BY KUNLE SOLAJA.
When the Flying Eagles of Nigeria line out to meet Burkina Faso at 8pm on Thursday in the second match of the Group A of the 2019 African Games football event in Rabat, they will be carrying with them, the spirit of the UK Tourists, Nigeria’s first national football team which sailed out of the country’s shores exactly 80 years ago.
What has become a global brand, featuring in six of 21 World Cup editions and being three time African champions and four –time runners up have an unchattered course on August 16, 1949 when 18 largely barefooted footballers boarded an Elder Dempster ship, MV Apapa heading to Liverpool in England.
The players, dressed in grey trousers and olive green blazers with a badge emblazoned with the initials NFA and with ‘United Kingdom 1949’ woven underneath, were seen off by a large crowd that included the Bishop of Lagos and many important African and European personalities. There was also a message of support from the governor-general, Sir John McPherson.
Unlike today’s jet-travelling footballers, the pioneers travelled third class and had to run four times round the deck every morning to keep fit during the 13-day voyage before arriving Liverpool at 8.30am on Monday, August 29, 1949.
On arrival, John Finch, a former Fulham forward, who had been appointed as the coach, met them. There was also a welcome message from the Duke of Edinburgh.
On disembarking, the players and the officials were interviewed by the BBC radio on newsreel followed by the pressmen.
Okoronkwo Kanu, Etim Henshaw, Dan Anyiam, Isaac Akioye, John Dankaro and Sokari Dokubo send messages for broadcast in English, Efik, Ibo, Yoruba, Hausa and Kalabari respectively.
They were scheduled to play nine matches in the four weeks they were to stay in the United Kingdom.
That was where the story of Nigeria’s Super Eagles began. Without the famed UK Tourists, there would not have been the Super Eagles of today.
Sadly, all the 18 players and their officials led by Captain Donald H. Holley are now dead. Holley who was the NFA chairman at the time died in December 1956, barely eight months later, a member of the 18-man team, Ahmed Tijani Ottun, committed suicide by drowning in the Lagos Lagoon on August 6, 1957 ostensibly out of frustration.
Thereafter, one after the other, the rank got depleted. Tesilimi “Thunder” Balogun died on July 30, 1972; Dan Anyiam passed on July 6, 1977.
Isaac Akioye, the reserve goalkeeper and former director of the National Sports Commission died in February 2007 and followed eight months later by right winger, Mesembe Otu.
Captain of the team, Richard Etim Henshaw died November 18, 2010; four days after the Super Eagles against odds picked a 2010 World Cup ticket.
The last of the pioneer members of the team, Goalkeeper Sam Ibiam aged 91, died on December 1, 2015.
The exploits of these pioneers are largely forgotten. Football in their days may not hold the same attraction like that of present day nor the entertainment and technical value as high, but it is to their credit that a foundation was laid which the successive Nigerian national teams built upon.
In the UK, they played nine matches, which however did not count as official grade A games, as they were against English amateur sides, and not the England national team.
What is taken as the first official match of the Nigerian national team is the game played against Sierra Leone, when the UK Tourists were on their voyage back home and had a stopover in Freetown. Nigeria won 2-0 in the October 8, 1949, game.
In the tour of UK, they won two matches, drew two and lost five. In their first match against Marine Cosby, the Nigerians won 5-2.
In front of a crowd of 6 000 spectators, the NFA team, playing barefoot, showed their ability to move the ball where they wanted and to shoot with great speed and strength.
The next encounter, against Bishop Auckland, was lost 2-5 and five days later, they lost 1-2 to Leytonstone FC. For 20 minutes of the next game, against Isthmians League XI, which Nigeria lost 1-5, the UK Tourists gave the hosts a rare run.
Four days later, the NFA team drew 2-2 with the Corinthians League XI. It was their best game in the series. They pressed till the last minute, when Tesilimi Balogun scored to level up.
Their other games were against Dulwich Hamlet, which they won 1-0; a 2-2 game with South Liverpool and a 3-1 win over Bromley.
Against the Athenian League XI, it rained. The barefoot NFA XI found that it required considerable physical skill to stand up in the first half. Wearing new boots in the second half did not help; they lost woefully, 8-0.
It was a fruitful tour. It opened new opportunities to many of the players who featured for Nigeria.
Some of them, like Skipper Richard Etim Henshaw, Tesilimi Balogun and Isaac Akioye, returned to England to pursue new careers and to also play for English club sides.
THE PIONEER NIGERIA NATIONAL TEAM
GOALKEEPERS: Sam Ibiam (Port Harcourt), Isaac Akioye (Hercules, Ibadan)
DEFENCE: Justin Onwudiwe (Lagos Railway), Olisa Chukwura (Abeokuta), Ahmed Tijani B. Ottun (Lagos Marines), Isiaku Shittu (Lagos UAC), John Dankaro (Jos), Hope Lawson (Lagos Marine), Dan Anyiam (Lagos UAC), Okoronkwo Kanu (Land & Survey).
FORWARDS: Mesembe Otu (Lagos Marine), Peter Anieke (Lagos Railway), Sokari Dokubo (Lagos Railway), Godwin Anosike (Lagos Railway), Tesilimi Balogun (Lagos Railway), Titus Okere (Lagos Railway), Etim Henshaw (Lagos Marine) and Edet Ben (Lagos Marine).