t was in 1949, when strong Nigerian football team, the first ever to leave West Africa, who played nine matches in five weeks against top English amateur side went on a month tour to Europe. In all probability many of our present generations are not familiar with most of these heroes. This team played an important role in the history of the Nigerian national football team.
The early colonisers were from the merchant classes, a social class which tended to be more brazen than the aristocratic, polo playing, settlers of east and southern Africa. Football was developed in order to evoke a sense of national pride within the host population, in order to deflect criticisms about the way the country was being run. The football federation of Nigeria was established as a white-led organization, and rumours abounded about the corrupt practices of the board, for example, hiring all the best indigenous players to prop up their own civil service and industrial teams.
The current Super Eagles got where they were today because of the pioneering efforts of some players who are long forgotten. Before the present Nigerian football players, there were the UK Tourists.
It was a team of barefoot magicians carefully selected from various clubs and sections. The players, aged between 20 and 29, were made up of two teachers, two clerks, seven railway employees and members of the Nigerian Marine Department, an offshoot of our own Royal Navy. They were to represent the country in their first ever outing friendly match in a European country.
The 18 man-squad comprised of goalkeepers Sam Ibiam (Port Harcourt), Isaac Akioye (Hercules, Ibadan), Justin Onwudiwe (Lagos Railway), Olisa Chukwura (Abeokuta), ATB Ottun (Lagos Marines), Isiaku Shittu (Lagos UAC), John Dankaro (Jos), Hope Lawson (Lagos Marine), Dan Anyiam (Lagos UAC), Okoronkwo Kanu (Land & Survey), 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).
The discretionary practice of selecting these footballers from the best schools and professions for the tour enabled the white administrators of Nigerian football to show off the excellent ‘civilizing’ effects of their presence in the colony. They were selected to go on the tour to see how they would fare against some of England’s leading amateur teams and representative sides.
Nevertheless, it is concluded that there were some positive elements to this tour, since it led to the Europeanisation of Nigerian football, which enabled them to play professionally in football boots, when previously they were bare footed amateurs. The legacy of the continued development of Nigerian football enabled the national team to qualify for their first ever World Cup Finals in 1994, some 45 years after their first football encounter outside Africa.
The team was`led by the NFA Chairman, Captain DH Holley, was the team manager. On August 16, 1949, 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. The players travelled third class in the ocean by ship for the two-week voyage. They had to run round the deck four times every morning to keep fit. On board were the greatest heroes of the time, whom many will only have heard of in folklore and oral tradition. With post-war Britain still under rations the visitors brought plenty of their own supplements of yams, oils, rice, jam, peppers, dried shrimps and hams.
The players, arrived on 29 August 1949 at the port of Liverpool, and met by John Finch, a former Fulham forward, who had been appointed as the coach. On disembarking, the players and the officials were interviewed by the BBC. They also listened to instructions from their manager Captain D.H. Holly. The commentator explains that ‘a telegram from the Duke of Edinburgh gave them a hearty welcome’, while the players embark on a training session with their coach John (Jack) Finch, ‘the famous Fulham football star’. There was also a welcome message from the Duke of Edinburgh. They were scheduled to play nine matches in the four weeks they were to stay in the United Kingdom.
Off the field the Nigerian squad was put in the very capable hands of Andrew T. Ralston, representative of the Football Association, to ensure all the arrangements ran smoothly. Ralston knew more about the amateur game than most, and in a bygone age as a player and official of the London Caledonians he was a great friend of the Dulwich Hamlet club. His efforts throughout the tour enabled the visitors to train at the Arsenal, Everton and Darlington grounds and attend some top flight First Division matches at Stamford Bridge and White Hart Lane.
The players walked out, barefoot, for their first match against Marine Crosby at Liverpool. In this first match, the Nigerians won 5-2. This match in front of 7,000 supporters in Liverpool assumes particular significance as Liverpool had been the scene of ‘anti-Black riots’ in August 1948. White mobs, encouraged by the National Union of Seamen’s campaign to exclude black seamen from British ships, attacked hostels and clubs that catered for black seamen. In front of a crowd of 7, 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. Their next encounter was against Bishop Auckland where they lost 2-5.
The major part of the tour took place in and around London. Leytonstone FC was next met where they lost 1-2. Next then was an Isthmian League XI (at Ilford) match. For 20 minutes of that game, where they lost 1-5, the UK Tourists gave the hosts a rare run.
Up next was the match against Corinthians League XI. It was a 2-2 draw on the field of Walton & Hersham. It was their best game in the series. They pressed till the last minute, when Tesilimi Balogun scored to level up. Despite two defeats and a draw resulting, the team were bonding by the well and showing superb artistry in all quarters. Left winger Titus Okere, oftentimes noted as the fastest man on the pitch, only met his match when he appeared on the same field as the Hamlet’s Tommy Jover of the Isthmian XI. Lawson and Dankaro, a clever and industrious pair of wing-half-backs were proving to be quite a handful, and supplied their forwards with plenty of opportunities in front of goal. The powerful shooting of six foot three inch Tesilimi Balogun, nicknamed ‘Thunder’, was only thwarted by some excellent goalkeeping.
Thunder wasn’t the only one with a nickname. Keeping goal for the Nigerians was Sam ‘The Black Magnet’ Ibiam, whilst Peter ‘Baby’ Anieke, an attacking midfielder gifted in the art of volleying, appears to have had two! He was also known as ‘Diamond Toe’.
Dulwich Hamlet the reigning champions of the Isthmian League, and the finest amateur club in the south of England, were the sixth team to take on the Nigerians. The two sets of players actually met the evening before the game at the Empire Pool Wembley to watch the boxing finals of the Britannia Shield. The Wembley Stadium entrepreneur Sir Arthur Elvin provided ringside seats, and a splendid evening was enjoyed by all.
The combination of fine weather and the lush playing surface of Champion Hill made for ideal conditions for a fast entertaining exhibition. One of the best games witnessed at the ground since before the war.
The game produced just one goal, from the Hamlet’s Pat Connett, making it the lowest scoring match of the tour. Both sides missed decent chances and if Henshaw’s speculative shot from outside the box towards the end had brought the equalizer it would have been thoroughly deserved. Henshaw was well known for his powerful long range efforts and it was long debated back home whether he or ‘Thunder’ Balogun possessed the hardest kick.
The visitors, three in baseball boots and the rest in ankle straps, were delighted at the reception they received from the 18,000 crowd packed inside the ground. It is beyond doubt that many had turned up for the sheer uniqueness of the occasion. It was still very uncommon to find one black man on an English football field, so to have a whole team of black men aroused much curiosity. By the end of ninety minutes, however, as they left the field, this exceptional group of footballers was treated to a very generous standing ovation. A souvenir match-day progamme was made for players and officials with the clubs’ colours of pink and blue and green and white ribbons attached.
A veritable banquet was held in honour of the visitors at the Grove Hotel just up the road. Proprietors Mr. and Mrs Ainsworth served up some traditional English nosh; a real footballer’s dinner, which was greatly appreciated. One of the guests of honour was Sir Leslie Bowker, an FA Amateur Cup winner with the Hamlet three decades earlier. His speech was followed by one from the Nigerian captain Etim Henshaw. There is no record of what he said, but we can be sure it was spoken with charm, modesty and grace. Reminiscing many years later he said that he represented his country with immeasurable pride. The Dulwich Hamlet Football Club was presented with a small banner, and all the players with a Nigerian pin badge as mementos of the tour.
The lack of boots could not cope on Wealdstone’s wet surface when the representative team of the Athenian League was met a few days later. The eight nil scoreline suggested a totally one sided affair The FA Amateur Cup holders Bromley were up next and another bumper crowd of 10,000 plus gathered at Hayes Lane to witness a 3-1 win for Nigeria. Daniel Anyiam, Hope Lawson (from a penalty) and ‘Thunder’ Balogun were the scorers. Centre half Anyiam was soon to take over the captaincy of Nigeria for the following decade.
The final game was another curiosity, and the first in which a Nigerian team played under artificial lighting. Hosts South Liverpool FC had just erected permanent floodlights in their Holly Park ground and invited the tourists to officially open them. The Cheshire League club was the poor relation on Merseyside, and the only way they were going to attract fans away from Anfield Road and Goodison Park was to play their home matches on a Friday evening. For this unusual friendly a record 13,000 turned up after work to watch history being made. It was just a shame about the state of the pitch, which began to break up badly as the game progressed. To save the occasion, a ball painted white was used so it could be seen clearer in the mud. The turf once again affected the shoeless who found it difficult to keep their footing. Despite the conditions they led 2-0 at the break but eventually drew 2-2.
Below are the following results for the Nigeria tour of 1949
August 31 MARINE 2 NIGERIA 5
September 3 BISHOP AUCKLAND 5 NIGERIA 2
September 7 LEYTONSTONE 2 NIGERIA 1
September 10 ISTHMIAN LEAGUE 5 NIGERIA 1
September 14 CORINTHIAN LEAGUE 2 NIGERIA 2
September 17 DULWICH HAMLET 1 NIGERIA 0
September 21 ATHENIAN LEAGUE 8 NIGERIA 0
September 24 BROMLEY 1 NIGERIA 3
September 28 SOUTH LIVERPOOL 2 NIGERIA 2
As the Nigerians came out to play their match on tour, most of the players in the squad of eighteen preferred to play their football in bare feet, although two or three of the players wore baseball boots. This is significant in illustrating the cultural differences between the British and Nigerians. On the one hand, since clothing is often seen as a signifier of ‘civilisation’, the focus on the feet emphasised the still ‘undeveloped’ aspects of colonial Africa, suggested British primacy and endorsed established racial stereotypes. Significantly, however, the British administrators wanted the Nigerians to wear boots, and so the decision to play barefoot could also be seen, on the other hand, as a sign of defiance – the retention of a traditional Nigerian identity – within a tour that clearly sought to establish an image of a modern ‘British’ Nigeria.
It was rather fitting that they completed their tour where they began it a month earlier. The ‘coloured’ population in Britain at the time was approximately a quarter of a million, and about 8,000 black people took residence in the shabby Victorian end of South Liverpool. It would be interesting to find out what percentage of the large crowd on that floodlit night was non white.
They sailed away from what they would have regarded as the ‘mother country’ back to their homes and jobs in Lagos and its surrounds. But before they reached home they made a stop over in Sierra Leone and played what could be regarded as their first fully fledged international in Freetown on 8th October beating their players. Significantly, the date October 8 has held some magic for the Nigerian national team ever since. Nigeria has never lost any international engagement on that date ever since. She first qualified for the World Cup on October 8, in 1993, when the Super Eagles drew 1-1 with Algeria in Algiers. Before then, the Nigerian team had been held to a 2-2 draw in Monrovia by Liberia on October 8, 1963. Also, it was the October 8 game that made her a World Cup qualifier against Egypt in 1977. The Nigerian side defeated Hassan Shehatan-skippered Egypt 4-0, the biggest loss ever suffered by Egypt in a competitive game.
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, the team captain later on decided to better himself with some further education in the UK. He combined studying Marine Engineering at Cardiff Technical College and playing for the local amateur side the Cardiff Corinthians. In 1952, Titus Okere also signed for Swindon Town.
Tesilimi ‘Thunder’ Balogun the brilliant inside right was one of the most successful Nigerian players of his generation. He too returned to the UK in the mid fifties and signed for Peterborough United and then Queen’s Park Rangers. Isaac Akioye, returned to England to pursue new careers and to also play for English club sides.
The team toured the United Kingdom and impressed in friendly matches which they played bare–footed. However, the nine matches played on the tour do 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 played its first international match against Serra Leone in Freetown on October 8, 1949 and it was Henshaw that also captained the Nigeria squad to a 2-0 victory and Sam Ibiam who saved Nigeria by not conceding any goal.
The 1949 tour sought to change perceptions of the Africans. The selectors wanted the players to present a collective face to the British public that went some way to dispelling racial myths about Africans and which would also stand testament to the positive contribution made by the expatriates, confirming the legitimacy of their presence in the colony. As such, the players selected were largely representative of colonial society. Fourteen of the eighteen players were civil servants, and another two were teachers, while the team’s player/secretary Kanno had been educated in England and had thus, it was deemed, acquired the refinements necessary for the public engagements.
Now the question is, Virtually everyone connected with the UK Tourists is dead now. The sole survivor is the goalkeeper, Sam Ibiam who leaves in a remote village in Afikpo, South East Nigeria. The only player who cannot be accounted for is Titus Okere, the left winger who perhaps made the greatest impression to the British in 1949. A newspaper in UK remarked that he was worth £15 000 and a row of houses. Little wonder then that he was the first Nigerian to sign for a professional career in 1952 with Swindon Town FC. Nothing has been heard about him ever since.
The very first of the UK Tourists to die was a full-back, ATB Ottun, a draughtsman from the Marine Department. He committed suicide soon after returning from the UK because he could not find a job that was commensurate with his newly acquired skills.
According to the late captain Etim ‘Skipper’ Henshaw, “Football in the 1940s was a wonderful game. We only played the game because of the love we have for it. We grew up kicking the ball around whenever we could. It was in our blood. It wasn’t our job. Sometimes it seems that today they only care about putting the ball in the net. We played because we loved to play and because it made us feel free. We were amateurs, but were more dedicated than the present day professionals. We played for the love of the game and were a bit more competitive than the present day footballers.”