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Unearthing Our Heroes (24 Years After FIFA U-16)

NDUKA Ugbade is becoming a fading memory. How many remember that he was the only person to lift the FIFA U-16 trophy as high as nervousness could permit, that cold night, 24 years ago in China? After that edition, FIFA changed the competition to U-17, Nigeria was also the only winner of the FIFA U-16 competition.

In a country where we are thankful for any mercies, I am grateful that organisers of the draw for the FIFA U-17 World Cup remembered Nduka. He was excluded for too long that he appeared forgotten. He is one of the heroes that was played to national insignificance in our national pursuit of sheer putrescence that we manage to elevate to national excellence.

Nduka holds football records that NO OTHER NIGERIAN (dead or living) has. This eludes us easily because we are not a nation that cares about important things. In 1994, while FIFA was celebrating its 100th anniversary, we carelessly missed a chance of setting another FIFA record with Nduka.
We left him out of the 1994 World Cup. If he had been in that team, he would have been the first player to have completed all FIFA competitions  U-16 (won it), U-20 (won a silver medal in 1989), Confederation Cup (1995). I must remark that FIFA considers Olympic football an affair of the International Olympic Committee  the Olympics is the only football event Nduka missed.

He was in the team that won the 1994 Africa Cup of Nations. He would have done more if Nigeria did not abandon him after an incapacitating injury at the 1995 Confederation Cup in Saudi Arabia. Nobody cared and that injury punctuated a flourishing career that bore the scary mark of the intrigues that excluded him from the 1994 World Cup.

Saudi Arabia has sweet-bitter memories for Nduka five years earlier. Those who have followed his career would not forget the battle of Damman, where the U-20 team clobbered from 4-0 to draw and eliminate the Soviet Union by penalty kicks. Nduka was badly injured in that game, he soldiered on to the end.
After the Confederation Cup injury, he was on his own. He was at the abrupt end of his career without assistance from anyone. One would think that he committed some irredeemable offence, not that he lost his career on national service.

Nduka’s colleagues that made Nigeria proud in China have all dissolved into anonymity. Nigeria’s first FIFA youth heroes are faceless. The football administrators have their faces splashed all over the place, they are the heroes. A country throws away a big piece of its history and ambles on, content with regurgitating meaningless landmarks like successfully holding a ritual called annual general meeting.

There are no celebrations of the anniversary of this monumental achievement. Nobody cares about what befell these players. They were so young that they needed to be guided, but we moved on, a country that can prosper without heroes.

Last time I asked, promises the Federal Government made to them in the crest of the national emotions that flowed with this unexpected victory (government dispatched money to the team at the closing chapters of the competition) were still pending. It is possible that the change in government (Gen Muhammadu Buhari out, Gen Ibrahim Babangida in) weeks after their return, affected the decisions.
What was done with the U-16 team has been replicated. We ignore our heroes. We do not celebrate them, whether living or dead. Without a sense of the importance of history, we breed new competitors who have no idea of the arduous task ahead of them.

I have always believed that if players of the 2000 Nations Cup team had a perspective to the assignment ahead of them, they would have beaten Cameroun and won that trophy for keeps  Nigeria would have been the first and last team to win the Cup.

Are we interested in records? In 1980 at the National Stadium, President Aliyu Shehu Usman Shagari handed that new trophy to the Christian Chukwu-led Green Eagles, it was Nigeria’s first Africa Nations Cup victory.

Ghana in 1978 had won the former trophy outright. The sad thing about the 2000 loss is that Cameroun had won an earlier title at the Eagles’ expense (1988). A loss to Algeria (1990), a semi-final loss to Ghana (1992), a 1996 boycott occasioning a 1998 CAF ban, were credentials that littered the Eagles’ route to 2000.

Many members of the 1980 epochal team were available and would have been an influence on the 2000 team. Members of the 1994 team were smouldering from not getting houses government promised them, six years after their victory in Tunisia: they do still not have the houses!
We hosted the FIFA U-20 World Cup in 1999 without any presence of member of our 1989 U-20 team. We did not need heroes.
Nduka has made a vital appearance, but it is not yet heroes’ day.

Thanks Lagos

THANKS Lagos State Government for organising  a memorial for Samuel Sochukwuma Okwaraji, a patriot who fell on 12 August 2009. Whether by few or many, the recognition has started.
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