UPDATED: STRANGE, BUT TRUE: THE NIGERIAN FOOTBALL’S JULY DEATH ANNIVERSARIES

BY KUNLE SOLAJA

Sadly, the month of July has virtually become that of memorials for football icons in Nigeria. This may sound strange, but it is true.

Sports Village Square recalls that three days ago, it was the death anniversary of Jelisavicic Tihomer-Tiko, fondly called ‘Father Tiko’.

Jelisavicic Tihomer-Tiko – 1 July

Jelisavicic Tihomer-Tiko, fondly called ‘Father Tiko’

The younger folks may not remember the then Yugoslavian man (his country is now Serbia) who raised to stardom an army of relatively unknown players who took the 10th edition of Africa Cup of Nations by storm, becoming the second runners-up in Ethiopia in March 1976.

He repeated the feat at Ghana 1978 when Nigeria ranked third in Africa’s premier football competition.

He was at the brink of qualifying Nigeria for Argentina 1978 World Cup before the team failed the last hurdle at home. No thanks to an own goal.

Under him, the Nigeria national team played 45 matches, winning 24, and drawing 12 and lost nine. He died on July 1, 1986, in Cancum, Mexico.

That was two days after the World Cup in that country. He was heading to Cancum to begin a new life as a coach to the local team when an automobile accident claimed his life.

Samuel Ojebode – 4 July

Today, 4 July is the death anniversary of one of his players, Samuel Ojebode who passed on five years ago. Ojebode, a left fullback was also a captain of the then IICC Shooting Stars that he later coached and managed as an administrator.

Sam Ojebode

With his death in 2012, the entire back four of the 1976 history-making IICC Shooting Stars have all passed on – Best Ogedegbe, Joe Appiah, Ojebode and Muda Lawal.

Added to that list are Kunle Awesu and Folorunsho Gambari aka ‘Gambus’ who died on April 15, 1981.

Kunle Awesu – 5 July

Back to the July death anniversaries, yet another product of Father Tiko’s Nigerian team was Kunle Awesu, a left winger with the IICC Shooting Stars who was rated as the best at the 10th Africa Cup of Nations at Ethiopia in 1976.

Kunle Awesu (right and in white) in a tussle for the ball with Guinea’s Ali Bangoura at the 1976 Africa Cup of Nations. Awesu was voted the best left winger of the tournament

He was a member of the Shooting Stars team that won the African Winners Cup in 1976.

He died on 5 July 1994 in Arlington, United States on the same day Nigeria crashed out of the USA ’94 World Cup. Sadly for over two years, Awesu’s death was unknown to his Nigerian family members who had lost touch with him.

Dan Anyiam – 6 July

One of the pioneer members of the Nigerian national football team, Dan Anyiam was a member of the famed UK Tourists of 1949. He was the vice captain of the squad.

Dan Anyiam

Anyiam who was the first indigenous coach to sign a coaching contract with the Nigeria Football Association was found dead in his car on 6 July 1977.

Muda Lawal and Dan Anyiam – 6 July

Next comes that of Muda Lawal, like Ojebode and Awesu, he was in the Father Tiko’s Nigerian team and also a member of the victorious IICC side on the continent.

Muda Lawal

He died on July 6, 1991, the 14th anniversary of the mysterious death of one of Nigerian national team pioneers, Dan Anyiam who was also the first indigenous national team coach.

Bashorun MKO Abiola – 7 July

Who will forget the Bashorun MKO Abiola who pumped much money to football and other sports? He died on July 7, 1998.

Abiola at his last AFCON appearance. He donated the African Footballer of Year trophy which Rashidi Yekini won in 1993.

He was undoubtedly the best football philanthropist in the continent. Another football icon that shared the date with him is Father Dennis Slattery who died in his native country, Ireland on July 7, 2003.

Father Dennis Slattery – 7 July

Slattery who lived the greater part of his life in Nigeria was the last of the expatriates who shaped the then NFA that is today’s NFF.

The longest football expatriate in Nigeria, Father Dennis Slattery

He was the NFA chairman from 1956 to 1959 and the most frequent referee of the Challenge Cup final which last week changed to AITEO Cup.

Slattery was the referee of the final matches of 1952, 1953, 1960 and 1964 apart from being a linesman (assistant referee) in 1951, 1956 and 1958.

He founded the St. Finbarr’s College, Akoka – the record 10 time winners of the former Principals Cup in Lagos.

Israel Adebajo – 25 July

Another prominent soccer figure of an earlier era was Israel Adebajo, the founder of the famous Stationery Stores, which until its going into coma late in the 1990s, was perhaps Nigeria’s most fanatically supported club side.

Israel Adebajo

Adebajo died on 25 July 1969, few weeks before Stores’ final match in the Challenge Cup.  He formed the club in 1958 after buying over Oluwole Philips team.

The famed Super Stores drew players and fans across the country and sometimes too, from Ghana.

The former treasurer of the then NFA nurtured the Super Stores to win the Challenge Cup twice in a row and was at the brink of a hat-trick in 1969 before his death dealt a devastating blow on the club.

Mathias Obianika – 27 July Former national team player, Mathias Obianika, died also in 27 July 1992.

Mathias Obianika

The Enugu Rangers’ striker was an instant hit in the national team when he made his debut in a 4-0 triumph over Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso) in a 1971 friendly game.

Obianika scored two of the four goals. After years in Enugu Rangers, he later became the club’s chief coach.

Anthony Ikazoboh – 27 July

Seven years after the death of Obianika, a two-time NFA chairman and former Super Stores player, Air Commodore Anthony Ikazoboh, was killed by armed robbers on July 27, 1999.

Anthony Ikazoboh

Ikazoboh was the NFA chairman from 1984 to 1987 and again in 1989 before he was named the sports minister.

Under him as NFA chairman, Nigeria won its first global event, the World Under-17 Tournament in 1985 and the Under-20 team placed third at the World Under 20 Championship in the then Soviet Union.

It was at the Soviet Union event that Ikazoboh dropped hints of Nigeria’s interest in hosting the World Youth Championship, a dream that only materialised 12 years later.   

As sports minister in 1990, Ikazoboh’s tenure brought the advent of professional football to Nigeria.

Akinloye Oyebanji – 27 July

On the anniversaries of the death of former sports minister, Anthony Ikazoboh and national as well as Rangers’ International striker, Mathias Obianika, another sports icon, Akinloye Oyebanji took a final breath.

Akinloye Oyebanji

Oyebanji, a veteran sports journalist retired as a director at the Nigerian Television Authority (NTA). Information from the family revealed he would have been 62 in September.

According to NAN reports, his family revealed that Oyebanji died at the National Hospital, Abuja, after a protracted battle with heart failure.

Bukoye Oyebanji and Dr. Steve Olarinoye, a family member and friend of the deceased, disclosed that Oyebanji had been ill and that the family had spent millions of naira without any improvement.

They said some time earlier, he had the misfortune of losing his kidneys, and they were replaced successfully through a transplant in India.

Oyebanji served the NTA for 35 years. He worked in different capacities, including being a sports broadcaster, rising to the position of general manager (sports).

He retired as managing director of NTA Properties at the authority’s headquarters in Abuja.

Tesilimi Balogun – 31 July

July 30 is the anniversary of the legendary “Thunder” Balogun who died in 1972. He was the first ever-Nigerian professional player when he ventured to England in the 1950s.

Tesilimi Balogun

The early history of the Challenge Cup is almost an historical account of Thunder Balogun’s soccer career. He later became a coach in the Western Region.

In 1952, Balogun became the first player to score a hat-trick in the Challenge Cup final.

The feat is significant, considering the fact that up till the 2012 FA Cup final, only two other players, Frank Uwalaka in 1958 and Felix Adedeji in 1969 – were the only other hat-trick scorer in Nigeria’s premier national competition.

Sam Garba Okoye – 31 July

Sam Garba Okoye, another national team star of 1960s and early 1970s, died on 31 July 1978 in motor accident.

Sam Garba

He was one of the teenagers of the Nigerian Academicals that beat Ghana 1-0 in the annual Dowuona-Hammond Cup in 1966.

It was Nigeria’s first away win against Ghana. Later, Garba played for Plateau XI, Mighty Jets and the Green Eagles.

Although he had no Challenge Cup gold medal to show, he was a regular in the six final matches played by Jos teams from mid 1960s to 1974. He usually adorned his forehead with a rolled up handkerchief.