When we were soccer kings
The Class of ’94: A Celebration of the Triumphal Moments of Nigeria Football LSC Consulting, Lagos, 2018, 127pp
Anytime from April after this book is publicly presented, a copy may just land in your sitting room. If any visitor comes around and finds it more fascinating than your quibble, indulge him. Better still lend him your copy and tell him to return it when he is done.
If your guest is about your age or older (north of 35) and don’t much care for football, it will be returned with thanks. If he is younger, a football fanatic, you may be seeing it for the last time. Pardon him for his unintended felony.
If he is not a thief beyond redemption, he will return it one day and remain forever grateful for getting to know, through you, the history of Nigerian football at a certain period, a time the authors rightly boast of as The Golden Generation, The Magical Epoch and those who made it happen on and off the pitch.
Nigeria’s greatest moments in soccer couldn’t have come at a more perfect time than the Africa Nations Cup in Tunisia 1994, the World Cup the same year in the U.S and then the Olympics in Atlanta 1996. With an almost in Senegal 1992, the Super Eagles put up a spectacular performance in Tunis to become African champions in 1994.
By the time the World Cup kicked off in America two months later, the Super Eagles were in fine fettle. They defeated much favoured Greece and Spain. Nigeria’s campaign in the tournament only came to an abrupt end when the Italians won in the last round of sixteen.
Even so, that defeat didn’t stop the Super Eagles from dominating world soccer in Atlanta 96. True, the World Cup is more competitive, more prestigious than the Olympic equivalent. But it was Brazil and Argentina – parading players with extraordinary genetic kinship with the round leather – that Nigeria defeated in the decisive matches, becoming the first African country, so far, to win the soccer tournament.
Pundits, aficionados, and many Nigerians expected the Super Eagles to be the sacrifice against the South Americans. But the boys were young, strong and competent in their respective positions. They also played as a team. Above all, there was a sense of duty the entire squad displayed, a commitment sometimes inspired by patriotic pride in humans everywhere.
Sunday Oliseh, a defensive midfielder for the Super Eagles through those years, put it more concisely when he said the “team had youthful exuberance, speed, technicality, endurance and patriotism.”
Another midfielder, Youri Djorkaeff of France, was more romantic in his assessment of his teammates when his country hosted the World Cup in 1998 and reached the finals. “We have 22 players who are poets and who are playing with their feet and their hearts.”
Les Bleus went on to defeat the Samba boys from Brazil, making them champions for the first time ever in a World Cup before thousands of ecstatic French citizens at Stade de France, Saint Denis, and millions more watching at home, in cafes, and elsewhere.
Djorkaeff was Armenian and not born in France, so were some of his teammates, famously Zinedine Zidane who was Algerian by birth. But their sense of unity playing as a team for France superseded everything else.
The road to Atlanta ’96 for Nigeria began two years before in Tunis when the Super Eagles won the Africa Nations Cup for the second time. The first was in 1980, on home soil in Lagos. After a fourteen-year break, the Tunis victory more than compensated for the drought in soccer laurels.
To this day, no single event in the history of Nigeria has sparked off such patriotic fervor apart from, say, Independence and when Wole Soyinka won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1986. In celebration, Soyinka’s Nobel was confined to the elite mostly, the literary establishment and academia – a party here, a party there and nothing on a national scale.
But spontaneous jubilation followed the Super Eagles Olympic victory from east to west and north to south, cutting across a vast section of the Nigerian populace, from the military elite in government at the time to just about the ordinary Nigerian and every class in-between.
For all his human rights atrocities, former head of state Sani Abacha, it was said, encouraged by Jerry T. Useni and David Jemibewon (both retired generals) invited Nigerians to a reception in a banquet hall right in Aso Villa to watch a match with their head of state.
At first fearful for their lives, the first batch that came were unwilling and timid guests but sat anyway, warming up, gradually, as the match progressed, even shouting down Jay Jay Okocha after he lost a spot kick that could have put Nigeria in the lead. In the end, Nigeria won.
People celebrated everywhere; non-speaking neighbours made up, bantered, back-slapped and pumped hands over drinks. Nowhere was this more infectious than Aso Villa itself where, it was reported, the same previously timorous Nigerians in the house lifted their head of state shoulder-high in victory.
Dancing in victory also were some African countries who claimed Nigeria’s Olympic football triumph as “a victory for the continent.” Famously, on their way back from America, the Super Eagles were mobbed in Guinea when their plane stopped over in the West African country.
It all seems so long ago now, only dimly remembered by an older generation that the Super Eagles once soared to the farthest reaches of soccer, becoming continental and world champions in just two years. Their younger compatriots know nothing of it at all unless told by word of mouth or snippets they glimpsed on local sports channels.
But with The Class of ’94: A Celebratory Publication on the Triumphal Moments of Nigeria Football, soccer lovers will have in their possession the exploits of the Super Eagles of those glorious years.
It doesn’t come as a surprise the man who mooted the idea for the book is himself a football fanatic and administrator. Ogbuefi Tony Nnacheta was, until last year, a commissioner in Anambra state. Before then, he was chairman of ACB Football Club, member of Lagos Divisional Football Association, Vice Chairman of Nigeria Football Association and of the Committee setting up the Nigeria Professional League.
Till date, he is on first name terms with dozens of Nigerian footballers, has travelled with them to watch many of their matches home and away, has an excellent rapport with both indigenous and foreign coaches. He once sent a reporter to interview Rafiu Oladipo, President General of Nigeria Football Supporters Club at short notice. The interview was granted promptly.
At the University of Nigeria, Enugu campus, Nnachetta (TN to friends) he made the school’s first 11, featured prominently in the NUGA sports festival all through his undergraduate years. Ever since, soccer has not left him, nor has he left soccer. It shows in this book, where readers are given a blow-by-blow account of the decisive matches Nigeria played, followed by statistics on the footballers themselves, interviews with Technical Advisers and managers and sports officials who called the shots then on and off the pitch.
Sow a thought, it is often said, and you reap an idea. Evidently, TN started by thinking and then the idea came. Sow an idea, it is also said, and you reap an action.
How did he transform his idea into action? He sought and found professionals in Sonala Olumhense and Uzor Maxim Uzoatu, Executive and General Editor, respectively, of The Class of ’94.
Both of them are senior journalists and writers; SO has to his credit No Second Chance, a novel, and Maxim, Doctor of Football, a play. They also played soccer in their spare time, with Maxim making his school team at the University of Ife in his undergraduate years.
Though there are contributions from veteran sports writers such as Kayode Tijani, Eno-Abasi Sunday and Victor Akhidenor, the limpid prose in which the story of The Class of ’94 is told is clearly the handiwork of SO and Maxim, so graphically conveyed to readers in football language.
Take, for instance, Nigeria’s opening match with Greece at USA 94 where Rashid Yekini scored the country’s first-ever goal at the Mundial. It is conveyed to readers the way ringside commentators do, following Amokachi’s flawless pass, from the centre field to Finidi and then his laying the ball deftly from the right flank to Yekini who taped it into the net neatly, making the Grecians looking bewildered like a drama beyond their comprehension.
Passages like that evoke a flood of memories in older Nigerian soccer fans while younger ones feel they are right there watching as spectators. It is so all through the publication except where the editors wisely decided to let the interviews run in the words of the subjects.
Clemens Westerhoff, the irrepressible Dutchman who groomed The Class of ’94, reflects on those years in five well-earned pages. You hear him in his Dutch-accented English, frank and direct, laying it bare, his relationship with his charges, his by-passing meddlesome sports officials to meet one-on-one Vice Admiral Augustus Aikhomu who always gave him a sympathetic ear.
Complementing their effort is the superb photo splash of the Super Eagles in action at different encounters by Art Editor Ben Nwabudike Egwuatu: The first 11 of The Class of ’94 posing on the cover before a match; Okocha celebrating after scoring; Yekini beside himself with his and Nigeria’s first ever goal at the Mundial; Stephen Keshi and Peter Rufai jubilating with the Africa Nations Cup trophy in Tunis; Sunday Oliseh with legendary Brazilian star, Pele.
There are several more shots of football officials and coaches, of Westerhoff, his compatriot Bonfrere Jo, Christian Chukwu, Tunde Disu, Fanny Amun, Oladipo, not to mention government officials in charge of sports at the time. There is one of Alex Akinyele, beaded like the Ondo chief he is and another of the late Emeka Omeruah, appointed a second time as NFA chairman by default through a mix-up of names.
Mr. Anthony Omoera, the late principal of St Gregory’s College, Obalende – an institution with a solid soccer foundation – was the nominee as NFA chairman endorsed by the football fraternity in the country. Somehow, his name was mistaken for Omeruah whose appointment, again, caused some apprehensive moments for NFA officials and the players, all of whom rooted for the teacher who was also a football technician.
The Class of ’94 couldn’t have accomplished the continental and international feat without some bumpy ride along the way. Player allowances and match bonuses were top on the list of obstacles both sports officials and the players had to contend with, especially foreign-based players who insisted on being paid in dollars and not the local currency.
There was the split between Westerhoff and his charges at the hotel in Foxboro where the Super Eagles lodged. Just before the Nigeria/ Italy encounter, Westerhoff became apprehensive after hordes of Nigerians – young women particularly – invaded the hotel, eager to meet the footballers. Westerhoff wanted nothing of such, and so arranged for the Super Eagles to relocate to another hotel. Led by Keshi, the entire squad refused thus causing a rift between coach and his footballers. That division also extended to the footballers, undermining the team spirit that had worked for them before.
For TN, The Class of ’94 “is an act of love and salute to so many persons, players, administrators, aficionados, fans, fanatics, hangers-on and spectators, who collectively swayed the tempest of the Super Eagles from Maroc 88 to Tunisia 94 and beyond to the immediate fallout of the 1996 Atlanta Olympic.”
As readers will find out, The Class of ’94 is a potted history of Nigeria soccer from that period to the present day, up till the World Cup in Russia last year. Some of the key figures of the Golden Generation are deceased. But there are special tributes to them, starting with “The Legend of Stephen Okechukwu Keshi,” on Yekini. For those alive, hearing them reminisce on those magical years is a bonus, making The Class of ’94 an unqualified success and, at the same time, an invaluable documentation and research material for sports officials, historians and football enthusiasts within and outside Nigeria.
In his presidential preamble, Muhammadu Buhari reflects on the accomplishment of The Class of ’94 to wit: “A reminder and an alert, a reminder of where we have been and who we really are when we rise to our full height and promise.”
As for Amaju Melvin Pinnick, NFF President, “Nnacheta and his team’s laudable efforts in documenting the exploits of the football class of 1994 vintage hearkens to the ideals of National Anthem in regard to the labour of our heroes past not in vain.”
Rated fifth by FIFA world ranking then compared to the 44th position today, it is hard to think of any subsequent squad surpassing the accomplishment of The Class of ’94 anytime soon. It is even harder to think of any publication covering the same period rivalling what the publisher and editors have achieved here. This is the coffee table book of the year to beat.