By Tope Adeboboye
Sam Ibiam. Ever heard of the name? He was Nigeriaâ€™s first ever national goalkeeper, the man who manned the post for the UK Tourists, Nigeriaâ€™s first national football team far back in the late 1940s. You might not have berthed on this planet when Pa Ibiam dazzled millions across the world with his magic hands. Nigeria did not even exist as a free country in those pre-independence days when Pa Ibiam and his fellow stars reigned among football-loving folks from Kakawa to Kaduna, from Calabar to Kaura Namoda to the United Kingdom.
But soccer lovers and indeed, followers of the round leather game would have learnt of the incredible exploits performed on the soccer field by members of the then UK Tourists. Those were the days the likes of Teslim â€˜Thunderâ€™ Balogun, Dan Anyiam, Skipper Ewa Henshaw and other members of the team mesmerized with the ball before and shortly after the nationâ€™s independence in 1960.
Pa Ibiam was among the 18 Nigerian footballers who embarked on a tour of England in August 1949.
As expected, virtually all of the â€˜boysâ€™ of yesteryears have since passed on, and the only one remaining is now in the twilight of his days. Pa Ibiam is the last surviving member of that clan of sporting heroes.
At 85, youâ€™d expect this great-grandfather of Nigerian goaltenders to be living a comfortable life, nestled comfortably in a cosy house, reaping the fruits of his hard labour. You would have expected that the government he so faithfully served in his youthful years would come to his aid now that he is too old to work. But if you harbour such thoughts, you would be living in dreamland.
The bitter truth is that Pa Ibiam and many others who did the nation proud in their younger years have been cruelly abandoned to their fate by Nigeria at a time they can scarcely fend for themselves.
Some are luckier though. While Thunder Balogun and Dan Anyiam have stadia named after them in their respective states of Lagos and Imo, Sam Ibiam has no structure bearing his name either in his native state or anywhere in Nigeria.
Pa Ibiam, known in his playing days as The Cat or The Black Magnet, now lives in a modest bungalow in his hometown, Unwana in Afikpo, Ebonyi State. It is in the house that the reporter, alongside Chief Jasper Okoro, the amiable editor-in-chief of National Standard, the Ebonyi State government owned newspaper, spends about ten minutes with the retired keeper this hot Thursday afternoon.
Locating Pa Ibiamâ€™s home in Unwana will pose little problem for even the first time visitor. All you need do is mention his name and several people will offer to take you to the nondescript bungalow where the octogenarian ex-goaltender dwells.
Spotting a white sports jersey and shorts, the retired footballer is in his elements. After welcoming his impromptu guests, Pa Ibiam invites you to his living room, a sparsely furnished apartment with several posters, calendars and glazed photographs adorning the wall. Among the photographs are some black and whites where a much younger Sam Ibiam poses with his fellow team mates in the national team.
The government might not have looked his way, but papa is a hero among his people.
â€œThe recognition is encouraging, at least by the people,â€ the old man says in a voice packed full with verve and vitality. â€œIf you say by the people, you are right. But as for the government, there is no recognition. None at all.â€
In the mid and late 40s, Pa Ibiam was a consummate soccer player. He played professional football across the country and in Accra before he was invited to the Nigeriaâ€™s national team after participating in what was known then as the Governorâ€™s Cup.
â€œIn our days, we played with pride and patriotism,â€ he recalls with some nostalgia. â€œIn those days, everyone played for pride, not for money. We were happy playing for our country unlike what is happening now.â€
But Pa Ibiam will not blame football players who demand for their due before they lace their boots for the country. â€œThey are learning from us because they know what we suffered for the country,â€ he says. â€œWe did all these things for the country with open minds. Unfortunately, the government didnâ€™t care about us. So the boys who demand for money before they play for the country are only being smart.
They know it is whatever they get now that they will ever get from the government. As soon as they canâ€™t play again, the government will abandon them. So, I donâ€™t blame them.â€
In their heydays, there was a myth about one of Pa Ibiamâ€™s compatriots, Teslim â€˜Thunderâ€™ Balogun. Balogun was said to have once kicked a shot that tore through a goalkeeperâ€™s tummy, with the ball forcefully escaping through the dead keeperâ€™s open back. Pa Ibiamâ€™s laugh is infectious as he dismisses the fallacy. â€œDonâ€™t mind them. Nothing like that ever happened,â€ he informs.
Does he still watch football? Not often, he confesses.
â€œI lost interest because of the treatment given us. Since we stopped playing, no government has deemed it fit to recognise what we did for Nigeria. All that has more or less killed oneâ€™s interest in the game. That is why I hardly watch soccer these days.â€
â€œIn 1986, the Rivers State government invited us because I played for Port Harcourt before. So the then Rivers State Commissioner for Sports invited their old players to Port Harcourt. That was when they were commissioning their new stadium in the city. That was all. A year later, the Sports Commission gave us honour in Lagos. All those sports men who had taken part in sports both in Nigeria and overseas were honoured. The late Chief MKO Abiola, state governors and many other important people were there. They promised us cars because they said that would enable us go to the stadium to watch matches. But even that promise was not fulfilled. And if you go to them to ask them to fulfill their promise, you would never see them and their aides would be making fun of you. That is why I lost interest.â€
At 85, many of Pa Ibiamâ€™s compatriots would be frail and bent with age. But Pa Ibiam presents a refreshing difference. Not only is he strong and agile, the ex-footballer is also very alert mentally. Whatâ€™s the secret of his healthy looks?
â€œItâ€™s God,â€ he says. â€œI give God the glory for keeping me alive and blessing me with good health. And donâ€™t forget this is Unwana. We eat a lot of fresh fish here.â€
But donâ€™t ask the retired footballer to offer a word of advice for the Nigerian government on how to take care of the nationâ€™s past heroes. â€œWhy should I advise them,â€ he counters. â€œEven you talking, Iâ€™m sure you know what the problem is and how to solve it. Everyone knows the right thing to do. I have no suggestions for them.â€