting that Yekini’s mother was the first beneficiary of Dare’s rare show of magnanimity as he dolled out food items, N50,000 cash while placing her on a N10,000 monthly stipend. A day later, Dare extended the same gesture to Okwaraji’s mother.
If his predecessors would forget Okwaraji’s left-footed pile driver in only his third cap against Cameroon at the Africa Cup of Nations in Morocco in 1988, his only international goal, Dare wouldn’t forget.
If those before him shockingly became nescient of Yekini being top scorer in two consecutive AFCONs in 1992 and 1994, Dare opted to act differently. Yekini had earlier finished second top scorer with three goals behind Algeria’s Menad Djamel who scored four times. The big Nigerian striker scored 13 goals in four consecutive AFCONs 1988 (1), 1990 (3), 1992 (4) and 1994 (5).
If they didn’t remember the legendary goal scorer whose 33 goals between 1990 and 1994 contributed largely to the acclaimed golden generation of Nigerian football, Dare has chosen to react differently. During the period, Yekini’s exploits produced an AFCON gold, silver and bronze medals as well as a jinx-breaking World Cup appearance.
Are all these worth forgetting so easily? Since that era, has the nation had it so good in football? How long will it take for any player to equal Yekini’s 37 goals for the Super Eagles? Little wonder Dare was moved to extend the gesture to Yekini’s mother on the eighth year remembrance of his death on May 4, 2020.
He did not stop there. Mother of former quarter-miler and Olympics gold medalist Late Sunday Bada also benefitted from the minister’s hands of charity.
Bada was a member of the Nigerian quartet that won silver at the 4×400m relay at Sydney 2000 Olympics. This silver was upgraded to gold after winners USA were disqualified. His team mates were Eniefiok Udo-Obong, Jude Monye, Clement Chukwu, Nduka Awazie and Fidelis Gadzama.
He slumped and died on December 12, 2011 leaving behind a devastated widow and children. Until his death, he was Technical Director of the Athletics Federation of Nigeria.
The minister’s train of goodwill equally touched down in Jos as he extended similar cash, food items and stipend gestures to the mother of Late Ali Jeje, captain of the U-20 squad at Mexico 83. The team, which comprised the likes of Tarila Okorowanta, Yisa Shofoluwe, Raymond King, Wilfred Agbonevbare, Dahiru Sadi and Chibuzor Ehilegbu, were the first Nigerian national team to feature in a FIFA-organised World Cup. They were also the first Nigerian team to win the Tessema Cup as the African U-20 tournament was then known.
Jeje began the move from the midfield which led to Tarila Okorowanta’s goal as Nigeria stunned Russia 1-0 at Mexico 83. He fed the ball to Femi Olukanmi, who in turn lobbed to Paul Okoku. In the ensuing struggle in the box, Okorowanta stabbed in the ball.
He passed on in Jos on December 12, 2007 after a brief illness and his family were said to be experiencing hard times since then.
His mother Hajia Khadija Inua Ali, who broke down in tears said; “May God bless the Minister Mr. Sunday Dare and the government for remembering me. That means my son did not labor in vain. God will reward the Minister for his kindness”.
The minister is wary of leaving the impression that the former national heroes will only be remembered at death hence he came to the aid of former Green Eagles revered central defender Sunday Eboigbe, who has been down with stroke for about six years.
Eboigbe was noted for his hard-as-nail disposition at the heart of Eagles defense in the 80s. After making his debut against Ghana in 1983, Eboigbe made 26 appearances for the national team with the last coming against Cameroon in a World Cup qualifier in Yaoundé in 1989. He notably saw every minute of action as the national team lost in the final of AFCON in Cote d’Ivoire in 1984. He would once again feature in all the team’s matches at AFCON 88 where they lost in the final to Cameroon.
During his time, he was a thorn in the flesh of opposing attackers forming a solid partnership with the likes of Stephen Keshi and Andrew Uwe. With Eboigbe in defense, a solid wall was assured in front of the likes of Peter Rufai, Patrick Okala and David Ngodigha in goal. How could the entire nation have forgotten his exploits all these years he was down?
Dare stepped in to change that impression and after doling out cash and food items to Eboigbe, he offered to take up his medical bills. Suddenly, there is hope for the ailing former Rock of Gibraltar in defence.
Speaking on the past gestures and others to come, the Minister said, “There is need for us make deliberate and conscious efforts to take care of living and ailing ex internationals while not forgetting the families of the deceased.
“The efforts of our heroes past will never be in vain as we will try to continue to give our support to them (their families), even as the welfare of athletes remains our priority.”
Meanwhile, a comprehensive list of ex-internationals who served the country both late and living but in need of one form of assistance or the other is being compiled.
Among the list of those to be visited is Late Sam Garba Okoye, who played for the Nigerian Academicals that defeated Ghana home and away for the first time, in 1965. That same year, Sam debuted for the Green Eagles in the 4-1 defeat of Gabon in Libreville .
In an international career that started rather slowly, Garba found matches hard to come by in the earlier years but between 1969 and 1971, he became a mainstay in the national team featuring in 85 percent of the team’s games during this period. The last of his 16 appearances for the national team was against Senegal in Dakar in 1971. He died in a car crash on July 31, 1979 on the Lafia-Akwanga road.
Kingsley Aikhionbare and Osaro Obabaifo, who both hailed from Edo,
will be included. Headband-wearing central defender Kingsley Aikhionbare was part of the 1985 Golden Eaglets, the first African team to win a FIFA-organised tournament, while midfielder Osaro Obabaifo was a member of the 1985 Flying Eagles.
While Aikhiombare took advantage of the scholarship the Federal Government offered the squad to travel abroad hence he did not make future appearances for the senior national team, Obabaifo featured eight times for the Super Eagles. His debut came in 1987 against Cote d’Ivoire in an All Africa Games qualifier while his last appearance was against Cameroon in a World Cup qualifier in 1989.
Obabaifo died in a car crash in Belgium in 1991 while Aikhionbare died in London in 1996. Perhaps, save for his death, Obabaifo could have played some more part in the senior team with his last appearance coming just two years before his demise.
Others whose families will benefit from the minister’s largesse are defender Godwin Eke and goalkeeper Uche Ikeogu who were part of the bronze-winning Flying Eagles squad at U-20 World in Russia in 1985.
Right back, Eke, who metamorphosed into a center back later in his career, made 14 appearances for the senior national team. His debut came against Togo in the WAFU Cup in 1983 while his last outing was against Zimbabwe in the AFCON qualifier in 1989.
His toughest night in national colours however came against Tunisia in the second leg of the World Cup qualifier in 1985. Nigeria took a slim 1-0 lead from the first leg in Lagos and against a Tarak Dhiab-motivated Tunisia, the second leg was always going to be a herculean task. The best defenders needed to be called upon and Eke filed out at left back. The Tunisians won 2-0 and denied Nigeria the World Cup ticket.
While Ikeogu died in the 1994 Oriental Airlines crash in Tamanrasset in Southern Algeria, on the way back after playing for Iwuanyanwu Nationale in a CAF Champions Cup first leg game away to Esperance of Tunisia, Eke died on July 21, 2014.
The families of late Otenkwa Dele Udo and Benjamin Okorogu will also be visited. Udo, a quarter miler was shot at Ojuelegba by a MOPOL while Okorogu died in the Flying Eagles camp.
Okorogu was a rugged central defender then featuring for Rangers. He was widely hailed as heir apparent to the retiring captain Christian Chukwu in the national team but mysteriously died in the national camp in 1982. He was an integral member of the U-20 squad that later made history at Mexico 83. But for his death, he would have been at that tournament.
Equally listed is Inua Rigogo. He was the undisputed national team first choice goalkeeper between 1965 and 1968. He made his debut against Gabon in Libreville in 1965 while the last of his 24 caps was against Kenya in Nairobi in 1968. He would later lose his first choice spot to Peter Fregene in 1968. His teammates included Godwin Achebe, Peter Aneke, Fabian Duru, Tony Igwe. Sebastian Brodericks, Sam Opone, Paul ‘Wonderboy’ Hamilton, Amusa Shittu, Augustine Ofuokwu, Sam Garba and Ismaila Mabo.
Others are Aminu Abdul a menber of the silver-winning Algiers 90 squad. Right back, Abdul was one of the earliest favourites of Clemence Westerhof when he became national team technical adviser late 1989.
Abdul would go on to make 13 appearances after his debut against Cote d’Ivoire in an ECOWAS Cup tie in 1990. He remarkably won a silver and bronze at AFCON 1990 and 1992. While he featured in four games at Algiers 90, he filed out just once at Senegal 92 in the third-place game against Cameroon. His last appearance for the national team was in an AFCON qualifier against Uganda in 1992.
Next is defender Sheffiu Mohammed of the victorious AFCON 1980 Green Eagles fame. Though Mohammed didn’t feature in any game at the 1980 AFCON, the Raccah Rovers strong man managed to make 12 appearances for the national team at a time team selections were dominated by the dominant players of Rangers, Shooting Stars and Bendel Insurance from the south.
He famously started in the crucial second leg of the World Cup qualifier at home to Tunisia in 1980. He would be substituted by Emmanuel Osuigwe, who scored the all-important second goal that gave Nigeria a 2-0 lead to stretch the game to penalties where Green Eagles triumphed 4-3.
Kadiri ikhana was Mohammed’s teammate at Raccah Rovers and is presently recuperating after undergoing a hip surgery. Ikhana made six appearances for the national team with his debut coming against Ghana at the 1978 AFCON and his last against Uganda in a friendly in 1981.
The families of the late legendary midfielder Mudashiru Lawal and Late Herbert Anijekwu will also be visited.
Then featuring for Rangers, Anijekwu benefitted from Westerhof snubbing foreign-based players to make the AFCON 90 squad where he featured four times as the team lost in the final to hosts Algeria. He made his debut against Cote d’Ivoire at the ECOWAS Cup in 1990 while his last outing was against Burkina Faso in the AFCON qualifier in 1990. He donned eight caps and died in 2013.
It will be recalled that Lawal was for long Nigeria’s all-time most capped player with 86 appearances before being toppled by Joseph Yobo while Vincent Enyeama currently holds the record with 101 caps.
Lawal posthumously bagged the CAF Order of Merit award in silver. He was a regular in five consecutive AFCONs in 1976, 1978, 1980, 1982 and 1984. The first African player to feature in five AFCONs consecutively. He famously scored in the AFCON 80 final when Green Eagles beat Algeria 3-0 to win the tournament for the first time. He wasn’t just all about the deep runs and passes from the midfield as he scored five goals in those five AFCON tournaments.
The first of his 86 caps was against Cameroon in a friendly in 1975 while his last was against Zambia in an AFCON qualifier in 1985. He scored 11 international goals. He died on July 6, 1991, three months after being named Nigeria’s first ever soccer ambassador by the Federal Government.
The list is inexhaustible and the minister is still collating data and compiling names of former internationals who deserve some attention. He is championing a cause for today’s athletes to show more commitment to national assignments. There is no better way to motivate these current internationals and change their mindset than what he is doing currently. It is good to note that after labouring for the nation, you won’t be abandoned in your moment of need.
*Nwankpa is author of the book ‘From Atlanta with Football Made in Nigeria’.