Challenge Cup: How it started

The FA Cup, popularly known as the Challenge Cup competition, stands out not only as the most exciting and sensational football competition in the annals of Nigerian soccers, but also as a converging point of unification, cutting across the diverse classes of religions, tribes, sex and sectarian differences of every hue.

This popularly cherished  soccer fiesta will indeed forever linger in the memory for the jitters of thrills, frills, electrifying excitement and joyous ecstasy it inspired in the social scene of those good old days.

Those were the days of talented and dedicated soccer devotees, who dazzled the teeming number of fanatical soccer buffs across the nation with their entertaining soccer artistry.

In those good old days, they would throng such venerated spots of antiquity like the King George IV Stadium popularly known as Onikan Stadium and the National Stadium, Surulere, both in Lagos, to watch the immortal soccer greats like Tesilimi Akanni Balogun, a.k.a. Thunderbolt or Ara Omo Balogun, as he was often called.

Others who were remarkable for making this exciting competition to tick included Paul Hamilton, Asuquo Ekpe, Albert Onyeawuna, Etim Henshaw, Peter Fregene, Inua Lawal Rigogo, Amusa Shittu, Sam Opone, Segun Olumodeji, Muyiwa Oshode, Sam Garba Okoye, the Atuegbu brothers, Ismaila Mabo, Layiwola Olagbenro, Tony Igwe, Sunny Oyarekhua, Patrick Okala, Segun Odegbami, Christian Chukwu, Henry Nwosu and Stephen Keshi, among other soccer heroes of that era.

The competition debuted for the first time in 1945, following the donation of a cup same year by the Governor-General of Nigeria, Arthur Frederick Richard (later Lord Milverton). The trophy, which was originally called the Governor’s Cup, was to be competed for by the growing number of football clubs in the country.

Eight teams, all based in Lagos, competed for the cup. They included the Railways, Zik Athletic Club (ZAC), Public Works Department (PWD), United African Company (UAC), Posts and Telegraphs (P&T), Marines (Nigeria Ports Authority) and the Corinthians.

In 1954, the cup was renamed Nigeria Football Association (FA) Cup. The new name became necessary in order to avoid the confusion which was certain to occur, following the creation of three regions namely West, East, North and South as well as the appointment of governors to administer each of the regions which had commenced their own regional competitions.

Marine XI made history by winning the maiden edition of the competition after beating Corinthians by one goal to nothing.

In 1946, a team, known as the Abeokuta Selected, joined the fray to become the first team outside Lagos to compete for the cup. It was led by one school teacher known as Mr. Efiok.

In 1948, Calabar, Jos, Port Harcourt, Aba, Kaduna, Lagos and Kano enlisted for the competition.

For the first eight years, Lagos dominated the competition as it monopolised the cup for keeps on account of the teams’ experience conferred by their early head start in the game of football.

This monopoly was, however, broken for the first time, when Kano XI came all the way from Kano to defeat Lagos Dynamos by 2-1.

First set of Nigeria players

Having broken the myth of invincibility of Lagos through the shocking upset of the defeat by the Dynamos of Lagos, other teams outside Lagos mustered the courage to stand up to the hitherto dreaded Lagos-based teams.

Thus, in 1954 and 1955, not only did the cup eluded Lagos, it never even got to the finals as Calabar trounced Kano 3-0, while in 1955, Port Harcourt whipped Warri by four goals to one.

In 1971, when the NFA decided to enforce, with greater strictness, its earlier decision in 1967 to the effect that only individual clubs would be allowed to participate in the competition as against combined teams which was often presented from zones outside Lagos, WNDC of Ibadan became the first non-combined clubside outside Lagos to cart away the Challenge Cup.

However, a recount of the competition would indeed not be complete without a mention of the team from Jos, whose heroic exploit evoked an admixture of joy on one hand and sadness and tears.

Indeed, it could well be affirmed, without fear of contradiction, that the history of the FA Cup was for the most part, a recount of the gallant struggle of this Jos-based team of accomplished ball jugglers, who would struggle tooth and nail to get to the final and even on getting to the final, ensured, as a matter of rule, to put in everything. They would almost play their hearts out as if their lives depended on it only to lose in the ultimate end when it mattered most and, therefore, fail to clinch the trophy.

 

Sam Ojebode and Chief Lekan Salami … celebrating

So did it turn out that they remained the only team, apart from the Railway XI, with the highest record of getting to the finals but never for once were they ever able to cart away the trophy.

In 1951, however, when Teslim Balogun, unarguably the greatest football maestro Nigeria had ever produced, disagreed with his former club and joined the Plateau XI, one had thought that the victory of the clubside was a foregone conclusion.

This, indeed, was because in those days, Balogun was one player who had stamped his authority on the game on account of his reputation as a football wizard, coupled with his goal scoring ability, which was immensely prolific and unmatchable. It was because of this that soccer pundits would never hesitate before tipping whichever side he belonged as the automatic winner even before the kick-off.

However, on this particularly decisive encounter, Balogun, the revered goal merchant, exhausted all the weapons in his formidable goal scoring armoury, but the goals simply refused to come. And in the end, the Railways, popularly referred to in later years as the “Old Reliables,” ran away with a lone goal!

Ironically the following year, when the highly adored “Thunder” left his Jos-based team for Lagos, where he pitched camp with the Pan Bank Football Club, his magic wand, which seemed to have failed him, soon re-appeared when he scored two of the six goals that sent their opponents packing in the finals.

Apart from the lamentable loss to the Railways in 1951, the Plateau team also lost 0-1 against the Police team in 1962. In 1963, it fought back gallantly again to the final, but only to lose one goal to nil again to Port Harcourt.

In 1964, the never-say-die Plateau Highlanders again put up a spirited fight which saw them to yet another final which they lost to the Railways.

It was that year that the NFA decided to establish the Guinness Cup, which was meant to be a consolation trophy for the runners-up team. That year, it had been expected that if the Plateau boys could not win the gold trophy, perhaps the silver Guinness Cup would at least suffice, if only for consolation.

 

 

But for the Plateau boys, who lost in that year to the Railways, who had earlier dealt them a 1-0 blow in 1951, this logic certainly did not hold any water as they refused to turn out for the runners-up match. Particularly embarrassing in this respect was that Mrs. Flora Azikiwe, the then First Lady and wife of Nigeria’s President, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, who heeded the invitation as special guest of honour, had waited for the match to commence only to dawn on the would-be spectators that it was not to be as the Plateau boys had refused to show up. This action was to earn the team a suspension, just as the NFA also promptly cancelled the Guinness Cup competition.

In 1966, Plateau again struggled to the final, locking horns with the Ibadan Lions in what eventually turned out to be an action-packed encounter. The match dramatically ended in a stalemate, following the outburst of violence which saw players exchanging blows.

 

David Otti veteran player and coach

The NFA consequently ordered a replay, but unfortunately, it could not hold because of the political crisis in the country and the feeling of insecurity which made some of the Plateau players, who were of Eastern Region origin, to join the bandwagon of the massive movement of Easterners from the North to the east and other areas they considered safe and secure in the pursuit of their endeavours.

The Plateau side, for this reason, was therefore unable to raise a team for the replay which eventually could not hold.

In 1968, when Nigeria had put up an impressive showing in that year’s Olympic Games in Mexico, the Plateau XI again wormed itself to the final of that year. Their opponent, this time around, was the Stationery  Super Stores, whose players dominated the national team by an overwhelming proportion of nine out of the 11 members of the team.

Sunny Badru, smarting from his recent outing at the just-concluded Olympic Games, officiated at the match. A total of five penalty kicks were awarded during the match–three to the Stationary Stores out of which they scored only one and two to the Plateau boys, which were all lost. The Jos team was actually leading by two to one before the harvest of penalty kicks ensued. Unfortunately, they were unable to utilise the opportunity which to sustain their leading runs. They lost out to the Flaming Flamingos as Stationery Super Stores was also called, in a replay which came up the following day.

The recurring decimal of getting to the final only to lose in the end was again to repeat itself two years later, when it met ECN of Lagos in the final, losing 3-1 again to the Lagos-based team.

Also worthy of emphasis was the penalty awarded to the Jos-based team, which they again failed to convert as if jinxed that they would never be able to score with a penalty kick.

The year 1972 was undoubtedly an epoch that would linger for long in the history of the Challenge Cup. That year, the Plateau boys came out brimming with remarkable grit and determination, ready for the kill as they paraded a star-studded team comprising such seasoned players like Layiwola Olagbenro, Babalola, Batande, Sule Kekere and Sam Garba Okoye, the football wizard of blessed memory, who, as a school boy, captained the Nigerian Academicals that created a remarkable soccer upset not only by beating the Ghana Academicals even at their own “backyard” in Ghana.

On this momentous day in question, it was already two minutes to full time and Bendel Insurance Football Club was leading the Mighty Jets by two goals to nothing.

Tongues had again begun to wag that the losing jinx was once again at force on the Plateau boys. Just at this point, the legendary Sam Garba unleashed his magic wand, beating the Insurance defence to net in the much expected equaliser.

Moments after the scoring of this all important goal, just as Sunny Badru was  thinking whether to blow the final whistle to signify the end of the game, another volley unleashed by Sam Garba raced through the air and into the Bendel Insurance net in a curious coincidence with the timing of the whistle.

The entire stadium erupted in confusion as a cacophony of counteracting arguments rent the air as to whether the referee’s whistle signified the end of the match or a goal. The answer to this was supplied by the NFA, which ordered a replay. This time around, the replay was to take place in the ancient city of Ibadan, about 125 kilometres away from Lagos. It was the first time the FA Cup final would be played outside Lagos.

Indeed, the teeming mass of supporters, admirers and well-wishers of the club, including soccer lovers, had seen the change of venue as a good omen of a sort. They reasoned that their victory luck might probably not reside in Lagos. Other supernatural viewpoints also had it that they would probably need to play in Ibadan in order to break the jinx. But this was not to be, because on that day, October 21, 1972, this gallant bunch of unlucky fighters lost out by two goals to three in that memorable encounter at the famous Liberty Stadium.

A free-kick from Sebastian Broderick-Imasuen of Bendel Insurance supplied the leading edge for the latter, which had lingered on a 2-2 draw up till the last quarter of the great match.

Teslim Balogun

In the early 1970s, Rangers International, smarting from the ravages of the civil war and smoking with every ounce of determination and dare devilry, dominated the football scene like a colossus, winning the FA Cup three times consecutively; a feat which was unprecedented in the history of the competition. However, in the later part of the period, they were to find a stiff competitive rivalry in the IICC Shooting Stars of Ibadan and the Bendel Insurance of Benin.

A significantly shocking upset in this era was the ruthless humiliation of both teams (Rangers and IICC), by a star-studded team of young players of Bendel Insurance Football Club.

In 1978, this implacably determined fiery “Young Turks” namely Christopher Ogu, Henry Ogboe, Peter Egharevba  and Felix Agbonifo, among others, unleashed a 2-0 drubbing on the otherwise highly reputed IICC, only to silence the almighty Rangers with a devastating 3-0 bash, to cart away the trophy.

In the 1980’s, a relatively low-rated Leventis United Football Club, created yet another remarkable upset as they emerged from the relatively unreckonable back waters of their Third Division, to defeat Abiola Babes, a highly rated first division club one goal to zero, won the cup. And as if to convince the doubting Thomases who might regard the defeat as a fluke, they again repeated same feat two years later by defeating the same opponents by the same margin. But for the dramatic disbandment of the team in 1987, the team, as popularly believed, was poised to sustain its leading runs.

PELE in Nigeria, January 26, 1969. Tony Igwe was captain

In 1989, another epoch-making event was again to unfold as the BCC Lions of Gboko, defeated Iwuanyanwu Nationale by  one goal to nil to take the cup to the North for the second time after the historic feat of the Kano XI, who in 1953, defeated the Dynamos by two goals to one to take the cup to the North.

 

How They Faired

1945: Marine (now Nigerian Ports Authority) 1, Corinthians (team of the Labour department) 0.

1946: Railway 3, Port Harcourt 0

1947: Marine 3, Railway 1

1948: Railway 1, Warri 0

1949: Railway 3, Port Harcourt 0

1950: Lagos UAC 3, Port Harcourt 2

1951: Railway 3, Plateau 2

1952: Lagos Pan Bank 6, Warri 0

1953: Kano 2, Lagos Dynamos 1

1954: Calabar 3, Kano 0

1955: Port Harcourt 4, Warri 1

1956: Railway 3, Warri 1

1957: Railway 5, Zaria 1

1958: P/Harcourt 6, Fed United (Lag) 0

1959: Ibadan 1, Lagos Police 0

1960: Lagos ECN 5, Ibadan 2

1961: Ibadan 1, Lagos UAC 0

1962: Ibadan 1, Lagos UAC 0

1963: Port Harcourt 1, Plateau 0

1964: Railway 3, Plateau 1

1965: ECN 3, Plateau 1

1966: Ibadan won by walkover against Plateau

1967: Stores 3, Ibadan 0

1968: Stores 3, Plateau 1 in replay

1969: Ibadan 5, Warri 1

1970: ECN 3, Jos 1

1971: WNDC (IICC), Ibadan 2, Rangers 1

1972: Bendel 3, Jets of Jos 2 (after a replay at the Liberty Stadium Ibadan.

First meeting ended 2-2 draw in Lagos)

1973: No competition

1974 :Rangers 2, Jets 0

1975: Rangers 1, IICC 0

1976: Rangers 2, Alyufsalam Rocks FC of Ilorin 0

1977: IICC 2, Raccah Rovers of Kano 0

1978: Bendel Insurance 3, Rangers 0

1979: IICC 2, Sharks 0

1980: Bendel Ins. 1, Stationery Stores 0

1981: Rangers 2, Bendel Insurance 0

1982: Stationery Stores 4, Niger Tornadoes of Minna 1

1983: Rangers 5, Defence Industnes Corporation (DIC) Bees of Kaduna 4 (on penalties after goalless draw at full time and extra time)

1984: Leventis United 1, Abiola Babes 0

1985: Abiola Babes 5, BCC 4 (penalties after 1-1 at full time)

1986: Leventis United 1, Abiola Babes 0

1987: Abiola Babes 4 Ranchers 3

1988: Iwuanyanwu Nationale 3, Flaming Flamingos 0

1989: BCC Lions 1, Nationale 0

1990: Stores 5, Rangers 4

 

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