… His tribulations before the national team, how he became captain
… Remember how Brodericks, Chukwu molded a conquering squad
… Guinea’s scare, the final against Germany, Ikhazobo’s magic talk
… It is an account NEVER counted before.
By Onochie Anibeze, Weekend Editor and Jacob Ajom, Associate Sports Editor
THIRTY-FIVE years ago he brought Nigeria into Chinese history. Tell us the story of China 1985; how it started, what happened during the championship, the final and what happened afterwards. Share your experience as captain of that historic team.
It started at home, here in Nigeria because without good preparation and a chain of events that preceded that exit, China ’85 would never have existed. Before we won the World Cup, we were all in school and we used to play for the Nigerian Youth Sports Federation (YSFON). Then all of a sudden I heard there was going to be a U16 World Cup. At first he was not part of the team because he was not invited. As you know then, many of you (sports journalists), yourself, Larry Izamoje, all of you who used to come to the stadium for news were all there that fateful morning when I came to the stadium to play the set.
Then I saw a group of young players my age coming out of the National Sports Institute (NIS). I was surprised to see more than 200 young guys and I knew a number of them because we played in the Gothia U13 Cup in Denmark. I went to them and asked them and they said there was going to be the YSFON World Cup. I asked where and when they told me the place was still under speculation, be it Brazil or Argentina, they weren’t sure.
Put on screen
We were very young and never knew it had already been fixed for China. So, I grabbed my things and ran home. I didn’t have good boots, so I ran to Idi-Oro to buy Abe Bata Mallam, a kind of rubber boots that one could wear even in the rain. I sewed the sole to my canvas. This is what I did before starting the equipment under evaluation. I joined them every morning. When my father went to work, I also went to the stadium to join the team. He would always arrive at the stadium around 5.30am, but the gate would open at 7am. To access the stadium, I squeezed through the concrete openings in the stadium fence that overlooks Western Avenue. Once inside, I would run and wait near the NIS gym near the training ground and wait for the team to arrive. That was how I started training with them and more people kept coming. They initially detained me, they did not want me to continue training with the team because I was not invited and it happened that many of us who were not originally invited continue to show up at training.
A man named Ben Ekpo (May his soul rest in peace) used to be around. He was a YSFON official. Suddenly, several people began to go and the number was reducing every day. Tony Eke, then general secretary of YSFON, would come to see the players. He was in the administrative aspects of the exercise.
Hand of fate
One day, about two weeks after I started joining them in training, they asked me, “Who hasn’t played?” Suddenly, I raised my hand, indicating that I hadn’t played. The slap I received from Ben Ekpo blinded me momentarily. It was very hot when I saw stars.
He slapped me so hard that I had to run to the door and I started crying. He chased after me and began to say in broken English: “One can’t hear something. I think we don’t tell a make one not to come here again. Abuses started raining down on me and the women who were caring for the soil began to feel sorry for me. They were mad at him for the treatment he gave me.
And Tony Eke came out of nowhere. When he saw me he asked me what was happening because I was still crying with my chick in the palm of my hand. He took me and before you knew it, he said, “Okay, I’ll give you a chance to play.” But if you don’t play sabi, you leave. There is no one who says anything about YSFON. ‘ I said ok sir, ok sir, wiping my tears away. In his own wisdom, he decided that I shouldn’t play that day because I was psychologically shocked and wouldn’t be in the mood to do anything meaningful if I was allowed to play. Then he asked me to come back the next day for the trial. Said, “Go, you’re not going to play fit today.” The next day when I reported, they started a game, again I was not selected. When Eke arrived and there were about fifteen minutes to go, he asked, “Where is the boy I promised you will play today?”
I went out. Someone got injured, it was a test match and, as God wants, the 15 minutes provided the window to prove my worth as I was able to create an assist goal and score one myself. This is how they now agreed that I could start reporting to the training ground, but I was still not allowed to enter the camp (which was in Games Village) in Surulere. They said, “Make a no go camp o, so dat a no go go steal people’s things … Come from your house.” I agreed and was happy. This is how I became part of those being examined.
You scored and had an assist on your first day of screening, did you start from defense or attack?
It was from the defense (position N0.3) We continued but I couldn’t bear that he came from home when my friends and colleagues were already in the camp. There is this feeling that you have when you are in the camp, a kind of happiness and camaraderie. One day I took my things and my sister’s tracksuit and went to meet them at the camp. I started staying with Binebi Numa and a few other guys in their room at Games Village. I started to mix with them. When they received their food, they gave me some. I stayed there until a certain day when things changed dramatically. Air Commodore Anthony Ikhazobor was appointed president of the NFA and visited the camp.
He told them that it was no longer a YSFON thing, that it was going to be a FIFA tournament and the NFA, being a FIFA affiliate he would be responsible for everything related to the camp, the well-being of the players and the participation in the World Cup. This is how the NFA took care of everything. Before the playoffs they called me. We went to America where we participated in the Dallas Cup. They called me the last day before the team traveled. I traveled and returned with the team. Some of us stayed in the United States for a few days.
Then came the qualifiers for the World Cup. We beat Togo here 2-0 and tied the first leg. This is how we qualified to go to China. After our qualification we went on vacation and when we resumed, many people did not return.
Only very few people, about 50 of us who went back to camp and started preparations for the World Cup with people like Monday Agbontaen, Baldwin Bazuaye, Kingsley Akhinovbare, Imama Amakpakabo, Lucky Agbons, Hilary Adiki, Fatai Atere, among others. We started playing friendly matches and the team started to take shape. We went to Kwara, and in Jos we met Salisu Adamu and Salisu Nakande. They joined the camp. When they arrived, they added more steel to our equipment. His energy level was incredible even during the fast and we became formidable and very strong.
The formation of a captain
As the competition got closer, every time one was informed, particularly at midnight, that Coach Sebastian Brodericks or Christian Chukwu wanted to see one, it meant leaving. So everyone was scared and nervous. If we weren’t training and we were in front of the Game Village playing ludo or just relaxing and you heard the sound of Sebastian Brodericks car, everyone would run away. Nobody wanted to see Brodericks because if you ran into him, he might suddenly say: ah! I’ve been looking for you. It just made me remember that you have to go. So everyone was afraid to meet him.
One night when everything had taken shape after many people had been abandoned and the team was getting stronger, we were close to thirty and only 18 were traveling and everyone in the camp was fine. Then one night, we had returned to camp and I was in the same room with Baldwin Bazuaye when Bala Shamaki, our assistant coach, knocked on our door. When he knocked on my door, I thought the end had come. I thought I had run my luck and reached the end point. I knew I was leaving, what I did not know was whether to start begging or start packing my things.
I was already crying when he came in and Bazuaye just looked at me with resignation. He said Coaches Brodericks and Chukwu wanted to see me. I said I was fine, already crying. I told him I’d come, but let me pack first. He said no, I should answer them first and then go back and pack. I said it was finished and I thought I was already gone.
I followed him, my heart pounding. When I came out, some twenty or thirty meters away, I saw some Air Force vehicles and a military patrol van carrying military personnel with many of them armed. It occurred to me that the president should be present. I went in to meet them, I was a little scared. I saw the president, Ikhazobor (may his soul rest in peace), I saw coaches Brodericks, Chukwu and Shamaki, and I saw the late Patrick Okpomo who was the general secretary of the NFA.
It was the president of the NFF who spoke first. “Why are you shaking like this?” I ask. I was shaking physically and psychologically, and he said, calm down. ” He said he was happy that we all slept, which showed discipline. He asked me if I could read. I said a little. They gave me a news magazine to read. I was able to read about ten lines, putting everything together. It wasn’t as good as it would be later.
When I finished that one, they said I tried. They brought another book, this time a James Hardley Chase novel, I can’t forget that. I must confess that I did not know the head or tail of what was written because the standard was too high for me. I could not understand. I just read seven to ten lines and they showed me a few lines to stop. I did that and he told me that it was fine, that there was room for improvement. After that, they asked me if I could speak very well, if I could face people and speak. They said: “If you win the World Cup now, can you address a hundred thousand people or face the television camera and answer questions from journalists?”
Okpomo said we would try it there. Okpomo said that the president would make a short speech and I would respond. Ikhazobor then started observing protocols, such as Honorable Minister, President of the NFA, Trainers, etc. He spoke and I was asked to respond. I did not know all those protocols because I was very young. I just answered, thank you very much sir.
And Okpomo said, what is thank you very much sir? Didn’t you hear what he’s been saying since morning? You should mention one or two people you mentioned so that people know that you are addressing them. Then he told me how to say it. Then I managed to speak what I could and it came out well. The NFA president gave me a lot of confidence that even with all my mistakes, I still felt like I was performing well. However, later in life I realized that I was studying criminology. Psychologically, he was very strong.
Before I left he told me that they were thinking of becoming captain but that it had not been concluded because if I behaved badly they could change their opinion. They told me that if I fought, assaulted someone, caused a problem, or if my form fell out, I could get kicked out. He said there were a lot of us who could speak and write better than I could, but that I was the head coach’s choice. As I was leaving, they asked me not to reveal details of my meeting with them. I kept it all for myself and for Bazuaye, who was very young and inquisitive and wanted to know what happened when I returned to the room. I told him that everything was fine and that I would not go.
From then on things changed. Every time we finished training they said that I should organize the boys to carry the balls. And then you knew we had godparents. People like Kingsley Akinovbare, Adiki, Binebi Numa were better exposed. Kingsley controlled the camp because he was very influential, especially among the Benin boys. One day I called Binebi to bring balls after training and he asked me: ‘Aren’t you crazy? Do you want to come start with this garbage? He really couldn’t control the big boys. Kingsley in particular would fight, even the coaches. Adiki was very polite, solid, and crazy. They started giving me all kinds of problems. Every time they asked me to write names, I would go from room to room and when they saw me carrying a piece of paper, the boys from Benin would run to Kingsley’s room. They would tell you he was carrying a sheet of paper, maybe he was writing names for boots or room assignments. When I went, everyone cooperated and gave me their names, spelling them out. But when he got to Kingsley’s room, he would find about six of those Benin boys there.
Then I would ask Kingsley to help me spell his name, he would just say, my name na Kingsley Akiovbare, write it down. If I asked him about the spelling of his last name, he would reply, “Na ogun wan kill you? Why am I going to spell my name for you? I’d be there pleading. If he refused to listen to my plea, he would go to Imama for help. Sometimes we made mistakes, but Coach Sabara helped us correct them. From time to time, Hilary Adiki helped. He was very kind and wrote everyone’s name perfectly and gave it to me. He would take it to the coach.
Trip to China and participation in the tournament
We did X-rays (there was no MRI then) at Ikeja Air Force Base, we made our clothes, and then we headed to China. When we got to China it was so beautiful. We passed through France and arrived in Hong Kong and everything looked wonderfully good. We saw some other teams and finally made it to our base, which was Dallian. We stayed there and when we started training, a surprise came. The surprise was that the stadium we were going to use was still under construction as around 10% had not been completed, it was 90% ready. While we were training they were building it and in three days the job was finished and handed over to the organizers. We were so happy. We were there during the opening ceremony and in our group we had Nigeria, Italy, Saudi Arabia and Costa Rica.
Italy was our first victim, defeating them 1-0. That victory gave us a boost and was the motivation we needed. He showed us that anything was possible. Our second match was against Saudi Arabia. It ended 0-0. It was the most difficult match we had in the tournament. They had chances but they couldn’t score, we had chances but we couldn’t translate them into goals. With that tie we had four points before facing Costa Rica. We beat them 3-0 This is how the group stage ended.
We were second or so in our group because Saudi Arabia was also with five points and a better goal difference of +5 gave them an advantage over us. Italy came in third place and Costa Rica in last place.
In the next match, which was the quarter-finals, we defeated Hungary. The game started on a very bad note for us, as we conceded first. We were all shocked as we wondered if that was the end of the road for us. Finally, we won the match 3-1. We punished them so much and they got so tired that they started asking for water.
The moment our coach realized they were tired, he started to say, dem don pull… make a go o, Oya .. oya. Coach Christian Chukwu did a wonderful job as he would always go out to spy on other teams, watch their matches and come and tell us about it. Together with coach Sebastian Brodericks they gave us great pressure, a beautiful pressure that brought out the best in us as they urged us on and said that nothing was impossible. At the end of the day, we beat Hungary.
The Guinea scare
After crossing the Hungarian fence, it was Guinea’s turn, an African team against another African team.
The game against Guinea started well psychologically for us. We were much more relaxed because we felt that if we worked very hard we could give Guinea about four goals in the first half. But it turned out not to be so. What happened? They scored first, we tied and the game went to penalties. We beat Guinea 4-2 and that was the scariest moment of our campaign. We go to the final. We reached the final.
On the last day, they gave us a seat near the reserve bench of the Brazilian team. Guinea was playing Brazil for the bronze medal. As we sat watching, about ten minutes later, the Germans entered. We had a man in the Nigerian embassy in China who was very helpful.
They helped us to the extent that they offered to provide us with African food. However, it was rejected because they decided that we should continue to eat the food we had been eating so as not to gain unnecessary weight.
They went out of their way to support us. They were even spying on other teams for us. A man named Kokodia, at the embassy, then brought up the video of the match between West Germany and Brazil that ended 4-3. That match was so tough that it was called the final before the final. Germany would score and Brazil would tie and Brazil would score again and Germany would tie.
It became a ding dong affair until towards the closing minutes of the match, when Marcel Witszek scored the winning goal for Germany. As we sat watching Brazil face Guinea in the match for third place, the Germans came in. It was Kingsley who saw them first and announced, dem don de come o, make una squeeze una face. Dem there is nothing to do. And we all frowned and we all looked stern. We all agreed that we would die there.
When we left our hotel, we were singing all the way to the stadium. However, along the way we noticed that we had forgotten the musical record that we were always playing, an Alpha Blondy record, very sweet music. We play it on the way to games. But the last day we forgot it at the hotel. Coach Brodericks insisted that we go get him.
This was what we listened to until we approached the stadium and we started singing. Brazil beat Guinea 4-1, after which they took us to the field. Everyone was calm. Nigerian officials approached us and told us that the official delegation was on its way and that once they arrived everything would be fine. When we beat Hungary, they told us they were watching us live in Nigeria. That news made us happier, that millions of Nigerians were following us at home.
After watching the German game, coaches Sebastian Brodericks and Christian Chukwu had this plan for us. They wanted us to play from the wing so that two or three players would attack the near post every time we crossed the ball.
The idea was to attack the first post when opponents would probably be expecting a long cross. We practice it all the time with Babatunde Joseph Fagbetun. And after training, Coach Chukwu, in particular, would ask one, how many people did you dribble today? Imagine, they were cheering us on to dribble. They advised us to hold the ball and have fun while we played. They wanted us to express ourselves and enjoy the game. There was a lot of encouragement from the coaches. The team was full of all the positive vibes to do well in the tournament. We practice it several times that Chukwu would say According, kpaa fa (that is, According to the dribbles). Every time Segu bargained, Chukwu would laugh and get used to it so much and everything was so useful that at the end of the day we were all happy. For the final, the plan was to score an early goal and we practiced it. We were going to attack with breakneck speed.
Brodericks, Chukwu and Bala had said, if people weren’t careful, they wouldn’t see the first goal and that happened. We planned the early goals to force them to come out to play and when they came out we would toughen them up. And if they continued to increase the pressure, we would fight back. Most of the European nations then had not played against the African opposition. This was the first World Cup at that level, so they played against an African national team for the first time at that level.
They felt their best option was to get away with it all and when they did, we caught them and scored the first goal. During the first part, they created chances and so did we. The first half ended with our slim 1-0 lead.
In the second half, Victor Igbinoba was tired. The Germans were coming strong and at some point I thought they had equalized. They took a shot and our goalkeeper stopped it, the ball hit the crossbar and went out. Then the unthinkable happened. From the other end we were trying to kick the ball towards the spectator stands, Igbinoba was still on the other end because he was very tired and could not recover quickly. And the coaches called Igbinoba, Igbins, to come back. But he was so tired that he couldn’t even back down. He leaned down panting.
The moment he walked and crossed from the other half of the field, Bela Momoh kicked a ball square and the air carried it to Igbinoba and the two central centrals of Germany were recovering while he went to receive them.
He deviated to the right and beat one and with a small detour he beat the second again and the unthinkable happened, because he had never scored with his left leg before. He was so tired that he simply threw the ball with his left leg and the ball went to the corner of the net. From that day on, we became the first winners of the FIFA U-16 World Cup. The first team to do it on planet earth.
What an amazing story. Tell us, how was the celebration in the dressing room?
Before the celebration, something dramatic happened, which gave us confidence. By the time we scored our first goal, maybe three minutes after the game started and people were still celebrating our goal, they carried the ball into the middle.
As we waited for the ball to be passed, the massive gate of the Beijing Workers’ Stadium, which was then Perking, slammed open. Suddenly we saw the Nigerian delegation enter with their flowing white agbada. They all turned and started looking at them because they were dressed strangely. As for us, we knew instantly that these were our Nigerian people we had been waiting for.
We were all happy. At halftime they entered the locker room and addressed us. The one that had a significant effect was the speech of the president (Ikhazobor). He spoke in pigeon English. He said, get him to talk about one that everyone understands. Like one of play so, all for one watch Nigeria. Even as I speak to one now, they see us. Even the Head of State, General Mohammadu Buhari, is watching us. I can’t tell anyone to go there and win because of the reason they bring us to China. Just ting wey I fit tell one be say, since a don does not suffer from screening through qualifiers, so if one does not reach their level, they have 45 minutes left to make history. Na una go to be the first winners of this World Cup and a name enters the Guinness Book of Records. He asked if any of us knew what the Guinness Book of Records was. Some of us raise our hands. He said, well, if you win the Cup, a name is going to enter that book because the first time that FIFA organizes this tournament. Whatever happens after this, we don’t care anymore. He told us that everything was within our grasp. He said that many promises were made, monetary and material if we won, but everything was at home. We were left with 45 minutes for glory.
The dressing room was silent. We assimilated it and everyone digested it very well. When we entered the court for the second half, it was a fight to finish. Once we finished, it was from the field that we began to celebrate. As soon as the trophy was handed to me, we were running around the stadium. All my life, all the training and suffering that preceded that moment had passed and what mattered to me at that moment was the trophy.
Before me, I could not believe what we had achieved, what seemed an impossibility. We celebrated so much that that day we could not present our medals. It was the next day during a special dinner that we received our medals. The dressing room was incredibly hot because it was a combination of joy and happiness together. That night he knew no limits until we got to the hotel.
Do you remember your reception, when you arrived at Murtala Mohammed International Airport? As was?
The reception was second to none. I doubt there will be anything like that in the near future.
I just hope that maybe when Nigeria wins two trophies. Not the AFCON, not the U-17 World Cup, maybe the biggest, the Senior World Cup that I hope to see so many crowds and so many fans from the airport to Broad Street, where we were welcomed.
And most likely, and I pray to be part of that, because I want to lead a team that wins the U-20 World Cup or the World Cup. That is what we are looking for and I believe that one day we will achieve it. I also believe that the Senior World Cup will not be elusive for Nigeria as we are producing youth players.
So the reception was tumultuous as thousands and thousands showed up at the airport. I cannot put numbers because if I try, I will not do justice to those who followed us. It was incredible. Both old and young, old and even young children were there to cheer us on. I could remember a little girl, maybe 13 or something like that, who followed us, in a green school uniform with rubber shoes, from the airport to Broad Street, I never knew how she did it.
She was just jogging next to the open truck that was taking us. During the reception on Broad Street drinks were being poured on us and in the crowd I could see this little girl in a green school uniform sweating and couldn’t believe it. Hopefully one day, I don’t know how it will happen, one day in my life, I will see this girl again (who should be a mother today) and she would come to me and tell me that I was that girl. you saw that day. I don’t know how it will happen. But that’s my prayer.
The story continues next week. Nduka talks about the development of soccer and what it takes to win the World Cup. Reserve your copies.