Thunder Balogun – First professional footballer : First professional footballer
In the annals of soccer, which made its debut in Nigeria over 150 years ago, the trajectory of the football scene since that momentously pioneering epoch had paraded quite a considerable harvest of talented stars, whose exploits in the soccer arena bordered on the legendary. But none of them compared in sheer scale of genius with Thunder Tesilim Akanni Balogun, who easily stood out as the greatest of them all.
This soccer jewel of a most cherished memory was born in March 1927 into the famous Ali Balogun family. His father, Oseni Omomeji Alli Balogun, a highly reputed batsman, who played for the Moslems Cricket Club in Lagos, died in November 1945. His contemporaries included E. O. Omololu, the late F.S. Morroco Clarke and I.S. Adewale, who later became the Chairman of the Lagos State Sports Council, and Tate-Silva, a renowned cricket star, in his days.In the annals of soccer, which made its debut in Nigeria over 150 years ago, the trajectory of the football scene since that momentously pioneering epoch had paraded quite a considerable harvest of talented stars, whose exploits in the soccer arena bordered on the legendary. But none of them compared in sheer scale of genius with Thunder Tesilim Akanni Balogun, who easily stood out as the greatest of them all.
Thunder Balogun’s mother, Abadatu Awele Balogun, died in August 1949, while his son had joined the history-making U.K. Tourists, on a playing tour of the U.K. It was the first of such to be undertaken by a selected Nigerian team to the United Kingdom, the reputed home of soccer.
In those days, when the football fever had just begun to gather momentum in the Lagos sporting scene, Balogun was already immersed in street soccer, starring for a number of street clubs, including the Eleven Stars Football Team of Agarawu area, among others.
Even at this momentous time in question, Balogun had emerged an instant celebrity and had unquestionably a household name on the entire Lagos Island.
In those days, Balogun conjured a converging centre of gravity and a remarkable crowd puller, who usually attracted a large crowd of spectators, who would throng the field to watch this soaring soccer meteor mesmerising and held them spell bound with his uncommon soccer artistry – as unfolded in his thunderously fiery sizzler that was to earn him the awe-inspiring tag of “Thunderbolt” –his dashing dribbling runs and marvelously superb ball control, that left one lost with bewildering wonderment.
Reliable account had it that in those days, Thunder Balogun’s exploit in any recent encounter would be the major talk of the town throughout the night and indeed dominated the theme of discourse several days after in the entire city, particularly on the Lagos Island, which was predominantly the nucleus of the city of Lagos at that time. Balogun was literally worshipped as a soccer idol, with supernatural attributes woven around him.
It was against this background, therefore, that when Balogun made a foray into big time soccer, he was coming as an already established celebrity, if not an authority in the game. His was an eventful soccer career, salutarily dogged with record-making exploits that had not only remained a marvel to succeeding generations, but an unmatchable benchmark of excellence over half a century which marked the retirement of this ace football prodigy of blessed memory from active soccer.
After a stint with Apapa Bombers, he appeared in 1947 for the Marine XI, the Railways in 1949, Plateau Highlanders in 1951, Pan Bank in 1952 and Dynamo in 1953. He also played for the UAC XI, SCOA XI and was also among the cup winning squad of the Ibadan Football Team of 1959 and 1961.
If Thunder was already noted, even at the rudimentary street soccer level as a celebrity in his own right on account of his prodigious skill and artistry, these salutary attributes, which he brought to bear with his advent into big-time soccer will continue to remain a marvel.
In those days, Balogun’s aura simply electrified the soccer firmament; his name resonating with commanding awe and admiration and the moment any match involving Thunder Balogun’s club was announced, soccer fanatics immediately looked forward to that day with eager excitement and would defy all odds in the desperate bid to behold the dazzling spell of his incredible artful skill. And predictably, Thunderbolt, as he was affectionately called in those days, had never disappointed as he offered the spectators more than they had bargained for and indeed, value for their money.
Watching Thunder let loose in those memorable good old days was sheer thrills, frills suspense and indeed, a dramatic excitement of a motion film. The ferocious force of his fiery hit-shots was ample evidence of the devastating weapon of mass destruction embedded not only in the formidable pairs of his fleet-footed legs, but the entire mass of his imposing frame.
He would simply command or conjure with every part of his body: legs, head, shoulders, chest and what have you.
The Nigerian soccer history, especially from the 40s to independence, was dominated by Thunder, who undoubtedly stood out as the pivot on which the chequered soccer events of that era revolved. The story of soccer in Nigeria could simply not be told without Thunder, otherwise, there would have been virtually little to recount because the effervescent bundle of thrills, frills and excitements would have fizzled away.
Ace sports writer and commentator, Fabio Olanipekun, had attested quite well to this, when he commented in a national newspaper a few years ago that he had actually been opportune to watch almost all the soccer legends of those glorious years live on the pitch, but none of them compared with Thunder even till today, just as he added with emotional pathos of regret that the unfortunate thing was that Thunder came far ahead of his time.
Sebastian Offurum, the ace soccer commentator, who was also opportuned to watch Thunder in those days, likened his exploits to those of Pele, who scored goals from impossible angles.
“Like Pele, he (Balogun) scored goals from impossible angles. He played for nearly all the top teams in the Lagos of his days and many other parts of Nigeria.
“Tesilimi did not get the tag of Thunderbolt for nothing. He justified it in all the games he played. His shots were so fast that goalkeepers never saw the ball as they whistled past to hit the net.
“His legs were so long that he tipped the ball away from the feet of his opponents in time for him to swivel round to reach the ball with a fierce kick. He could chest the ball to his laps as and when he liked. He could head the ball to rebound from his challenger and from the rebound, whacked it into the net.
“He beat his opponents neat and clear. He did anything he liked with the leather ball.
“Thunder scored many goals with his head, using his six-foot frame to advantage. His goals came from flick-ons from great wingers like Titus Okere and diamond-toed Baby Anieke as well as the aerial balls floated by Dan Anyiam, his team mates.
“Thunder’s shots have hit many across the bar and came down just behind the line. Some of these were disputed as there were no television cameras then for slow motion play-back to confirm that they were goals.
“Some conservative estimates had put his average as higher than a goal in a match. The argument may continue, yet it is not wrong to say that no one can count more than one match in which Thunder Balogun played in Nigeria, with a score line of 0-0 at the end,” said Offurum, the ace sports commentator.”
In these cases, Thunder had always lived to his billings and had rarely disappointed the large mass of fans, who reposed so much confidence in him and indeed, rated him so highly.
However, one notable exception was in 1951, when the Jos Township Football Association solicited his service in the bid to win the Challenge Cup edition of that year. Thunder heeded the call and led the Plateau XI to the final, which pitched them against the famous Railway XI, affectionately referred to then as the ‘Old Reliables’. Thunder Balogun’s magic wand simply deserted him as the goals refused to come.
The ‘Old Reliables’ eventually ran away with a lone goal, the veracity of which had since remained a subject of doubt because the King George V Stadium, as it was then called, had no floodlight then.
However, the following year, when Thunder starred for the Pan Bank, which it eventually led to the final, his magic wand suddenly returned, as he scored three goals out of the six goals that sent the Warri XI crashing.
Also in 1958, following the acute worries that the Western Region was the only region out of the three to win the Challenge Cup, the then Premier of the Western Region, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, pleaded to the legendary Thunderbolt to come over and lend his magic touch to the soccer turf of the region. The soccer wizard was to come both as a player and coach, having studied to be a physical training instructor and coach in England in the mid-1950s.
Thunder Balogun responded to the call and the West roared in victory through the singular effort of the renowned soccer dynamo, who scored the goal that brought the Challenge Cup to the region for the first time in 1959.
The cup was, however, wrested from the West the following year. But in 1961, Thunder supplied the magic lone goal that brought it back to the West.
Balogun had a string of firsts to his advantage. During his playing career in Nigeria, his team won the Challenge Cup, seven times, making him the first player to have such number of Challenge Cup laurels.
He was also the first Nigerian to play professional soccer in Europe. After his history-making tour with a Nigerian select team in 1949, he returned to the U.K. in August 1955 to sign with Peterborough United. Balogun was introduced to the team, by Reginald B. Allen, a “Peterborian,” who was secretary of the Nigerian Football Association. Although he never made a league appearance for Peterborough, but within the short span of his stay with the club, he made a deep impression on the Club Manager, George Swindin, who described him as a player with great potential.
Apart from the Hill Beach United and Skegness, he played for Queen Parks Rangers, scoring three goals in 13 appearances in the football league during the 1956-57 season. It was indeed on account of his professional exploits in Europe that he was disqualified from playing for Nigeria in the Olympic qualifying series in 1959.
He, however, returned to feature in a couple of international matches, including the bilateral encounters against Ghana in the contest for the Zik Cup. Also on October 29, 1960, he featured in the match between the Nigeria Red Devils and Ghana, which ended in a 1-1 draw, after an initial lead by Ghana. A month later, he also featured in the encounter between Nigeria and visiting Egypt.
The match, which was Balogun’s last international encounter, was programmed to commemorate the inauguration of Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe as the first indigenous Governor-General of Nigeria.
Subsequently at the club level, he appeared in the match between the Western Region side and the Congo Brazzaville national team which ended in a draw.
Five days later, a Lagos-selected team also invited the soccer veteran to join force with the team in the game against Congo Brazzaville, which was pummeled 5-0 by the Lagos side. Predictably, Thunderbolt was the hero of that memorable encounter in which he dazzled the mammoth crowd of spectators with his brilliant moves and remarkable dexterity.
In 1964, the soccer legend again went back to Britain to qualify as a full-fledged football coach.
In this respect, ‘Thunderbolt’ will be remembered for his numerous achievements, which included the defeat of a Russian side and the Queen’s Park of Glasgow by the Western Rovers.
On the national level, this genius of all-time acclaim will be remembered for the pivotal role he played in the memorable 8-0 routing of the Thailand national side by the Nigerian side in the 1968 Olympics, and the 1-1 draw between the Green Eagles and the much-fancied Hungarian team of the same year.
It was a tribute to his exemplary sense of dedication to the growth of Nigeria as a soccer super power that he ventured to condescend to the touring of schools in the bid to coach the younger ones, who were so fond of him and affectionately referred to him as “Baba Ball.”
As a moving encyclopedia of strategic ideas and tactics to soccer conquest, expectation had risen to such remarkable point of conviction that with the likes of Thunder at the commanding height of the coaching department, Nigerian soccer was poised for limitless possibilities. Unfortunately, this tall expectation was not to be because on that fateful morning of Sunday, July 30, tragedy struck and a great tragedy for that matter. ‘The great Thunder,’ the “Iroko” of the Nigerian soccer firmament, fell to the sanguinary agent of death. He died in his sleep at about 6am.
Just a day earlier on Saturday evening, he had returned home hale and hearty after watching the Fajuyi Cup Final in which Osogbo defeated Ekiti. He reportedly went to bed, also hale and hearty, only to wake no more; thus marking the end of a distinguished soccer career, which would continue to serve as an indelible beacon of inspiration, even to generations yet unborn.
A dark pall of sorrow enveloped the national firmament, far beyond his immediate soccer fraternity. Tears flowed everywhere – lamentations and gnashing of teeth as well as deep pathos of mourning. Shock and disbelief reigned in every community that the soccer titan could vanish in such fit of dramatic suddenness and at such a lamentably tender age, after years of toils and sacrificial devotion to national service, without living to reap the rewards of his labour; nor the nation tapping any much from the fecund depth of his soccer expertise.
The then chairman of the National Sports Commission, Brigadier Henry Adefope, paid glowing tribute to the departed soccer hero in a letter of condolence sent to the chairman of the Western State Sports Council and his wife.
In the letter, which was taken personally to Ibadan, by the commission’s Public Relations Officer, Mr. Yemi Fadipe, the chairman expressed profound regrets at Balogun’s death.
In a tribute to his memory, he had remarked: “Two decades ago, Thunder Balogun was Nigeria’s foremost soccer star; a most dazzling centre forward, who struck terror into goal keepers with his dynamite shots and inspired the respect of fellow players, match officials and football fans, by his pleasant character, both in and out of the pitch.
“His main ambition as a football coach must have been to rear a Nigerian centre forward, greater than himself. This hope and aspiration were well demonstrated through the sincerity and adroit devotion with which he performed his duties as chief coach in the Western State and in the national coaching camps.”
In another letter of condolence to the late Balogun’s wife, Brigadier Adefope described him as a man who had won the admiration of sports lovers throughout the country. He prayed that God may console her, the children and the entire family.
In his own remark, the Western State Commissioner for Economic Planning and Reconstruction, Chief Ladosu Ladapo, lamented: “The death of Tesilimi Akanni Balogun, alias “Thunderbolt,” has come to me as a rude shock. It will no doubt leave his amiable wife, children, colleagues, friends and a wide circle of soccer fans within and outside Nigeria, in a state of deep grief.
“Nigerian football was dominated by the sheer artistry and dynamism of Thunderbolt.
“Like Henshaw of the then Great Marines, Balogun possessed what Nigerian football, had since lacked, namely, an effective centre-forward.
“Using both legs and head effectively and endowed with a commanding height and physique, in addition to speed, football was never a dull show, when one of the teams fielded Balogun.”
A colleague of “Thunderbolt” in the national team, then known as the Red Devils, Dan Anyiam, expressed utter shock when he said that “the news about “Thunderbolt Ara” Balogun’s death, came to me as a thunder from the blues.
In a fit of nostalgic passion, he recalled that “playing behind him for many years representing this country, I mastered his wonderful positional game and knew when to pronounce a goal even before he scored. Each time I slid the ball, exactly where he was anticipating it, he never failed me.
“Apart from the nickname, which he gained from his thunderous shots, Balinga scored with all parts of his body. He scored many nerve-racking goals with his head and at will, dribbled past many a goalkeeper, after drawing them out of position with his wonderful body swerve.
“I am yet to see another equal to Thunder. Let’s wait, but I guess it would be impossible this century.”
In his own tribute, a good friend of Balogun, Mr. M. Taliro Gbajabiamila, described him as a fine gentleman.
He said: “The news of the sudden death of Tesilimi Balogun, popularly known as Thunderbolt, was the biggest shock in the soccer circle throughout the federation. In fact, I couldn’t believe my eyes or ears.
“I came to know Thunder Balogun while we were attending Cosmopolitan Evening Classes at Isale Eko, Lagos, in 1944. But we came closer to each other during that year too, when he was playing for the Eleven Stars Football Club of Agarawu area, and I was playing for the Famous Football Club of Aroloya.
“We played for the same club – the famous Dynamos Football Team of Lagos in 1953. He was playing centre-forward, while I was on the right wing. Also for the SCOA and Federal United Team in the following years before he went to UK.”
Another old time friend and football colleague, Tokunbo Fashogbon, recalled that he knew Tesilimi Balogun way back in the early 40s when they were both members of the Eleven Stars Football Club in the good old days “when Oko-Awo playing ground was the workshop of football in Lagos.”
“And Thunderbolt Tesilimi Balogun, one of the products whose exploits had carried him through to many club sides in Nigeria and in Britain, has emerged the greatest centre-forward the country has ever produced.”
A soccer prodigy that he was, his passage expectedly made waves, even in far away in Britain, where he had a distinguished exploit during his professional soccer stint over there. As one Harold Hastings wrote: “Thunder Tesi Balogun, the Nigerian soccer star, who has just died, was a big favourite with the UK crowds, when he played with the London club, Queens Parks Rangers, in the English League during the 1955-56 season. He played in 20 goals.
“Officials of Queens Park Rangers expressed much sympathy when I told them of the death of their old player.”
The Director, Mr. Bernard Baker, said: “Tesi, who played centre-forward, was a much liked character here. He was a gifted footballer, relying on his ball playing skills and his disconcerting swerves and feints to open up the way for many goals. He could hit a ball hard and accurately too. We are deeply sorry to hear that such splendid fellow has passed.”
Tony Ingham, who skippered Queen’s Park Rangers when Balogun played for them said: “There was always plenty of fun in the opponent’s penalty area when Tesi was playing. His clever ball control had many a defender going the wrong way.
“Balogun was the first Nigerian to play senior league soccer in the UK. He underlined the fact that many Nigerians are natural footballers and now 18-year old Ade Coker, the star of first division West Ham club, is blazing the trail that Balogun had pioneered.
“It was indeed reported that the veteran soccer star made frequent trips to the UK in recent association coaching courses before his death. He also watched Queens Park Rangers play several times and was given a warm welcome by the club’s director and the fans who saw him in action when he wore the blue and white hooped strip of Rangers.”
His burial was indeed a befitting finale for a departed legendary figure of Balogun’s stature. Forty years after, Thunder lives. He lives forever. Adieu Thunder.