BY KUNLE SOLAJA
Perhaps more than any other human endeavour, sports have been in the vanguard of bridge-building in Nigeria in the past 61 years. To the typical Nigerian, sport is more than just competition.
It promotes mutual understanding. It facilitates dialogue. It builds bridges between communities in conflict. Sport fights discrimination. It raises awareness about women’s rights and issues.
It builds self-esteem and interpersonal skills, especially among young people and women. It helps in healing process in the vast populations overcoming trauma.
One example of this is the emergence of Enugu Rangers FC from the ravages of the Nigerian Civil War. The club became a rallying point for all the Ibos who had been traumatised by the 30-month Civil War.
Enugu Rangers became a formidable tranquiliser. The biggest global reference to Nigeria’s passion for football is the reported two-day truce in 1969 to enable the two warring parties in the Nigerian Civil War watch Pele and the visiting Santos FC of Brazil play.
Generally, it is well known the passion of football in Nigeria where the sport has almost become a national religion.
In a country shaken to its very foundation by a 30-month civil war, recurring military rule, socio-economic problems and many diverse ethnic, religious and interest groups, sport, most especially, football, has proved the glue holding the country together.
Political leaders have seen it as a way of generating support for their regimes. In spite of great challenges the country was facing in all other sphere of life, the late President Umaru Yar’Adua still felt so concerned that he set up a presidential task force to ensure the Super Eagles’ qualification for the 2010 World Cup, attests to this point.
The relative peace in the country could have been shattered if the Super Eagles’ fortune had sagged.
When the Super Eagles eventually failed to live up to expectations at the 2010 World Cup, the rage of a nation and its leadership was palpable and it drew worldwide attention. So concerned was President Goodluck Jonathan that a two-year voluntary withdrawal from all international competitions was proclaimed.
The attendant tension, even at global level was almost akin to that of the celebrated 1962 Cuba Missile Crisis. The failure of the national soccer team virtually relegated every other issue, political, economic and social, to the background.
That is the power of sports in Nigeria. The outrage, wild indignation and umbrage that reigned supreme that December 1989 night as Nigerians reacted angrily to the two-year ban that the FIFA had imposed on the country from all age-graded competitions.
It was ironical that a ban that affected just juvenile competitions, but still sparring involvement in top flight games, could virtually bring all activities in the country to a halt.
Every success of the national teams was an occasion for ego-massaging for the country. The Olympic gold medal of the Nigerian soccer team at the Atlanta 1996 was almost like a conquest of the entire globe. Perhaps, it was.
It was the first time in 68 years that a team outside Europe won the gold medal in the soccer event of the Olympic Games.
Besides, the Nigerian team defeated Brazil and Argentina, the power houses of global football to achieve the enviable feat. The attendant celebration was only rivalled by that of August 1985 when Nigeria became the first team outside Europe and South America to win a FIFA event. That was when Nigeria won the inaugural U-16 World Tournament in China. Nigeria had since recorded victory two other instances in 1993 and 2007.
Sport also delivers hope to people ravaged by poverty. Many hitherto poor people have delivered themselves and their dependants through sport-inspired wealth.
Virtually every member of the 1993 Under -17 World Cup winning team and that of the Under-23 side that won the gold medal at the Atlanta ’96 Olympic Games became millionaire in foreign currencies.
Such victories launched the likes of Nwankwo Kanu into lucrative club contracts in Europe. Tijani Babangida came back from the 1996 Olympics and dedicated a multi-million Naira mansion in Kaduna. Sports, to many young Nigerians, have become the escape gate from the jaws of poverty.
Just as the country made impact in other spheres, so also had it done in sports. It is on that account that one can look back to some good sporting achievements of the country.
The importance attached to sports in Nigeria’s is underlined by the government’s establishment of the National Sports Council (NSC) in 1963. The body has since metamorphosed to National Sports Commission and is saddled with the administration of sports in the country.
Before independence, Nigerians had been making waves in sports. At the 1950 British Empire and Commonwealth Games, Joshua Majekodunmi was the first Nigerian sportsman to shoot into international reckoning when he tied for the silver medal with Scotland’s Alan Paterson in the high jump event.
But Emmanuel Ifeajuna surpassed that when Nigeria officially entered for the games in Vancouver, Canada in 1954 and won a gold medal in high jump.
The illustration of Ifeajuna scaling the heights was in many exercise books of primary school pupils in the early 1960s
Three years later, Hogan ‘Kid’ Bassey became the world featherweight champion.
At independence, sports began to take firm footing when in 1963, the National Sports Council (the forerunners to the present National Sports Commission), NSC, was established with Abraham Ordia as secretary.
That period of the 1960s was merely an era of laying foundation for future accomplishment. Today, the Commonwealth Games are well entrenched in the international sporting calendar and holding in the same year with the FIFA World Cup.
But Nigeria contributed in the shaping of the event. Formerly, it was known as “The British Empire Games” until July 20, 1952 when it was changed to “The British Empire and Commonwealth Games.
Later, the title was changed to “The British Commonwealth Games on August 7, 1966. But on January 28, 1974, at the meeting of the General Assembly of the Games Federation, in Christchurch, New Zealand, as a result of a motion by Nigeria, it was decided to adopt “The Commonwealth Games” as the new name.
The first post independent participation of Nigeria in the Commonwealth Games was in Kingston, Jamaica after not featuring in the 1962 games in Perth, Australia.
At the 1966 games, Nigeria had three gold medals, four silver and three bronze medals. It was not a bad outing for a country that has had a break of almost eight years. The heroes included Sam Igun, a police officer who set a new games’ record in hop, step and jump (now called triple jump).
Besides the boxing feats of Hogan Bassey and Dick Tiger in the early 1960s, the most appreciable feat of Nigeria in sports was the qualification of the football team, the then Green Eagles, for the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico.
At the time, featuring in the soccer event of the Olympics was almost akin to playing in the FIFA World Cup. That was why the splendid performance of Nigeria’s Right Full Back and captain, Tony Igwe earned him the appellation “World 2”.
Nigeria lost the opening game of their Group 2 encounter 3-0 to Spain and suffered the same fate against Japan, losing 3-1 but put up a spectacular performance in their last group game and drew 3-3 with Brazil after an initial 3-0 lead.
The 1960s was also the era of prominent sports personalities such as Sam Igun and Dr. George Ogan (high jump), David Ejoke, Violet Odogwu (sprints) among others.
In 1973, Nigeria hosted the 2nd All-Africa Games in Lagos and also introduced the National Sports Festival as a way of discovering athletes to represent the country in continental and international meets. The first meeting in Lagos attracted about 6,000 athletes.
The 1970’s witnessed tremendous achievements. Nigeria’s senior football team, then called the Green Eagles, won a gold medal in the 2nd All-Africa Games.
It was the first continental soccer victory for the country. The Green Eagles excelled among the other seven competitors – Ghana, Algeria, Tanzania in Group A and Egypt, Guinea, Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso) and Congo Brazzaville in Group B.
In terms of pedigree, Ghana and Congo were the pre-tournament favourites, followed by Guinea. But the Nigerian players excelled over them, starting with a 4-2 opening match defeat of Ghana, followed by a 2-2 draw with Algeria and 2-1 win against Tanzania to top in Group A.
In the semi-finals, they beat Egypt 4-2 before recording a 2-0 win over Guinea to win the gold medal. It was the icing on the cake as the country’s contingent to the games won an overall second position on the medals table.
It was the era that outstanding sports personalities like Modupe Oshikoya (athletics), Olawunmi Majekodunmi (table tennis), Isaac Ikhuoria, Davidson Andeh (boxing), Thompson Onibokun (tennis) and Ethel Jacks (table tennis) among others, shaped the destiny of the country in sports. Modupe Oshikoya for instance was Nigeria’s heroine at the second All Africa Games held in Lagos in 1973. Her three individual gold medals in athletics made her stand out.
It was about that time that Michael Okpala, popularly called Power Mike burst into the scene, making Nigeria proud in wrestling.
After engaging in superman show nation-wide in the 1960s, Power Mike later veered into wrestling where he became a global icon. First in 1970, he defeated Gambia’s Massambula to become the African heavyweight champion in wrestling.
Three years later, in Kampala, Uganda, Power Mike defeated Ali Baba of Lebanon to become the world heavyweight champion. After his career came to a close, Power Mike became a promoter of the sport and brought many prominent wrestlers to Nigeria. Among them were Mil Mascaras, Dick the ‘Bulldog Brower’, Buddy Rose and Mighty Igor among others.
In 1976 and 1977 saw the country tasting victories in continental championships through IICC Shooting Stars and Rangers International of Enugu respectively in the African Winners Cup competition.
It was IICC Shooting Stars’ feat in 1976 that signal the emergence of one of Nigeria’s best footballers of all time, Segun Odegbami who was to shoot into continental prominence. Perhaps, he could have gained global attention had Nigeria not boycotted the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal for political reasons.
Odegbami later played prominent role in the national team which placed third at the 1978 African Nations Cup and winners in 1980. Before him, some other players made their marks at the 1976 African Nations Cup in which the nation went as one of the dark horses, but later sprang surprises, beating the defending champions, Zaire (now Congo DR), 4-2 in the opening match. Nigeria eventual ended up as the second runners-up.
Still on soccer, the IICC Shooting Stars became the inaugural winners of the CAF Cup in 1992, while BBC Lions also won the African Winners Cup in 1990 before Bendel Insurance followed with CAF Cup victory in 1994 and also added the WAFU Cup trophy to their accomplishments.
Enyimba in 2003 became Nigeria’s first winners of the continental clubs’ competition, the CAF Champions League and followed up with another impressive victory the following year, becoming the first back-to-back African champions in close to 30 years. The crowned their efforts with double Super Cup victories in 2004 and 2005.
The country’s record of achievements continued in the 1980s with series of achievements especially in football. The bronze medals won in 1976 and 1978 in the African Cup of Nations were improved upon in 1980.
The Christian Chukwu-led Green Eagles won the cup for the first time in Lagos. In 1984 and 1988, Nigeria again got to the finals of that championship but lost to Cameroon on both occasions to win the silver medals. Nigeria won again in 1994 and 2013.
The second place was also achieved in 1990 and 2000 competitions. That is apart from placing third in the competition on eight occasions including that of 1992, 2002, 2004, 2006 2010 and 2019.
Even though it may be argued that the Egypt, Cameroon and Ghana have better African Nations Cup rating than Nigeria, it should also be considered that Nigeria’s three victories, three runners-up and eight third placements are commendable if it is considered only 14 countries out of 56 African countries to have won the competition.
Nigeria qualified for the World Cup for the first time at USA ’94 and was at the brink of making it to the quarter finals at their debut. The same feat was repeated at the next two World Cup competitions where the country had commendable outings at France ’98 and Korea/Japan 2002. Again, the Super Eagles qualified for the South Africa 2010, Brazil 2014 and Russia 2018 World Cup.
Nigeria’s football exploits are not limited to that of clubs and the senior national teams. The youth teams also raised the sporting profile of Nigeria. The Under-20 team, the Flying Eagles became the African champions in 1983 by winning the Tessema Cup in 1983 and going ahead for the then World Youth Championship in Mexico where the team beat one of the former champions, USSR, 1-0.
Even though the Flying Eagles failed to advance to the next round after losing 3-0 to eventual winners, Brazil, and drawing goalless with star-studded Holland, it was a harbinger of hope for Nigerian football.
In the 1980s athletics provided opportunities for splendid performances by Nigeria. Five U.S. based Nigerians won gold medals at the World University games which took place in Edmonton, Canada: Sunday Uti (400m), Yusuf Ali (long jump), and Ajayi Agbebaku (triple jump), Innocent Egbunike (200m) and Chidi Imoh (100m).
Nigeria went to the Olympic Games in Los Angeles in 1984 and came back home with a silver medal in boxing through the efforts of Peter Konyegwachie and a bronze from the 4 x 400m male team led by Innocent Egbunike.
There has been a remarkable improvement over the achievements of the 1970s and 80s in the 90s. The exploits and potentials of Nigerian abroad have been tapped for the benefit of the country and the result has been very impressive.
At the 1990 Commonwealth Games in Auckland, New Zealand. Nigeria did well, winning five gold, 13 silver and seven bronze medals. This is a far improvement from previous outings.
The returns from the games in Victoria, Canada even exceeded that of 1990. Nigerians returned home with 13 gold medals and many silver and bronze medals.
With the euphoria of the 1990 games, the country stormed the Barcelona Olympic Games in 1992 and again there was an improvement from previous records.
The quartet of Olapade Adeniken, Chidi Imoh, Kayode Oluyemi and Davidson Ezinwa won the silver in the 4 x 100m, while the women led by irrepressible Mary Onyali captured the bronze medal in the same event.
Two Nigerian boxers, Richard Igbineghu and David Izonritei won silver medals in super heavyweight and heavyweight respectively at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992.
It was a moment of joy for all Nigerians as the ideal of Olympism seemed to be taking firm root in Nigeria’s participation. The desire to compete, the skills to excel, the courage to overcome and the strength to believe are the qualities of a true Olympian. These are well reflected in some of Nigerian Olympians.
It is through their performances that Nigeria can today look back to some memorable achievements in what has universally been accepted as the greatest show on earth!
Even though Nigeria may not count as one of the super powers of the Olympic Games and even may not be the best African country at the Games, somehow, performances have since the debut of 1952 in Helsinki reflected the spirit of the Olympic motto: “Swifter, Higher, Stronger.”
Before the Barcelona games, Nigeria had been having fluctuating results at the Olympics. Flashback to the barren-medal outing at the Mexico’68 Olympics after a bronze medal was won by Nojim Maiyegun at the Tokyo’64 Games. Mexico’68 was followed by another bronze medal win (again in boxing as in 1964) by Isaac Ikhouria at Munich’72 Olympics. With the boycott of the 1976 games in Montreal, Nigeria’s next outing was at the Moscow Olympics of 1980 where another zero-medal was recorded.
The cycle of fluctuating fortunes was completed with another zero-medal performance at Seoul’88 after the two medals won at Los Angeles’84. But the situation appeared to have changed since the Barcelona Games.
Four years later, Nigeria had its best outing, winning two gold, a silver and three bronze medals. That was not all; the gold medal in the football event was a landmark as it was the first time in 68 years that the gold medal in the football event had been won by a team outside Europe. In Sydney, Nigeria won three medals, a less-flattering result from the previous games.