It has happened again, just as it did 28 years ago. It was actually the maiden competition of the teenagers’ World Cup, the inaugural competition. It sounded like a fairytale! The story of Nigeria’s participation in the U-17 World Championship is laced with some of the most amazing results in world football. None less than the victory of the country in Beijing, China,’ in 1985, where the inaugural experimental tournament was held.
It is now known as FIFA U-17 World Cup. In 1985, when the game started, it was U-16 and Nigeria not only participated in this maiden outing, but made a name by becoming the world Champions. That was FIFA U-16 of 1985.
Tony Eke with the wonder team
The inaugural FIFA under-16 competition in 1985, the first international tournament ever held in China PR, witnessed stadia filled to capacity, while the Workers’ Stadium in Beijing, with a capacity of 80,000, was packed to the rafters no fewer than four times. African supremacy, which was to leave its mark on championships in the ensuing years, began to assert herself in China PR, with Nigeria the winners and Guinea semi-finalists.
The FIFA U-17 World Cup, founded as the FIFA U-16 World Championship and known by its current name since 1991, is the world championship of association football for male players under the age of 17 organised by Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA).
That first edition was staged in 1985 in China and the tournaments have been played every two years since then. It began as a competition for players under the age of 16 with the age limit raised to 17 from the 1991 edition. The most recent tournament was hosted by the United Arab Emirates and won by Nigeria, with the next edition to be hosted by Chile in 2015.
Before spectators that fluctuated between 20,000 and 80,000 in 1985, Nigeria fulfilled Joao Havelange’s dream of organising a world competition for school boys between the ages of 14 and 16 playing without the pressures, tension and technicalities that characterise football at the senior level. The youngsters from Nigeria treated a football-crazy world to a few things in unadulterated, free-flowing, attacking football. China was a reminder of what the world had lost in football since the pressures of winning turned the game into the over-technical sport it has become.
The Eaglets were Nigeria’s first cadet team. They were coached by Sebastian “Sabara” Brodricks, ably assisted by “Chairman” Christian Chukwu and Bala Shamaki. The Eaglets, against all odds and expectations, won the inaugural FIFA/Kodak under 17 World Cup. In an incredible and unprecedented effort, a squad of unknown boys conquered the world. When the Eaglets flew out to China, the prevailing feeling among football fans, was the boys should be good ambassadors and not get beaten too heavily. While addressing them before their departure, the NFA Chairman, Captain Ikhazoboh told the boys psychologically that the national flag of the winning country would be raised while that of the losing country would be lowered. This, he explained to mean that the winning country would be trampling on the losing party. For the love of their country, the teenagers vowed that no country would march on their beloved country, Nigeria. They were determined to win. Though nobody expected the Eaglets to bring the World Cup home, they did.
The Beijing team was made up of:
Chief Coach: “Sabara” Sebastian Brodrick-Imausen
Assistant Coaches: Christian Chukwu and Bala Shamaki
Players used: 15 out of 18
Sabara’s boys, playing in a fluid, attacking 4-3-3 formation beat Italy, 1-0, were held to a goal-less draw by Saudi Arabia and dispatched Costa Rica in the group stages. The Eaglets then knocked out Hungary and Guinea in the quarters and semis. They beat the tournament favourites, Germany in a pulsating final by two goals to nil. The goals coming from Jonathan Akpoborie and an excellent strike from Victor Igbinoba.
The starting 11 for the final were goal keeper, the ever smiling Lucky Agbonsevbafe, right back, Tonworimi Duere, left back Nduka Ugbade (captain). Binebi Carlos Numa, the late Kingsley Akionbare central defenders. The central midfielders were Fatai Atere, Sani Adamu and Victor Igbinoba in a slightly more advanced attacking role. Babatunde Fapetu and Bella Momoh were on the wings with Jonathan Akpoborie as the loan striker. The rest of the 18 man squad were Salisu Nakande, Yahaya Mohammed, Chukwuma Nwoha, Hilary Adiki, Imama Amapakabo, Dele Abubakar and Baldwin Bazuaye.
On the eve of their departure to the competition, it was on record that the NFA Chairman, Captain Tony Ikazoboh asked the players to make a last minute wish and they responded that the only thing they needed was enough gaari. They said that if they could have enough gaari, they would have enough energy to play very well. So, they were provided gaari and who knows, maybe that was what worked the magic.
Not one of the Eaglets was playing professionally. The majority of them had played with the Youth Sports Federation of Nigeria. Others like Jonathan Akpoborie, were discovered while playing in school. Akpoborie was spotted playing in Igbobi College, just two and a half months before the tournament. Yet he managed to play his way into Sabara’s plans and on to the plane to China. An amazing feat and for Akpoborie, a destiny changing sequence of events.
FIFA’s initial fears for the welfare of the “kids” and for interested sponsorship turned out to be unfounded. The inaugural tournament was sponsored by Kodak. JVC had also sponsored two other championships.
With every championship the interest generated continued to increase to such an extent that even the most developed soccer-playing nations in the world have found the championship a grooming ground for stars of the future.
Nigeria entered to play in the preliminary rounds of the inaugural tournament with a team drawn mainly from the Youth Sports Federation of Nigeria (YSFON) a private organisation that has now got government recognition and support and whose primary objective is developing sports at youth level all over Nigeria. YSFON had entered for and taken part in competitions outside Nigeria which has made the organisation’s role rather questionable in several quarters. Gothia Cup, Dallas Cup, President’s Cup, all became additional names in competitions in which Nigeria was engaged.
Strength, skill and a willingness to attack were the three main ingredients in the nation’s first world title at U-17 level. The boys proved themselves superior in just about all facets of the game. The Golden Eaglets coasted through the first round with a 1-0 victory over Italy, a 3-0 win against Costa Rica and a draw with Saudi Arabia, then stepped up to brush aside Hungary (3-1) in the quarter-finals. They came back down to earth against Guinea, but scraped through on penalties (4-2), before triumphing over West Germany in the Final. With Lucky Agbonsevbafe imperial in goal, Sani Adamu equally commanding in the middle of the park and Joseph Babatunde on hand to put away half chances up front, Nigeria were unstoppable. Their superior physique and natural attacking enterprise made the Golden Eaglets an irresistible powerhouse.
Taking a glance into the competitions, it was a very well-balanced tournament, just edging it in terms of the quality of football. Two African sides, Nigeria and Guinea, reached the semis, alongside a South American representative in Brazil, and one team from Europe, West Germany. Brazilian William Cesar de Oliveira took the honours in a tournament that had more than its fair share of raw talent. The Auriverde playmaker was more than just a great passer. He was nimble, clever, and hard to knock off the ball. His inch-perfect through balls to strikers Faria Barreto and Natalino Antunes regularly created panic in opposing defences, and he got on the score-sheet himself too – often at vital moments. His goals against Qatar and Mexico turned things Brazil’s way in the group stage, while his double against Saudi Arabia in the knockout matches proved equally decisive. He hit two more in the third place play-off against Guinea to end a wonderful tournament.
The team that caused the biggest stir was probably Australia. Handed a seemingly killer draw alongside top sides Argentina, West Germany and Congo in Group B, the Aussies made their intentions clear right from the outset. A shocking 1-0 win over the Argentines was achieved via a Craig Naven strike. West Germany soon went the same way, a Paul Trimbole goal proving enough for them to pull off a second upset. The Aussies then disposed of Congo 2-1 to qualify in style, only to fall to Guinea on penalties in the quarter-finals. They had exceeded expectations though, and returned home with their heads held high.
Controversy arose, however, when, a foreign embassy wrote to the Ministry denying knowledge and recognition of the competition in their country. YSFON’s activities, although noble and patriotic, were never really given its fair due in terms of appreciation and recognition even in the country.
At the inaugural edition, a relatively unknown Nigerian side captained by Nduka Ugbade, who is now an assistant coach of the current team, won the cup after beating Germany 2-0 in the final of what was then called Kodak Cup. Jonathan Akpoborie and Victor Igbinoba scored the goals for the Eaglets in 4th and 79th minutes respectively.
Over the days that the tournament lasted, Chinese fans showed their love for the beautiful game with massive turnout. On the whole, 735,000 fans watched the matches at the stadia. It was a great moment watching Ugbade lift the title aloft as the Eaglets found their first FIFA glory on Asian success.
The Cup was presented to the Captain of the Baby Eagles, Nduka Ugbade, by FIFA President, Mr. Joao Havelange. Straight from the stadium, Chinese fans and others bombarded the team’s bus as the players danced to Nigerian tunes. Hundreds of hands were stretched towards the open windows for handshakes with the boys.
Some days after the victory, the players were flown into the country aboard Nigeria Airways Airbus 310 at about 7 a.m. Many Nigerians and especially, football lovers and families had kept vigil at the international airport waiting to heroically welcome the world champions. As soon as the plane taxied, the mammoth crowd surged forward singing the National anthem and waving the green white green flag.
Captain Ugbade, who was the first to step unto the gangway, held the glittering gold-cup up and waved to the cheering crowd that responded by singing, “o se o se baba”. There were various placards some of which read: “Welcome Golden Eaglets”, “Eaglets thank you”, “We are proud of you” and so on and so forth.
At the reception at the State House, Marina, the Head of State, General Muhammadu Buhari congratulated the team. He said that it was the first time that any African country would come first in any world soccer.
Highlights of the programes at the State House reception were:
- Awards and Honours for the Eaglets:
- He renamed the team “Golden world Eaglets”
- He also announced secondary and post-secondary scholarship for all of them tenable in Nigerian higher institutions.
- Streets would be named after all the players in their states of origin.
- There would be promotion to the next grade levels for their coaches
- The players would tour all states including Abuja
- National Honours for all of them.
Suprisingly, the promises of a house, stock in the Central Bank, streets to be named after each player, scholarships, etc, made to the players by the Buhari/Idiagbon government were never fulifilled.
In 2010, the captain of the team, Nduka Ugbade, made an emotional plea at a public hearing with the House Committee on Sports where he described the promises that were made to the team. Speaking after the hearing he said, “We did not even get our bonuses from the World Cup while the scholarship was stopped when the government did not pay.” The Director General of the National Sports Commission (NSC), Dr Patrick Ekeji, assured that the commission will soon commence a process to fulfill pledges made to the players by the government for doing the nation proud.
Ugbade, at the forum had demanded to know why houses, shares, as well as other packages promised them by the federal government for winning the inaugural FIFA ‘Under-16’, now U-17 world Cup in China, were yet to be given to them 25 years after the championship. According to him, one of the players, Kingsley Aikhionbore waited in vain until he died. It is 28 years after, have all those promises been fulfilled? How we celebrate our heroes! How do we pay those “who served our fatherland with love and strength and faith”? Will “the labour of our heroes past” continue to “labour in vain”?
Wait a moment! Where are those players today? What has become of them? Why have they faded out? What became of those promises of nurturing them to the highest level? This is rather sad. For the 1985 squad, the noticeable stand-outs remain the duo of Jonathan Akpoborie and Nduka Ugbade who, incidentally, is one of the assistant coaches of the current set of Golden Eaglets.
Two years later, at 16, Fatai Atere played in same World Cup and in three years he had faded out of the game. Atere was just 19 when he quit active football! Though after relocating to the United States Of America in 1990, he was named the Managing Director of the EJJE Youth Soccer Academy in Tampa, Florida.
Details of the 1985 FIFA U-17 tournament were:
Teams: 16 (from 6 confederations)
Date: 31 July 1985 to 11 August 1985
Venues: 4 (in 4 host cities: Peking, Tianjin, Dalian and Shanghai)
Goals Scored: 91 (average 2.8 per match)
Attendance: 1231000 (average 38468)
Details of the Final match:
Date: 11th August, 1985
Venue: Workers’ Stadium, Beijing
Referee: Christopher Bambridge
Scorers: Akpoborie (4’), Igbinoba (79’)
Runners-Up: Germany FR
Adidas Golden Ball: William (Brazil)
Adidas Golden Shoe: Marcel Witeczek (Germany)
FIFA Fair Play award: Germany FR