It is a gooooaaaalll!!!, a Nigerian has scored against Nigeria,” the voice of the late icon of the air waves, Ernest Okonkwo, echoed on the radio that Nigeria has scored own goal. And the world came to an end. Dreams were shattered, hopes dimmed and the clock suddenly stopped for Nigeria! That was the second leg of the 1978 World Cup Qualifier that took place at the National Stadium, Surulere, Lagos.
Nigeria was about to qualify for its first World Cup when, with just 10 minutes left in its final game, catastrophe struck. A ball skimmed off Godwin Odiye’s head and into Nigeria’s net. He had scored an own goal, the ultimate in soccer blunders. And that blunder kept Nigeria from qualifying for the World Cup fiesta.
The first leg ended 0-0 in Tunis. 25 September 1977, was memorable for Nigeria in that World Cup campaign. The Eagles drew in Tunis against Tunisia in one of the closing games of the round robin World Cup qualifier, setting Nigeria on the road to the World Cup finals in Argentina. A draw at the National Stadium in Surulere, Lagos, would have seen the Eagles through after amassing points from games against Egypt.
Celebration was in the air; the chorus was that Nigeria, at 18, would play at the World Cup. Almost two months separated the Tunis leg from the return tie at the National Stadium, Lagos. The Eagles were confident of getting the ticket at the second leg in Nigeria. It was not to be so. There came the fateful day, the day of reckoning which many Nigerians would not forget. It was on November 12, 1977. That was the day Godwin Odiye became famous for his infamous header that eluded Emmanuel Okala. The Eagles tried but could not come back from the shock. It was a blow from one of the best defenders Nigeria produced at the time.
Nigeria cannot easily forget November 12, 1977, when she needed a draw against Tunisia to qualify for the 1977 Argentina World Cup, but tragically, Nigeria’s most dependable defender, Godwin Odiye, stylishly headed the ball into our net.
That goal prevented the world from seeing the best talents available then in Africa. It aborted the dreams of many players who would probably have moved on to professional football in the international soccer scene.
Nigeria had finished with bronze in the 1976 AFCON in Ethiopia where two of our players, Haruna Ilerika and Kunle Awesu, made the best XI of the tournament won by Morocco. So we had a strong team.
After edging out Sierra Leone and Cote d’Ivoire in the previous rounds, the Eagles had put themselves in a terrific position by holding Tunisia to a goalless draw on September 25, 1977, in the final round of qualifiers.
Although, Thompson Usiyan (the best and most intelligent top striker to wear Nigeria colour) had left the camp for the United States days before the match and his exit left a vacuum that led to the collapse of the attack formation, it was still a dream meant to come true.
Then came that fateful day in 1978 when the world came to a complete stop for Nigerian football.
The 1977 team had a cream of naturally gifted footballers whose strategy as a team was crafted by Father Tiko, the brilliant Yugoslavian coach. The players were a committed and patriotic bunch. Some of them would interrupt their studies in tertiary institutions to report at the Green Eagles camp. There were fine players like Segun Odegbami, Christian Chukwu, Mudashiru Babatunde Lawal, Emmanuel Okala, Baba Otu Mohammed, Godwin Odiye, Samuel Ojebode, Patrick Ekeji, Johnny Nwadioha, Adokie Amesiemeka, Kelechi Emetole, Alloysius Atuegbu and others in the Nigerian camp. Among the Tunisians, we had: Sadak Sassi Attouga, Khaled Gasmi, Amor Jebali, Ali Kaabi, Mokhtar Dhouib, Raouf Ben Aziza, Mohammed Ali Akid, Ali Manai, Tarak Dhiab, Khemais Labidi, Nejib Ghommidh, Kamel Chebli and Khaled Hosni.
Back then, Nigeria laid taut like an arrow in a hunter’s bow, pregnant with expectations and ready to represent Africa in Argentina if she could just win this one last match. At home, in front of a mob of screaming fanatics housed in one of Africa’s biggest stadia — the visiting North Africans were given as much of a chance as a Rolex (fake or real) surviving on a wrist in Mile 2  after 6pm In other words “None”! But as we found out it was not to be.
The Tunisians came with their game face on and proved to be as slippery as yesterday’s fish coated in a combination of butter and axle grease. You simply could not grasp them. Like prize fighters the two teams went at each other non stop and as the clock ticked and tocked, the two nations held their breaths collectively… hoping… wishing… praying. For once that money swallowing bottomless pit also knew as the scoreboard in Surulere did her part perfectly by flashing the digital minutes becoming seconds and then zero at the fans. At home, sweat glistened on concerned brows as eyes remained locked on the NTA signal, while mothers ignored angry baby’s wails and in FESTAC even Kanu London’s  Father’s dogs, hyperactive great Danes and terror of the village that panted quietly in the shade…just as if they all knew that what would unfold in the next minute, would either determine a monster of a bone for dinner or simple leftovers. We all, human and dog, sat in anticipation and watched history as our own demise unfolded.
He categorically avoided playing for any of the league’s Fortune 4 teams even though all of them Rangers, Raccah Rovers, Shooting Stars and Bendel Insurance would have been more than glad to have him close out their respective back lines. Rather he became a fan favourite by chasing the leather bladder for Nestle’ and later the National Bank of Nigeria – both non league outfits! Here, underneath the umbrella of the LDAF where the pressure was less, he blossomed into one of the better defenders in the country.
Odiye had mastered that art of heading the ball back wards. Using peripheral vision that would have made any secret service man or any force in the world envious. He would often spot a team member, calculate his positioning and then pass him the ball. Playing with Odiye was never boring and one learned never to keep his eyes off him. Till that fateful day, the passes had been brilliant and as accurate as a Swiss watch in the rain, making many a fan believe that he had either eyes in the back of his head or was telepathically linked to both Chukwu and Okala. It was no different a pass except that it had so much at stake and that it did…not work. Did he establish eye contact with Okala briefly? Why did Okala have to move? Could he have stretched further had he had okro for lunch as opposed to his favourite and regular “bread and tea”?
The ball trickled over the Nigerian 1 yard line as a horrified Okala taxed his huge frame to its maximum in vain. Chukwu stood hands akimbo head bent, Odiye collapsed in a pile of green agony as Okala laid motionless. Ernest Okonkwo’s baritone – in a cry that would be replayed over and over in our heads for many years to come – relayed the details of the own goal in a simple but loaded sentence “Oh No, Nigeria has scored Nigerian ! Game Over!”. The voice of Ernest rended the air as he was running the commentary: “ Own goal, it is all over, Nigeria score Nigeria, Godwin Odiye beats Emmanuel Okala with a beautiful back header, simply well executed, it is all over! We are out of the World Cup!”
Nobody could really explain what went wrong or how Okala missed the usual gesture. All everybody was concerned with was that Godwin Odiye caused the havoc. He was the culprit who had denied Nigeria ascending to the top in World Cup. How suddenly the whole nation forgot the man they all trooped to the stadium to watch and longed to see perform. In a twinkle of an eye, he had become a pest that nobody was running away from and everybody wanted to have anything to do with. Oh, how we easily forget goods done and allow one little mistake linger in our hearts for time immemorial.
But how it happened? I stumbled on an interview granted by Godwin Odiye himself in one of the sports newspapers. This was how he narrated the incident: “What happened was that during the game, after being tied 0-0 in the first half, our chance of winning was getting harder and harder. So, with about 15 minutes left we went into massive attack with Christian Chukwu overlapping and supporting our midfielders. Then it happened. I received a pass from Muda Lawal because he could not attack due to the pressure from the opponents. I got the pass from him and I immediately passed it on to Sam Ojebode at left-back. I remember him dribbling down the line and we had a lot of players in the box of Tunisia, so I looked on to my right, Chukwu had gone as well. So, Ojebode crossed the ball into the Tunisian box, only to be headed out to a Tunisian who controlled the ball and sent it back to Ojebode‘s position, and I was left alone to chase the player. As I delayed the player, I took a look on my right shoulder to see if our players were coming back to help, but there was none. So, I made a decision that, if the Tunisian player crossed the ball, I will go for a corner kick header. The player did what I expected from him and I dived in the air to prevent the cross, but could not get there on time, and the ball brushed my head and into our goal. That was what happened that fateful day, November 12, 1977.”
It was a day Nigerians would not easily forget. That goal could have turned the whole nation into a festive mood, but lo and behold, it did the exact opposite. The silence in every home, nook and crannies of Nigeria, was incredible. Humanity stopped. The shock was incredible. Then all of a sudden, the nation rose, erupted in unified and vociferous anger and various frightening and unforgettable expressions of grief. People were openly crying, grown men, women and all wailed at the missed opportunity. Scores of fans including elderly ones shed tears uncontrollably as they sat glued to their seats at the National Stadium, Lagos. And there was this excessively fat Tunisian official whose celebratory dance was like watching a barrel rolling on the floor.
In Nigeria, his name became synonymous with own goals,” Segun Adeyemi of the News Agency of Nigeria said. “You don’t call it an own goal. It’s an Odiye.
Olusegun Odegbami was in that squad and this is what he had to say about that match that became a stigma to Odiye. In his response to a question about the effect of Nigeria’s failure to qualify for the World Cup, he said, “There was really no major consequence of not going to the Argentina Mundial aside what we would have achieved if we had gone. Definitely, we would have overcome that psychological barrier of not being good enough; the fact that some players from some European countries were better and superior would have been overcome. But by not going to Argentina, we were still condemned to our state of complex; almost an inferiority complex that we cannot be champions in Africa. Getting there then was very difficult because only one country from Africa would qualify and it was tough and because we had never achieved that level before and we needed to achieve it to build up confidence that Nigeria had arrived and we could do it.
“And it really took us a couple of years before we could achieve that and we have now gotten to a state where we believe we can win any competition, including the World Cup. If you ask the young player on the streets now he would tell you he wants to play at the World Cup. So, not going to the ‘78 Mundial slowed down what we would have achieved faster if we had gone.”
Yes, it was true that the goal truncated Nigeria’s dream of getting into Argentina ’78, and everybody was blaming Odiye as the culprit. Little did they remember that Thompson Usiyan, the best and most intelligent top striker to wear Nigerian colour left the Nigerian camp for the United States days before the match. His exit left a vacuum that led to the collapse of the attack formation.
Godwin Odiye was very famous in Nigeria. He was the man who kept his country out of the World Cup. Till today, Odiye is only remembered for that one mistake, which continued to hunt him many years after his retirement. Whenever he showed in any football circle, he’s still chided for that very mistake which is popularly known as “Odiye’s own goal.”
In another interview he granted, Odiye was asked how he felt when the ‘own goal’ happened. According to him, what pained him the most was that nobody got angry with him. He was the team’s top defender and was covering for a teammate who had been out of position when the fatal error was made.
“I broke down and cried after the game,” Odiye said. “Nothing bad actually happened. I was carried off the field the They told me, ‘If it had been another player, we would kill him.’ “
Odiye left Nigeria the next year and went to school in the United States. He returned in 1980, and played for a team that won the African Nation’s Cup, but he never went back after that. He has kept playing soccer, though. He played for a team, the Greek-Americans, that won the 1985 U.S. Cup.
Yes, everybody blamed Godwin, but did people actually ask if there was an underlining factor that made it impossible for Nigeria to score any goal during the first half and before that 60th minute of that own goal? It was acknowledged that Nigeria prepared a formidable team for the match, was it that the team was not formidable enough? Were there any psychological factors that might have prevented the Eagles to perform the wonders expected of them? If the match in Tunis in the first leg of that final round was a goalless draw, they probably wouldn’t have qualified for the World Cup. A draw it was they needed to win.
A member of that squad, Emmanuel Obasuyi, who was substituted with Johnny Nwadioha very late into the match, complained that the NFA also contributed to the defeat. They raised the ticket prices for the match and the fans protested.
“When we arrived the National Stadium (Lagos) for the game, we were attacked by hoodlums who threw stones at our bus. “But they burst into rapturous applause when the Tunisians arrived at the stadium for the encounter. “When we got to the pitch, we were received by a scanty crowd. We were booed by our fans that applauded every move made by our opponents. We became jittery and lost focus.” He was therefore, not too surprised.
Few days after the defeat, the late midfield maestro Muda Lawal said that their defeat was expected, because as he said, no single official of the NFA came to visit them at their camp since they came back from Cairo. They neither came to cheer or console them probably because they lost to Egypt. He said, “It was obvious that we would lose the last match even before we entered the stadium because our enthusiasm and morale were dead.” To make things worse, the ticket was sold at a very high price making it impossible for people to buy and thereby making the players the enemies of their prestigious fans and spectators. He said, “It was as if we were their enemies. We entered the field already defeated. No spirit in us. Some people were even shouting on us, abusing us.” All these before the start of the match.
Playing under that condition was enough to demoralize the players who had counted on massive home support. The Tunisians were said to be a better side. They were faster, better in tactics and techniques. On the other hand, it seemed that the Nigerian side was confused, right from the beginning. It was therefore very painful that with all these insinuations, it would be Godwin Odiye, the priceless and one of the very valued Eagles that will be the ‘sacrificial lamb’ to carry the load of blame of that match simply because a good gesture turned sour.
I want to believe that Nigeria and Nigerians have forgotten that ugly incident. However, with the experience that Odiye had garnered over the years, I expect the NFF to have invited him as a national coach and given him a fair crack of the whip or could it be that I am flogging a dead horse?