BY KUNLE SOLAJA.
The anniversary of the opening of the National Stadium Lagos coincidentally also marks death of one of the principal characters of that occasion and an icon in Nigerian football.
It is 10 years this Tuesday that Haruna Ilerika, the diminutive left footed midfielder died. He was aged 59 at the time. He featured in the Nigeria versus Mali match when the National Stadium was opened on December 4, 1972.
Three other Nigerian players at the occasion – Skipper Godwin Achebe, later day skipper Victor Oduah and first scorer at the arena, Yakubu Mambo – have also died.
Haruna Ilerika was iconic as a school boy sensation and got cheering crowd enthralled with his scintillating dribbling skills and superb ball control.
His diminutive stature belied his immense dribbling skills. Ilerika stunned opponents with soccer artistry as a one-man artist. He combined a rare alertness of thoughts, fleetness of feet, dazzling close ball control and body-swerving dummies.
He established himself as fast bustling skills which he showcased when Nigeria won the football gold medal at the 1973 All Africa Games in Lagos.
Another memory of his skills was the two equalizing goals he scored against Egypt at the 1976 Africa Cup of Nations in Ethiopia.
So graceful was he on the pitch that an Ethiopian lady admired him and gave him her necklace as the Nigerian team sat in the bus on their way out of the stadium.
His career started at Zumrattul Islammiyah Grammar School where in combination with equally small-stature Tajudeen Ajagun they formed ‘terrible twins’ of the then exciting Lagos Principals’ Cup.
Ilerika had his first club experience with a relatively unknown Patterson Zachonis (PZ) before joining Metal Construction FC and later moved to the better established Stationery Stores.
The short schemer easily gained a place in the star-studded Stores in March 1971.
The following year, he was invited to the national team and easily impressed with his dribbling skill as he made a debut in the away friendly match with Mali on November 22, 1972.
He played 30 times for the Nigerian national team, the last match being the goalless encounter with Sierra Leone on October 16, 1976 in Freetown.
His skills at the 2nd All Africa Games in January 1973 got him a place in the continental assembly put together by CAF under the tutelages of Coach Charles Kofi Gymfi of Ghana and Rachid Mekhloufi of Algeria in the Afro-Latin America duel in 1973.
A sort of parallel can be made between Ilerika and another Nigerian football icon, Tesilimi ‘Thunder’ Balogun.
Ilerika was born in 1949, the year Balogun made his international debut for Nigeria. Balogun died in 1972, the year Ilerika made his international debut for Nigeria.