By Onochie Anibeze
I HAVE passed through Owerri while connecting other cities of Nigeria. But for about 15 years, I never spent some time there. Yet, it was the same city I visited regularly to cover Iwuanyanwu Nationale in those days they bestrode Nigerian football like a colossus. It was there I saw great games.
It was in Owerri I saw people move their heads to rhyme with the melody of the tunes orchestrated by the Iwuanyanwu Supportersâ€™ Club while a game would be on. It was in Owerri I saw a Nigerian team so rich in players that they had Anuna, Edward Ansa, Eta Egbe as goalkeepers. In defence were the likes of John Benson, Mike Obi, Sunny Ikwuagwu Ransom Madu, Cyril Levi and Godwin Eke.
The same era, they had Thompson Oliha, Samson Ozogula, Friday Elaho, Ben Iroha, Mike Onyemachara, Paul Uzokwe, Friday Ekpo, Peter Nieketin, Luis Igwilo and later the likes of Kingsley Onye, Etim Esin, Lawrence Ukaegbu, Emeka Ezugha etc.Â Note that before them were the likes of Sylvanus Bahama Oparanozie. I remember one season that a headline read: AKAKEM SIGNS NIGERIA FOR NATIONALE. It was in Owerri I saw George Weah and Koffi Abreh combine so well for Kalala TonnereÂ that fans were not comfortable with a hard 2-0 victory in the Club of Champions Cup now renamed Champions League.
It was in Owerri I interviewed George Weah and when in the return leg I told him my mind, he smiled and revealed what he kept away from the media in Cameroun. He was reluctant for any interview this time but I told him â€œGeorge, this is no interview, I just want to tell you that you have no business playing football in Africaâ€. That comment brought him back to life. In nine minutes, he had combined well with Abbreh, the Ghanaian international,Â to cancel the 2-0 lead Iwuanyanwu had in Owerri.
Mrs. Calista Ofoma, alias Madam Nationale fell sick in those nine minutes in the ever intimidating Younde Stadium. The atmosphere so upset her that she started visiting the toilet every five minutes and didnâ€™t see when Friday Ekpoâ€™s free kick rocketed into theÂ net of Tonnere in what I recorded as one of the best goals that season. In minutes Tonnere scored again and the stadium roared, hopeful that they were on the march to victory. Mrs. Ofoma resumed the visits to the toilet. May her soul rest in peace.
Never seen such a tensed atmosphere. Coach Dimitirs Theophanis felt that Tonnere were very fast and needed a midfielder who could hold the ball and slow the pace. While standing and puffing his cigarette, he signalled the bench and shouted that Luis Igwilo should warm up to come in. That was the height of tension. He dropped Igwilo in a last minute change in Owerri and the Nigerian international was nowhere in Cameroun what more on the bench of Nationale.
Tonnere continued invading Nationale goal area that in one counter-attack, the Nigerians earned a corner. Ekpo curved it and Paul Uzokwe nodded it in. 3-2,Â and Iwuanyanwu were winners. Weah was down but when I commended his play and told him to leave Africa he smiled and retorted â€œthanks, this is my last match here. I have just got a contract with Monaco in France and Iâ€™m leaving this week.â€
That was how I wrote the first story on George Weahâ€™s movement to Europe.. Ten years after,Â we were clinking glasses in celebration of Sepp Blatterâ€™s victory as FIFA President in ParisÂ during the France â€˜98 World Cup.Â I reminded him and he was all smiles and posed for a photograph with me. He had become the greatest footballer in the world and the picture remains one of my mementoes.
For me, Owerri meant so much in those days. Iwuanyanwu Nationale made news. For three consecutive seasons, they were Nigeriaâ€™s champions. They did well in the continent, getting to the final and semi-final of the Club of Champions.
They were a class and stories on them sold newspapers. That simply explained the emotion last weekend when I met Prince Lemmy AkakemÂ after more than 15 years. Banters, banters and banters. First was on Saturday with our Motoring Editor,Â Theodore Opara and later on Sunday with Chidi Nkwopara, our Imo correspondent.
The story times were interesting. Recalling his days in Nigerian football excited. Akakemâ€™s contributions to Nigerian football are not a one off story. We couldnâ€™t have told them in two days. But I remember a trip to Abidjan when he was so mad that he spoke Igbo to a French speaking match commissioner who had asked what was wrong with Nationaleâ€™s keeper.
The new rule stopping goalkeepers from catching back passes had just been announced and Etta Egbe did not quite understand it. He apparently thought it was foul to even kick it.
While trying to shield on-rushing Abdullahi Troare from intercepting, he lost possession and Troare levelled up for Asec Mimosas who cancelled Nationaleâ€™s 3-0 lead in Owerri. But same Etta turned the hero in the resultant penalty shoot-out and Nationale won. Asec were so devastated that they turned violent and we remained in the stadium till almost midnight. Akakem was so disappointed over the cheap goal Traore scored that when the match commissioner asked him what was wrong with their keeper he retorted â€œOwu ara gbaga yaâ€, meaning that he must have be mad.
Akakem knew the game and was also passionate about it. His passion knew no bounds. He was an astute administrator and God-fearing. I remember one player falling out of his favour because the player was having an illicit affair with a married woman. â€œSuch a sin can bring us bad luck,â€ he maintained while insisting that the player be dropped if he did not stop dating another manâ€™s wife. Women have always been crazy about stars but Akakem knew where stardom ended for decency to reign.
I thoroughly enjoyed the dinner he offered. The seven course meal was sumptuous. Chidi and I thoroughly enjoyed the night of winning and dinning with this great Nigerian football administrator who is now one of the king makers in Imo Politics.
Yes, I returned to Owerri and many things happened. While we dined, Akakem asked me how the Heartland -Kano Pillars went. I told him Heartland won 4-0 and he thumbed up for the team that transformedÂ from Iwuayanwu Nationale. Akakem was the brain behind Chief Emmanuel Iwuanyanwu taking over Spartans of Owerri and renaming them.
Spartans were owned by the state. When the government of Achike Udenwa was taking the club back, it renamed them Heartland. Many preferred Spartans, the original name of the Imo team.
â€œHeartland have a good team. I saw them against FAR of Morocco and I knew that they would go far in the competition. Beating Kano Pillars 4-0 is a great result,â€ he said. I told him what I saw in the game, the same story I have been telling since I returned to Lagos.
On a pitch that could not guarantee fluid football, I saw aggression, I saw good passing and direct football, all the features that are lacking in the Green Eagles. I saw Emeka Nwana score a television goal and I saw Uchenna Agba, a left midfielder, score a goal that should earn him a call to the national team. I saw the same player perform in a way that should earn him a place in the Eagles if he is consistent.
I saw Heartlandâ€™s captain Ike defend in a way that should earn him a place in the national team. I saw Awunta Ibenegbu play in a way that should earn him some recognition. I saw the left back of Pillars, Sheyi, shine and make a case for his national team consideration. Unfortunately, I did not see any national team coach in Owerri on the day two Nigerian sides played Africaâ€™s Champions League semi-final match. Where in the world would that happen other than Nigeria?
There are players in Bayelsa, Warri Wolves, Enyimba and some other clubs who can make the national team competitive. But the coaches and the Federation know why they have decided to shut them out. Amanze Uchegbulam, vice president of the federation, maintains that the coaches and not the federation are in the position to address that.
To a large extent,Â he is right. But what about when the coaches are indifferent to domestic football? Who directs the game in the country?
I left Owerri hopeful that something can come out of our league but disappointed that those who matter are not leading us well. Heartland played well but the atmosphere in the Iwuanyanwu Nationale era was missing. It had no trapping of a city hosting Champions League semi-final. Heartland are doing well but they are not enjoying commensurate support from the Imo State government.
They are owed salaries and bonuses. Which other sector is even getting support from the Ikeddi Ohakim government? Three nights might not have been enough for one to assess the Ohakim government but the people I met scored him very lowl. That could explain the disenchantment and general low spirit I experienced on the way to the stadium. But I was in Owerri for football and decided to pay homage to a man who once lived football.
â€œDo you still monitor the national team, the Eagles?,â€ I asked Akakem. He paused for long and said â€œleave that matter.â€ That left me wondering about how disenchanted many have become about the Eagles.
Too bad. I know that defeat is not in Akakemâ€™s dictionary and in one of his trips abroad doctors told him he would beÂ endangering his life if he did not quit football administration. He took their advice and quit. But those who knew how thick he made our football still miss him badly.