BY KUNLE SOLAJA
Contrary to the widely held belief that all the 18 players and officials that constituted Nigeria’s first national football team 73 years ago are dead, Sports Village Square has found one of them, though advanced in age, still alive.
He is Titus Okere, the left wing wizard of the team who was initially projected to captain the 1949 squad. He lives a quiet life in Kent, some 61km to London in the UK.
At 93 since 22 March 2022, the left sided former attacking pearl is the only survivor among the 18 pioneer national team footballers of Nigeria.
Having left Nigeria in February 1953 and never came back, he was believed to have passed on.
He was the first Nigerian citizen to play football abroad and registered as a professional when he signed for Swindon Town.
In the process of packaging a book on the legendary Tesilimi Balogun whose 50th anniversary of passing on will be next month, an attempt was made to also pay tributes, not only to Thunder Balogun, but also his other pioneer colleagues.
Eminent journalist, Emeka Obasi first gave an indication that Okere was alive and could be living in the Netherlands as a retired medical personnel.
Contacts were made to Nigerian relatives in Amsterdam to digitally get information on anyone that fits Okere’s profile. Another eminent researcher on Nigerian football and who has roots in The Netherlands, Dr. Wiebe Boer was also contacted.
He linked up with a Dutch football film maker to help track down Okere. Eventually, Jeron vd Kroonenberg made a breakthrough by passing Titus Okere’s granddaughter’s contacts to Sports Village Square.
The grand-daughter, Frances Okere, informed that owing to Titus Okere’s age, she would be the one to help extract information from him.
She informed that the man was alive and doing well having clocked 93 last 22 March.
Coincidentally, Nigeria’s winning of the Africa Cup of Nations for the first time on 22 March 1980 was thus an eternal tribute to Okere. He was 51 on that day.
Similarly, Joseph Meads, the Nigeria Football Association (NFA) inaugural secretary who was also the convener of the 21 August 1933 meeting in which the football body was founded (not 1945 as wrongly claimed), was also born on 22 March.
Born in 1907, would had been 73 years; the day Nigeria beat Algeria to win the Africa Nations Cup for the first time in 1980.
Titus Okere’s grand daughter also informed that he lost his wife, Patricia Okere two years ago. His son, who is Frances’ father also goes by the name Titus Okere.
He has two grand daughters, Frances and Georgina Okere who is now Mrs. Coates. Also, there are two great grandchildren, Maxwell Okere, son of Frances and Sebastian Coates.
The pioneer Nigerian left winger left the country in February 1953 and has since never come back. The granddaughter ruled out the possibility of his returning to Nigeria.
Her remark: “Titus no longer likes travelling, so sadly will not be coming back to Nigeria.” She revealed that the old man enjoys watching football on TV and spending time with his family.
She further pointed out that Titus Okere’s son, who is her own father, enjoyed playing football as a young man, but never to the professional level.
“We are proud of his footballing achievements. His trophies and photographs from his football career are displayed in his home.”
Titus Okere’s adventure abroad after the initial UK tour of 1949 had an element of luck. He was highly rated by the British press during the UK tour of 1949 even though like most of his colleagues, he was playing barefooted.
The Liverpool Echo edition of 1 September 1949 was astonished about the speed and brilliance of Titus Okere at the outside left and averred that given his experience, “he could find a place in most European League sides.”
Another report by Edgar Kail in the Daily Graphic illustrated it further by commenting that Okere was worth £15,000 and a row of houses.
Those comments could have prompted him to take the chance of venturing abroad for professional football thus opening the doors for others, notably Balogun and Elkanah Onyeali to also go to England. By the turn of the century, plying trade abroad, especially in Europe had become a common phenomenon.
Sports Village Square gathered from archival research that Titus Okere had always dreamt of returning to the UK after the Nigerian team tour of 1949.
So prominent was he in the squad that he was the first consideration as the skipper since he was also the captain of Railway club that supplied the bulk of the 18-man squad.
In the Daily Service publication of 1 July 1949, three players were short listed as possible captain – Etim Henshaw, Dan Anyiam and Titus Okere.
The latter was not chosen by the NFA on account that “it was impossible to select him as captain in view of his position as outside left. It was thought it is impossible for him to control the team from his position in the forward line.”
Dennis Hart, an English journalist writing in the Daily Service edition of 27 February 1953 narrated how Okere landed in England.
He claimed that returning to the UK and to play as a professional footballer had been Okere’s dream. He was then 25 and working as a clerk in the Nigerian Railway which he also played for as captain.
Hart wrote: “To fulfil it, he has taken one big step already. He has joined an Fnglish League club, Swindon Town as a professional, the first Nigerian ever to do so.
“Imagine his excitement when four years ago he was selected as outside left as a member of the Nigerian team to tour England, to play the leading amateur dubs.
“Waiting for the tour to begin weighed heavily on Titus’ hands.
But when the day finally arrived, the time, flashed by all quickly.
The tour whetted, rather than satisfied his appetite for English soccer.
Having tasted it, he thirsted for more.
“He returned to his job as a clerk with the Nigerian Railways in Lagos
But in spirit he was still in England, re-living the tour over and over again in his mind.
“The months slipped by, and with them, it seemed his chances of playing permanently in English soccer.
“But then fate took a hand. The coach to the Railway team for which Titus was playing for was Leo Robins, a native of Swindon.
He was in Nigeria on Railway work. Leo was a keen supporter of his town’s club. He wrote to the manager, Louis Page, recommending to him to sign Titus.
After consultations with the club’s directors, Mr. Page wrote to Titus, asking if he would like to join Swindon. Titus needed no persuasion. It was a gamble and needed throwing up his job.”
Hart remarked that he later interviewed Okere after his first day training at Swindon. “He told me that he could hardly believe it.
It was a typical English February morning with frost still on the ground and a keen east wind which penetrated the thickest of overcoats.
Hart asked Titus how he felt 4,000 miles away from the sun and his friends. “Well the sun might be a long way away”, replied Titus in his normal quiet-spoken manner, “I certainly miss it. But I ‘ve already made lots of friends here.
“The players and staff of the club here have done everything to make me feel at home, and so too, my landlady, Mrs Wakeley.” Titus told Dennis Hart that one of his main problems was to get used to playing in boots.
He has never done this before. When he toured England in 1949, he did wear anklets, a crepe bandage covering his ankle and instep, but otherwise all his football had been played in bare feet.
There was no rule in British football which insist on players wearing boots. But after a few steps, Titus found the cold was too much.
To start with them, he will wear hockey boots which are rubber soled with light studs and when he gets used to these, will graduate to normal English boots.
His grand daughter informed Sports Village Square that Titus Okere “retired from football not long after moving abroad sadly.
“After leaving football, Titus worked for Parcel Force on the railway until he retired around 1974/75.” Frances further remarked that her grand dad is keeping well and in good health.