Nigeria’s mountainous route to Chile’87

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By BEN EDOKPAYI remembers, 30 years on…

NIGERIA’S Flying Eagles arrived Nairobi December 26, 1986 to begin their tune-up for the return leg meeting with Somalia. During the two weeks the boys spent in the city, they embarked on a tough drilling session that was so hard that Nduka Ugbade had to punch a new hole in his belt because of his loss of weight. In the words of skipper Williams Opara, the time was not lonely spent in training but also in praying and fasting.

When match day finally arrived January 9 in Mogadishu, the Flying Eagles proved that all the physical exertion and religious devotion in Nairobi really served their purpose. Against all odds and before President Siad Barre of Somalia, who was basking in the glory of his re-election, the Flying Eagles broke the myth of Invincibility that surrounded the Somali Junior National team at the nine-year-old Chinese built Istaadiyo Mogadishu (Mogadishu Stadium).

In his pre-match entreaties, assistant Coach Tunde Disu told the boys: “We’ve got to get a goal in the first 15 minutes. There is no time to burn.” But the goal did not come until the second half and what a handsome gift it turned out to be. Three minutes from resumption, John Okon had sent a penetrating pass in search of Adeolu Adekola, but Ali Mohammed Amaan intercepted for the Somalis and in his attempt to back pass, he sent the ball beyond an advancing Isaak Mohammed. The lurking Adekola could not wait to see the ball roll lazily into the next, he sent his 76 kg frame hurtling after the ball, making sure there was no mistake and confirming Opara’s prediction that he would score.

Before the goal came, it was the Somalis who had played in the opening minutes as if they had “no time to burn.” An attacking blitz would have seen the Flying Eagles down by two goals in the first five minutes but Opara dived, kicked and parried every missile that was sent his way. He was particularly impressive in the second minute when he lunged sideways to parry a long range angler from Abdalla Mohammed. Two minutes later, he had to scoop the ball off the feet of a lurking Somali, after Ahmed Ibrahim had made a faulty back pass.

The Somalis piled up the pressure with dimunitive Hassan Abati Omar and Ahmed Ali becoming a difficult two-some for the Nigerian defence. Kayode Solomon, who was moved to the right full-back to pave way for Nosa Osadolor’s new mid-field role, bagged the first yellow card in the 13th minute. Osadolor who sparkled in the midfield from where he was expected to propel his long-range missiles had his fine outing aborted when his knee gave way in the 26th minute.

The injury seemed to confirm the foreboding of Opara (the team’s third eye) in Nairobi, that Osadolor would be changed before the 35th minute if he did not score. Just before Jonathan Akpoborire came in for the injured Osadolor, Ahmed Ali had slipped in the ball through Opara’s leg for a goal that was disallowed by the eagle-eyed referee Sidney Picon from Mauritius.

Ahmed Ibrahim formed the weak link in the Nigerian defence. At a stage his indecisiveness in the eighteen unnerved the NFA Chairman Tony Ikazoboh, who shouted from the bench: Tell Ahmed he needs to make up his mind what to do with the ball.” When Ahmed finally made up his mind what to do with the ball in the second half, he bagged a red card for kicking Mohammed Jeylani instead of the ball outside his eighteen. With four minutes away from the interval, Peter Nieketien, who failed to blossom in his attacking role, missed Nigeria’s closest chance in this half. After Adekola had laid on a fine pass for him, he fired a very tame shot into the hands of Mohammed.

After the back-breaking goal and Ibrahim’s ejection in the second half, the Nigerians fell back to defend leaving only Akpoborire, Adekola and Lawrence Ukaegbu in the attack. The gamble paid off as the Eagles soaked in all the Somali pressure with ease. In the 63rd minute, the peerless Ladi Babalola headed off the line after roving Abati Omar had dispatched a deceptive lob into the Nigerian goal mouth, with Opara already displaced. Referee Picon, one of the three Africans who officiated in the Mexico World Cup almost gave away a cheap penalty in this half, but he changed his mind when the linesman E. Cadresen convinced him that it was a Somali attacker who handled the ball in a goal mouth scramble.

Ukaegbu, in his characteristic style, fluffed a chance that would have put the Eagles two goals up in the 75th minute, when he shot wide in front of the Somali goal mouth. As the minutes ticked away, the Somalis became more incoherent in their build-up. It was obvious that they missed the technical competence and reassuring presence of their Ghanaian coach, Charles Kumi Gyamfi, whom Somali FA Chairman Faroh Addo, gives the credit for revolutionizing Somali football in his four-year stay in that country.

But Gyamfi’s lads could do nothing to lessen the plight of their Ghanaian coach, who had left the team for Ghana after the first leg to attend to his wife, who was down with a stroke. Instead they increased Gyamfi’s burden with a tail-end rally that failed to redeem them from the 1-0 defeat handed them by the Flying Eagles.

The stadium was lifeless as the final whistle was blown and the entire crowd wore a mournful look as they filed out. Addo covered the anguish of his team’s defeat behind a pair of dark glasses. His dream of taking Somalia to Chile had evaporated. Up in the state box, the Mayor of Mogadishu wore a similar long look.

His despondency was understandable. His team, the local government side, had contributed as many as 10 players to the junior national team. Not only that. He had also joined other Somali government agencies like the printing agency, cooperative unions and major banks in raising funds to sustain the Under-20 team, which most Somalis looked upon with expectations to place their country’s football on a high pedestal in African soccer.

Addo blamed the Nigerians for frustrating his boys by going for their frail legs instead of the ball. But his complaints were drowned by the revelry and back slapping that enveloped the few Nigerians that were at the stadium. The joy of victory seemed to wipe away the sad blunder of the Somali Army, who played the old Nigerian anthem, “Nigeria we hail thee” before the match.

The celebration continued later at the Bodekaran residence of the Nigerian charge de affaires in Mogadishu, Abba Ibrahim Bashir, where the team was treated to a sumptuous Nigerian food.

Even the long nine-hour-flight back home (on a NAF Hercules C-130) was not enough to take away the ecstatic mood of the boys when they arrived back in Lagos. The thoughts of qualifying for the Under-20 World Cup for the third consecutive time was enough joy. But the celebrations can only be crowned if the Flying Eagles can retain the Tessema Cup for keeps, by beating Togo, the other African qualifiers, in the finals of the African zone of the Junior World Cup scheduled for April.

NB: This article by me first appeared in Newswatch Magazine. We returned home from Somalia in a C-130 Hercules flight.

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