There is no doubt that in the contemporary point in time and indeed, for several decades before now, the game of football stands out in sheer popularity as an extraordinary arm of sports, with the most fanatical devotees, whose reverence for the round leather game borders on the province of religion.
At what time did the game of football start in Nigeria and how did it originate? On this, no one could provide a definitely and categorical answer because of the paucity of documented evidence, addressing this all important theme.
What was, however, beyond doubt was that the game was introduced by the British colonialists who were known to have played the first recorded football match in Lagos, sometimes in 1841.
In no time, it witnessed a steady spread to the coastal towns of the country, namely Port Harcourt, Calabar and, of course, Lagos, where it was first introduced.
The exciting fever of this new game soon spread to schools, and football clubs gradually began to emerge from various parts of the country, especially in Lagos, which witnessed an astronomical rise in the establishment of football clubs as far back as the early 1930s.
It was indeed in response to the increasing passion for football in Lagos, as indicated in the rising number of football clubs, that gave rise to the formation of the Lagos and District Amateur Football Association (LDAFA), charged with the fundamental aim of co-ordinating, organising and giving direction to football sports in the cosmopolitan city and administrative capital of the British colonial government.
In a good number of places across the country namely Ibadan, Jos, Enugu, Kano and Port Harcourt, local competitions thrived and flourished.
The Daily Times, established in the 1920s, soon began to accord considerable spotlight on football, both in its news and commentaries. Also, the West African Pilot, founded in 1937 by Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, soon embarked on a regular course of featuring news and commentaries on sports around the country, at the back page of the newspaper.
For the West African Pilot in particular, its special interest in sports should not be surprising, considering the impressive exploits of its publisher, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, a versatile sportsman, swimmer, boxer, table-tennis player, athlete, football club proprietor and a member of the Diamond Football Club that defeated an all European club side, the Lagos Athletic Club, by two goals to nothing in the finals.
The fore going contributed to no mean measure in giving increased stimulus to the growth of football in the country.
For instance, in 1937, the Ibadan Football Association was formed. This development spurred the emergence of football associations in other parts of the country.
Along the line, the then colonial governor of Nigeria was approached by some influential personalities, who acting at the behest of members of the Lagos and District Amateur Football Association, urged the governor to donate a trophy for which teams across the country would compete.
In 1945, Arthur Frederick Richards, the then colonial governor soon responded to this demand with the donation of a silver trophy for a nationwide football contest titled “The Governor’s Cup”.
Thus was the Nigerian Football Association (NFA) born, also the same year (1945) with the specific mandate of co-ordinating and organising the body.
As was to be expected, the newly formed football body was predominated by expatriate whites, with Pa Mulford, being the fi rst chairman, Pius Anthony, the vice chairman, R.B. Allen, Honorary Secretary/ Treasurer.
Others included G.O. Urion, T.B. Welch of the Railways, D.H. Holly of Lagos Town Council, I.P. Harvey of the Marines and Joseph Mattah (a Lebanese businessman in Lagos).
Indeed, between 1945 and 1960, the NFA leadership, which comprised mostly expatriates, included Pa Mulford, 1945-1947, Pius Quist (Anthony) 1947-1948, DH Holley (1949-1950), P Harvey 1951-1953; N. Miller, 1954-1956; Dennis J. Slattery 1957-1958 R.B. Allen 1957-1960.
Also within the 15-year time span, they organised the 1947 tour of the United Kingdom by a Nigerian selected team, popularly referred to as the UK Tourists. They also organised the annual Nigeria, versus Ghana “alco” cup competition, played on a home and away basis, between 1951 and 1958 and also the tour of an English club to Nigeria in 1958. In addition to these, they employed the first coach for the Nigerian national team, “The Red Devils.”
The attainment of independence in 1960 ushered the Nigerianisation of the NFA leadership, which had hitherto been dominated by the expatriate whites. In this new dispensation, Godfrey K. T. Amachree was elected the first Nigerian chairman of NFA and Orok Oyo, the Secretary.
The immediate post-independence era also gave Dan Anyiam, an ex-national football star, the first opportunity to pilot the Nigerian national team as a coach. It was indeed during this era, that the national team hosted the visiting Queens Park Rangers of England in 1965.
During the colonial era, Nigeria boasted of great players like the legendary Thunder Teslim Akanni Balogun, Henshaw, Titus Okere and Adewale Wey, among others.
The dexterity of these soccer legends could not have been more amply attested to than in the words of Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, the first Nigerian Governor-General of blessed memory, who reportedly described the players of those days as highly gifted with remarkable skill and dedication.
Indeed in 1949, during the first international engagement of the national team to the United Kingdom, the remarkable skill of the Nigerian players was corroborated by the general appraisal of the British press.
For instance, an amazed English reporter described Titus Okere as “the fastest player I have ever seen”. Another press report commenting on the bewildering performances of the Nigerian team expressed thus: “For twenty minutes, the Nigerians gave the Isthmians a rare run. It was a treat to watch these ball manipulators”.
Starring for the UK Tourists as members of the national team known as the Red Devils were Isaac Akioye, “Baby” Anieke, Titus Okere, Teslim Balogun, Henshaw, Anosike, Kanu, Chukwura, Onwudiwe, Ibiam, Dokubo, Otun, Shittu and Lawson. Of the nine matches played, they recorded two victories and one draw. These, by the standard of those days, could be evaluated as no mean feat, considering the fact that they played barefooted.
The national scene also witnessed the emergence of soccer greats like Fabian Duru, Cyril Asoluka, Albert Onyeawuna, Dejo Fayemi, Okwudili Daniel, Jide Johnson, Asuquo Ekpe and Paul Hamiltion, among others.
The zeal for soccer, soon spread like a contagion into education institutions, as schools all over the country began to embrace it with fanatical fervor.
It was indeed the school boy soccer that bred soccer notables like Amusa Shittu, Godwin Achebe, Jerry Azinge, Paul Hamilton. Beyond the schools, young ones on the streets caught the football fever as they converted every available space to play soccer.
In Lagos State, the Principals Cup, which was contested for by the secondary schools, was usually a highly celebrated event, which produced such gifted and talented players like Haruna Ilerika, who, to date, stands out unarguably as the most celebrated school boy player in Nigeria. Others include Godwin Odiye, Tunde Martins, Eyo Martins, Marcellus Obinatu, Thompson Usiyen and much later, Stephen Keshi, Henry Nwosu and Samson Siasia, among others.
In the West, the Thermogene Cup produced players like Muyiwa Oshode, Tunde Disu, Olu Shankar, Olowo Oshodi, George Hassan and Felix Adedeji. In the Eastern Region, the Governor’s Cup competition produced Johnny Egbuonu, Dominic Ezeani and Godwin Achebe, while the annual Davis Cup in the Northern Nigeria produced the remarkably gifted bunch of Mathew Atuegbu, Sam Garba, Peter Anieke, Segun Olumodeji, Ismaila Mabo and Tony Igwe, among others.
The significance of the school boy soccer otherwise known as the Academicals, consisted in the fact that in 1967, the Nigerian school boys, popularly known as the Nigerian Academicals, were led by Sam Garba, now of blessed memory, to defeat their Ghanaian counterparts right in their home turf in Accra.
This victory, which was the first of such in the history of the Nigeria versus Ghana Academicals, was to prove a signifi cant watershed in the annals of Nigerian football, as it ushered its emergence as a major force to reckon with in international soccer.
This was corroborated by the fact that in the following year, the Nigerian national team comprising Sebastian Brodericks, Mohammed Lawal, Augustine Ofokwu, Segun Olumodeji, Sam Opone, Inua Lawal Rigogo and later Peter Fregene, qualified Nigeria for the first time, to participate in the Olympic Games in Mexico in 1968.
One notable thing about the Olympic Team of 1968 and indeed the national team of that period, was that ten of the players which formed the team came from the Stationery Super Stores, founded by Israel Adebajo, one of the most celebrated football proprietors in Nigeria.
He enlisted the best players available at that period and dominated the soccer scene like a colossus between 1967 and 1970, which was a truly golden era of the Stationery Super Stores, then affectionately referred to as the Flaming Flamingoes.
At the Olympics, Nigeria starring the likes of Sam Garba, who had earlier led the Nigerian Academicals to defeat their Ghanaian counterparts at their “backyard” in Ghana –almost broke the myth of invincibility of Brazil in World Soccer, as they led Brazil by three goals to zero, until by sudden magisterial fiat of fate, the god of soccer rescued the Brazilians, as Nigeria conceded three goals in the second half.
It was the popular thinking among soccer buffs then, not only in Nigeria, but Africa as a whole, that if Rigogo who was dropped on ground of indiscipline had manned the post at that memorable moment in the annals of Nigerian soccer, the team would have created the most shocking waves by beating Brazil.
This remark was borne out of the legendary stature of the talented goal keeper described by Osagyefo Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, as the Black Cat. Rigogo’s exit thus paved the way for Peter Fregene, also renowned for his legendary goalkeeping talent.
Another notable feature about this time was the emergence of Rangers International of Enugu, from the ashes of the civil war, to dominate the Nigerian football scene in a heroic exploit that would linger for long in memory, in terms of their consistency and the remarkable duration with which they held sway in the Nigerian soccer arena.
In no time, most of their members found their way into the national team on account of their talents, while their captain at that period, Godwin Achebe, also captained the national team.
Also at this point in time, Haruna Ilerika, the school boy soccer celebrity and unarguably one of the greatest footballers Nigeria had ever produced, emerged in the national team. Others were Victor Oduah, Sanni Mohammed, Yakubu Mambo, Sunny Oyarekhua, Josiah Dombraye, Kenneth Olayombo and Morton Owolo, with Essien in the goal post. This bunch, of course with Godwin Achebe, made history by winning the gold medal in the All African Games in 1973.
However, the players were to be disappointed when the Federal Military Government proved unavailing enough as to compensate them with any meaningful reward beyond a handshake and an offi cial embroidered dress of the All Africa Games.
What could be considered a token symbol of compensation was, however, to come through a philanthropist, Isiyaku Ibrahim, who gave the players a bonus of £100 each. But as consoling as this might seem, it wasn’t enough to lift the already low morale of the Eagles who suffered a humiliating 3-2 defeat in the hands of the Ghana Black Stars in Lagos, barely a few weeks after the team had beaten the Ghanaians hands down at the All Africa Games. To worsen it was the fact that Eagles was beaten right on their home turf in Lagos.
The Kenneth Kaunda boys were to worsen the case, when on July 12, 1973, they thrashed the Eagles 5 goals to 1 in Lusaka, only to play a 2-2 draw with the Zambian team in Lagos.
With this development, a suggestion was made to organise the National Sports Festival to provide a veritable ground for the selection of talented players that would do the nation proud in international contests.
Thus, by December 1973, about 93 players were screened in Lagos by a newly employed German Coach, Othman Calder. Out of the 93, 33 were eventually selected.
The National Sports Commission had planned to keep the players strictly for national team assignments and also be responsible for their salaries. They were, however, to show later, not only their unpreparedness, but also their utter unseriousness as manifested in the poor remuneration given to the players.
The players soon retreated to their clubs with Rangers providing the nucleus of the national team. They also made frantic effort in 1975 to win the Africa Champion Club but lost in the finals.
In 1976, Coach Jelislavic Tiko, the Yugoslav popularly known as “Father Tiko”, assembled a new set of Eagles, mostly from the IICC Shooting Stars, to lead Nigeria to a major soccer breakthrough, as the Eagles put up a stupendous performance to clinch the bronze medal at the 1976 Africa Cup of Nations competition in Dire-Dawa, Ethiopia.
In 1976, IICC Shooting Stars blazed the trail by becoming the first Nigerian football club to win not only the Africa Cup Winners cup, but also any continental trophy in the annals of Nigerian soccer.
Rangers International later clinched the same cup in 1977, having defeated IICC in the final.
In the Africa Youth Championship, Nigeria won in 1982/83 to represent Africa in Mexico. It also won the 1984/85 edition, which qualified it to represent Africa at the World tournament in 1985, in the Soviet Union. In 1986/87 as well as 1988/89, it repeated the same feat, thereby representing Africa in the World Championship in Chile and Saudi Arabia respectively.
In the World Youth Championship, Nigeria beat USA to come second. Earlier in 1985, it defeated the host USSR on penalties and came third, thereby winning the bronze medal.
It also made records by winning the World U-16 Championship in 1985, while it finished second to Soviet Union in 1987.
Also for the first time, Nigeria had a shot at the highly coveted World Cup tournament hosted by USA in 1994 but lost out gallantly to Italy, which defeated it two goals to one
Atlanta ‘96 was, however, marked the zenith of Nigeria’s soccer achievements as it trounced the highly rated Argentina XI two goals to one, to clinch the gold medal at the celebrated global fiesta.
The mid-70s, however, witnessed the exodus of few key players like Godwin Odiye and Thompson Usiyen to America, while Christian Nwokocha had earlier travelled to Portugal.
Another significant development was the disagreement between Stephen Keshi and the football authorities, which in turn, resulted in the player being suspended.
A disenchanted Keshi would, however, not stomach that, as he eventually resorted to professional soccer, initially in Ivory Coast and later, Belgium.
Stephen Keshi’s exploit abroad, soon proved the catalyst to the massive immigration of players abroad, in search of greener pastures. And today, professional soccer has become the fad, as virtually every Nigerian player, including even the upstarts of yesterday, could hardly wait to have their own pie of professional exploit in European soccer.
Notable referees of those periods include Father Dennis Slattery, Sunny Badru, Bolaji Okubule and Linus Mba, while icons like Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, Tony Ikhazoboh, Orok Oyo, Abraham Ordia and Chuba Ikpeazu stood out among the leagues of veteran administrators.
In the league of proprietors, were such titans as Mr. Israel Adebajo of blessed memory,thefounderoftheStationerySuper Stores; Chief Emmanuel Iwuanyanwu, who founded the Iwuanyanwu Nationale of Owerri and John Mastoroudes, founder of Leventis United.
Among the coaches, names like Jorge Pena, Dan Anyiam, Carl Odwyer, Paul Hamilton, Christopher Udemezue, Manfred Hoener, Clement Westerhof, Adegboye Onigbinde and Jelislavic Tiko, a.k.a Father Tiko, among others, ring bell.
In the roll call of those who at one time or the other had captained the national team, names like Fabian Duru, Albert Onyeawuna, Asuquo Ekpe, Jerry Azinge, Sam Opone, Victor Oduah, Stephen Keshi, Olusegun Odegbami, Peter Rufai, Muda Lawal and Christian Chukwu, linger in golden memory.
Sports writers of those days include such epitome of excellence, as Fabio Lanipekun, Peter Osugo, Bisi Lawrence, Dele Adetiba and Tolu Fatoyinbo.
Teams which by dint of their impressive performances had registered their names in the hall of fame include the Stationery Super Stores, the Plateau Higherlanders later renamed the Mighty Jets of Jos, the Kano XI, WNDC, the Port Harcourt XI, the Railways otherwise known as the Old Reliables and the ECN.