Friday, September 25, 2020

The feat of AFCON I only realized when I returned to Enugu – Ifeanyi Ahidjo Onyedika

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… Says wearing the Rangers jersey was satisfying

… .Remember his double against Viking of Norway for Eagles as a special

Ifeanyi Onyedika as coach of one of the national teams

Ifeanyi Onyedika, affectionately called Ahidjo, was one of those talented players who made the Rangers tick during the reign of Brazilian coach Roberto Diaz. He was an outstanding forward who scored memorable goals for both the club and the national team. Onyedika comes from a soccer family and was a member of the AFCON winning Green Eagles team in 1980.

He tells his story about how he made it to the national team, his memories of AFCON and his unforgettable moments at Rangers in Enugu. He spoke with weekend editor Onochie Anibeze and deputy sports editor Jacob Ajom.

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We started with the 1980 Nations Cup. Ifeanyi Onyedika’s story in selecting the 1980 Nations Cup was one of determination and providence. I remember we were training with NEPA on the Enugu campus and after one session you said that “this Nations Cup coming next year, I want to be part of that team.” And you made it possible. Tell us your story

There were things that happened behind the scenes that some of you didn’t know about. When I was at CIC, from my Class 2, I played for Vasco da Gama. But since my father didn’t want me to waste my time playing soccer at the expense of my academics, I only played games away from home. From my Class 2, they paid me a salary.

It was from there that I moved to NEPA. So playing in Da Gama with men gave me a lot of experience. So I could easily take on defenders and all that. So scoring goals was not that difficult for me because in Da Gama you had men who could kick you and you kept playing. Many people did not know.

Basically I started from Christ Church to CIC and from there to Rangers. So we were all playing on campus, like children playing. Then I had team players like my older brother Emeka and the rest of them. These guys were a ton of talent and I learned a thing or two from them; They did not fear the competition and continued with determination. They were never intimidated by any opposition and once they entered the field, their determination was to win. So I also had that faith and determination in me. And it was worth it.

The history of the 1980 Nations Cup was completely different. I had been called to the camp before in 1979, but I didn’t know what it meant to go to the national camp. I honestly didn’t travel anywhere. You knew what Enugu was like; very friendly and quiet. You don’t want to leave Coal City anywhere. I was wondering, what was the significance of this camp? And who were these Green Eagles by the way? So I ignored the first invitation.

So it happened that same year, the Rangers were preparing for a WAFU match against Stella FC from Ivory Coast and we played a friendly match against the national team. We beat them 2-0, Best Ogedegbe was in goal for the national team because Chukwu, Okala and other members of Rangers who were on the national team played for us (Rangers) in that game that we won 2-0. I scored both goals. Coach Otto Gloria then said, this guy, we’ll catch him this time. Even so, I went back to Enugu with the Rangers.

When we returned from Ivory Coast, coach Otto Gloria insisted, “This man (me) should not be able to return with the rest of the Rangers team to Enugu. He made sure they stopped me from going. I didn’t stop there because I still went back to Enugu. It was later that I said I was fine and decided to go to the national camp.

When I got to Lagos, the Eagles had a friendly against a German team. Okala had a bad day as two bad goals were scored against him and Best joined. I must say that it marked the beginning of Best Ogedegbe’s dominance as it was used throughout the tournament. That singular match ruined a lot for Okala. I came for that game, but I was left doing nothing. That was the first time I met them (Eagles).

After the game, they said we should go to the camp, then to the fairground, on the Lagos-Badagry highway. As I was about to get on the bus, the team manager, I don’t know if you remember, asked me, “Where are you going? Common get off this bus.”

He asked again: “Who are you?” He didn’t know what to say and Madam Rangers, who was there, didn’t help at all. She could have just explained to the man who I was and that would have been it. But when I got off the bus and started to walk away, Otto Gloria was coming in the opposite direction. He gave me a warm welcome and said where are you going? Go back and get on the bus. I came back and we all headed to camp. The rest is history.

On the national field, I realized that there were so many forwards or people who wanted to be forwards and were determined to impress the coach. There was so much fighting that some challenged the wounded to stay in the camp rather than return home. I thought to myself, what is this all about? If you are injured, why not leave the team? For some it was a matter of life and death. They would pretend and stay in the camp despite their injuries. Anyway, I got to work.

There was this friendly match you played before the Nations Cup

He interrupts:

About three of them (friendly matches). That one in particular was against Viking of Norway, I scored two goals and played very well. The NTA, the only television station that later broadcast the match report, alluded to the fact that Otto Gloria had found what he was looking for.

What was life like in the camp?

It was hard. You only had to enter the main team to be accepted. The greats were there, but they were eager to put you where you belong. They expected something different from young guys like us before looking at you twice. You had to work hard to be accepted. After doing one or two things. Gradually, I was gaining acceptance because they saw something new in me.

On that AFCON opening day in 1980, how did you feel when you headed to Nigeria? Before, Nigeria had not won the Nations Cup. Tell us how it felt to be part of that team considering your almost fairy tale.

To be frank with you, even at that time, you didn’t know the importance of the occasion. For me, it was like I was going to play a game. He hardly knew the importance of the tournament or what it meant for Nigeria as a country. It was when I entered the field that I saw the crowd and asked, what kind of crowd is this? It took me a while to really figure out what to do, honestly. He hadn’t played in that kind of scenario before. I kept wondering, “what is this?”

Green Eagles at the 1980 AFCON opening game

It was then that I began to see something different than what I was used to. It was when we reached the final that I began to realize the importance or meaning of everything. In that initial stage, the crowd was intimidating. However, I still felt that it was not war but football, so I said to myself, go in and do your thing. But, like I said, it was hard for me to understand. We play for the Rangers and who are you to intimidate us? But this was different.

You were in the camp with people like Sylvanus Okpala, Muda Lawal, Christian Chukwu, Odegbami, Adokie Amiesimaka, among others. How was the relationship between the older players and the youngsters who were to come?

It was too much. Playing with players like the great Muda Lawal, Emmanuel Okala, According to Odegbami at that time was out of this world. They had a way of cheering you up on the playing field. They would tell you exactly what to do to help you. Imagine after the tournament and when we were given cars as gifts, there was a thing hanging inside the car (a souvenir). According to Odegbami he went to Ibadan to bring me one. The atmosphere was nice.

For younger ones like me, once you could get into the ranks, they would accept you as a little brother teaching you everything. Someone like Muda Lawal never stopped amusing me. There were things they did that you, a junior player, wouldn’t dare. They were all great, Amiesimaka, Chukwu was like grandpa. He was always behind you to clean up all the mess.

How did Otto Gloria run each match until the final?

Otto was too much. It simply provided what each match required. He had a different plan for each game. As in the final, although I played 9 in the course of the tournament, Otto said because I was not aggressive and recognized that the Algerians were skilled and needed strong players to knock them down. That was why Felix Owolabi (Owo Blow) was deployed as the top attacker with Muda behind him. On match day, the Algerians could not handle the situation. So each game had a different plan, depending on how the opponent played. The man was too much.

When you won the AFCON and they gave you cars and houses, how did you feel?

I felt on top of the world, but felt more than that when I arrived in Enugu. When I arrived in Enugu, it was like I was in a dream land. It was still like a dream to me. When I arrived in Enugu, all my friends, colleagues and family were on top of me appreciating what I had accomplished. They kept asking, do you know what you’ve done? It was then that I began to understand what happened. So I started to respect myself more.

You are from a family of footballers. Your older brother Chukwuemeka Onyedika played for the Rangers and Nigeria, then you did the same. Your younger brother was also a great footballer, but he didn’t reach the national level even though he had all the talent.

He didn’t follow him anymore. It was like he had a different mindset than Emeka and mine. He was a wonderful player but he never took it seriously. To date, my friends would say you were good, but your little brother was better. I think he saw it differently.

There was this match between Rangers International and Water Corporation of Ibadan, your hosts and you scored all the goals in your 4-0 win over them. Make a summary and tell us how it all happened.

It was fun. At that time we had two mid-season games, you played against a team at home, then you traveled with them to play them away to start the second phase. Here in Enugu, we kept them tied 1-1. I could remember how they boasted that they would treat us in the second leg in Ibadan.

I did not travel to Ibadan with the team. I was at IMT and had exams. The team traveled on Friday without me. Then on Saturday one of our fans saw me and asked what I was doing in Enugu when our team had a very important match in Ibadan. I told him that I had just come out of the exam room. Then he proposed that if he could get me a ticket to Lagos, would I go to the game? I said yes, I would.

Very early on Saturday, the day the game was supposed to be played, they gave me a ticket and took me to the airport, I took a flight to Lagos. I arrived in Lagos around 8.30am. M. And from there I went to Ibadan and joined the team that had been there a day or two before. I wasn’t part of the plan, actually. Emmanuel Osigwe was supposed to play 9, but somehow when I arrived it seemed like Osigwe had gotten into a fight with the coach. The coach felt that Osigwe was holding him for ransom and regretted my absence.

So when I arrived, you needed to see how relieved the man was. He took me by the hand and called me Ahidjo, and in pretty fluent English he said, “I know you can do it for me; just go there and do it for me. Do it to me please. That guy over there (speaking of Emma) is full of shit in the head. ”So I went in there and, God willing, I scored two in the first half and another two in the second.

Our opponents couldn’t believe what hit them. All were beautiful goals and we went with the three points.

Remind us who your coach was then?

Coach Roberto Díaz, Brazilian.

(To be continued next week)

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