By Jacob Ajom
Sports in Nigeria is synonymous with the country’s nationhood although participation in competitive sports by Nigerians predates the country’s independence in 1960.
Nigerian sportsmen showed early promise as few of them took the international sporting arena by storm and engrained the country’s name in the sands of time.
The forerunners of Nigerian sports include Emmanuel lfeajuna who won a gold medal in High Jump event at the 1954 Commonwealth Games, Hogan ‘Kid’ Bassey who brushed aside stiff competition from others and became the World Featherweight Boxing king in 1957 and Richard Ihetu, a.k.a. Dick Tiger who won the World Middleweight crown and later the World Light Heavyweight crown in the late 50s and early 1960s.
After those initial heroics in athletics and boxing in the 1950s and early ’60s, the country witnessed another learning curve as it took a while before her sportsmen and women won more international laurels. At 57, it has been topsy-turvy as Nigerian sports have seen the good, the bad and the ugly. We have witnessed our highs and lows.
Sports began to take serious roots in the country in 1963 when the National Sports Commission (NSC) was instituted under late Abraham Ordia as secretary. The 60’s was a period of foundation laying and the only visible achievement was the qualification of Nigeria’s Green Eagles for the Olympic Games held in Mexico in 1968.
In 1972, Nigerian boxer, Isaac Ikhouria made a strong statement in global sports. At the Olympic Games in 1972 Ikhouria, competing in the light heavyweight ( 81kg – ) class, defeated Anton Schär, Switzerland (3:2), Valdemar Oliveira Paulino, Brazil (5-0 ), and Nikolay Anfimov, Soviet Union ( 3-2 ), and in the semi-final, defeated Gilberto Carrillo, Cuba (5-0 ) to win the Olympic bronze medal.
In 1973, Ikhouria won the Pan-African Games and a bronze at the Commonwealth Games in the same year. In 1974 he also won the African Championships.
Nigeria’s first major international sporting achievement came in 1973, when she hosted the 2nd All-Africa Games in Lagos. Nigeria’s senior football team, the Green Eagles won a gold medal while the country’s contingent to the Games won an overall second position on the medals table with 18 gold, 25 silver, 20 bronze medals behind Egypt that won 25 gold, 16 silver and 15 bronze medals.
The year also witnessed the birth of the National Sports Festival with the primary aim of discovering athletes to represent the country in continental and global meets. The founding of the National Sports Festival also has a political undertone as the General Yakubu Gowon administration which was still reeling from the aftermath of a 30-month civil war wanted to use sports as a healing and unifying factor.
Indeed, the festival was initially called Unity Games which brought together Nigerians from all parts of the country. In 1976 and 1977, Nigeria won and retained the Africa Cup Winners Cup competition through IICC Shooting Stars of Ibadan and Rangers International Football Club of Enugu respectively.
Football brought more succour to Nigerians, especially in the 1980s. After the bronze medals won by the Green Eagles in 1976 and 1978 in the Africa Cup of Nations, the country improved on that in 1980 when the Christian Chukwu-led Green Eagles won the Africa Cup of Nations for the first time in Lagos. In 1984 and 1988, Nigeria again got to the finals but ended up second best to Cameroon on both occasions. Nigeria’s Junior national team, the Flying Eagles qualified for the first time to represent Africa in a Junior World Cup in Mexico in 1983.
Although, Nigeria did not go beyond the first round having lost 0-3 to Brazil she beat highly rated USSR 1-0 and held Netherlands to a goalless draw. In 1985, the Golden Eaglets, the national U-17 football team went to China and won the first ever FIFA U-17 World Cup. Ever since, the country has won four more titles in that category: 1985, 1993, 2007, 2013 and 2015; and runners up on three occasions: 1987, 2001 and 2009.
To prove Nigeria’s new found strength in global football, the Nation’s Under-21 team went to Saudi Arabia in 1989 and performed what has been dubbed the Miracle of Damman. The Flying Eagles came from 0-4 down, with 25 minutes to stoppage time to upturn Russia in a dramatic match of the 1989 Junior World Cup. They progressed to the final and lost narrowly to Portugal.
In athletics, five U.S. based Nigerians took the world by storm in the 1983 World University Games in Emonton, Canada when they won gold medals in different disciplines. Sunday Uti (400m), Yusuf Ali (long jump), Ajayi Agbebaku (triple jump), Innocent Egbunike (200m), and Chidi Imoh (100m).
At the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984 Peter Konyegwachie gave Team Nigeria a silver medal in boxing while the 4x400m relay team led by Innocent Egbunike won bronze. At the 1990 Commonwealth Games in Auckland, New Zealand, Nigeria performed marvellously, winning five gold, 13 silver and seven bronze medals. In Victoria, Canada the country’s athletes even exceeded that of 1990 with 11 gold medals, 11 Silver and 14 bronze medals.
The country stormed the Barcelona Olympic Games in 1992 with the quartet of Olapade Adenikan, Chidi Imoh, Kayode Oluyemi and Davidson Ezinwa winning silver in the 4 x 100m, while the women led by irrepressible Mary Onyali captured the bronze medal in the female category. Two Nigerian boxers also won silver medals.
At the Atlanta ’96 Olympics, Nigeria bagged her first Olympic gold medal through Chioma Ajunwa in the women’s Long Jump event. Nigeria’s sterling outing at Atlanta ended with another gold in soccer as the Dream Team won the title in style, after a heart-warming victory over Argentina in the final.
Football in the 90’s took Nigeria to greater heights. Between 1990 and 1994, Nigeria won silver, bronze and gold medals in the biannual Africa Cup of Nations competition. In 2013 in South Africa, Nigeria’ s most successful indigenous coach, Late Stephen Keshi led the Super Eagles to her third continental crown. The triumph came 19 years after winning the cup in Tunisia.
In inter-club championships, Nigerian teams went quiet after the back-to-back Cup Winners Cup triumphs of IICC Shooting Stars of Ibadan and Rangers International in 1975 and ’76, BCC Lions FC of Gboko won the Mandela Cup in 1990 while Shooting Stars Football Club of Ibadan won the maiden edition of the CAF Confederation Cup in 1992. Bendel Insurance FC of Benin also won the CAF Cup in 1994 and also added the West African Football Union (WAFU) Cup to her kitty.
A chronicle of club achievements in Nigeria’s football history without a mention of Enyimba International FC of Aba is not complete. After the lull in Nigeria’s participation in African inter-club competitions, Enyimba rose from nowhere to gladden the hearts of millions of Nigerians in the 2000s. After winning their second successive Nigerian title in 2002, Enyimba became the first Nigerian club to win the CAF Champions League, Africa’s premier international club competition in the 2003 by beating Ismaily of Egypt 2–1 on aggregate, under coach Kadiri Ikhana. This was also the first time since 1996 that a Nigerian club had reached the final of the competition. Several key players from Enyimba’s 2003 continental success have since gone on to play for Nigeria, including Vincent Enyeama, Muri Ogunbiyi, Obinna Nwaneri and Onyekachi Okonkwo.
Enyimba then successfully defended their title as they won their second consecutive African Champions League title in 2004, beating Tunisia’s Étoile du Sahel in the finals. After finishing runners-up in the national championship in 2004 (behind Dolphins), Enyimba won the double in 2005, winning their fourth Nigerian championship and their first Nigerian Cup.
Nigeria qualified for the FIFA World Cup, for the first time, in 1994. At the tournament in the USA, the Eagles gave a good account of themselves and advanced beyond the first round in her first attempt. Although the Eagles lost in the second round to eventual finalists Italy, they stunned the world with their brand of football and were ranked 5th globally by FIFA. That remains the highest attainment by an African team to date. Suddenly, Nigerian stars became the toast of big football clubs all over the world.
Nigerian football bounced back to global reckoning when at the Beijing Olympics, the Samson Siasia-tutored team, the Dream Team played their way to the final but were stopped by a Lionel Messi inspired Argentina side. Between 1994 and 2014, the Super Eagles qualified for the World Cup France ’98, Korea/Japan 2002, South Africa 2010 and lately Brazil 2014. On all these occasions, only the 1994 and 2014 World Cups did the country cross the first round. Italy stopped Nigeria in the second round in 1994, while France did the same in 2014.
HEROES and HEROINES
Nigeria has also produced great sports stars like Hogan Bassey, Richard Ihetu, Isaac Ikhouria, Davidson Andeh, Joe Orewa, Obisia Nwakpa, Joe Lasisi, Jeremaiah Okorodudu, Isaac Ekpo, (all boxers of note), Hakeem Olajuwon in Basketball, Nduka Odizor in tennis, Mike Okpara(Power Mike), a former world wrestling champion, Atanda Musa, Aruna Quadri, 1980 Super Eagles squad, Tunisia 94 and USA ’94 Super Eagles, and South Africa 2013 Eagles squads, Rashidi Yekini, Stephen Keshi, Richard Owubokiri, Nwankwo Kanu, Sunday Oliseh, Austin Jay Jay Okocha, Mary Onyali, Falilat Ogunkoya, Chioma Ajunwa, the list is endless, who have made the nation proud these past 57 years.
The country’s male basketball team also qualified for the Olympics for the first time in 2012 and capped it with their first ever Afrobasket Championship title, the basketball Nations Cup in 2015. They made a return to the Olympics in 2016 in Rio, Brazil.
The 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow marked a turning point for the country as her sportsmen and women gave her reason to cheer at the Glasgow Games when they finished in eighth position, winning 11 gold, 11 silver and 14 bronze medals, surpassing their former outing in New Delhi, India.
It must be noted that the most outstanding athletes for the country have been women, who we have christened the Amazons. Blessing Okagbare, like her predecessors, the Onyalis, Ogunkoyas, among others, carries the weight of Nigeria’s expectations in almost every international sports meet in recent times. One cannot conclude the growth of Nigeria’s sports without the mention of special sports. The country’s special athletes have been spectacular in almost every competition they have taken part in. They deserve a special place in the annals of Nigerian sports.
Nigeria first participated in the Olympic Games in 1952, and has sent athletes to compete in every Summer Olympic Games since then, except for the boycotted 1976 Summer Olympics.
Nigerian athletes have won a total of 24 medals, mostly in athletics and boxing. The national football team won the gold medal in 1996. In 2008, following the International Olympic Committee’s decision to strip the American 4 × 400 metre relay team of their medals after Antonio Pettigrew confessed to using performance-enhancing drugs, their Nigerian rivals were awarded the gold medal. Nigeria also won a medal in the heavyweight division of taekwondo at the 1992 Summer Olympics; as this was only a demonstration sport, Emmanuel Oghenejobo’s silver did not count as an official win
Presently, the exploits of the 1980s and early 1990s seem a distant but pleasant past. Whether those exploits can be replicated is another thing as Nigerian sports have stagnated. At the London Olympics, Nigeria returned without a medal. In the Rio Games in Brazil, Nigeria won a bronze medal through football. The administration of sports in the country has gone back to zero level and that has rubbed off on strategic planning, policy formulation and implementation. Quality athletes are no longer getting good replacements and there is no concerted effort at grassroots development. Inter collegiate competitions are non-existent while the engine room for the production of coaches, the National Institute of Sports is a shadow of its former self.
In spite of these successes, the country’s sporting world has tasted setbacks, disappointments and tragedies. Nigeria football suffered a major setback in 1977 when Godwin Odiye’s own-goal stopped the country from attending her first FIFA World Cup tournament in 1978.
Other disappointments were in 1981 and 1989 when Nigeria was stopped by Algeria and Cameroon respectively under painful circumstances. In 1989, FIFA sledgehammer fell on Nigeria and she was subsequently banned for two years from participating in age grade competitions due to discrepancies in ages of players who had played for Nigeria. The Seoul Olympics of 1988 was another disaster for Nigerian athletes. Again like in 1980, the athletes came back without a single medal. Worse was the Green Eagles team which went to the games as favourite but completely lost out. The death of Dele Udoh, Nigeria’s most promising 400m gold medal hopeful in 1979 took the sports community in Nigeria by surprise. He was killed by the police at a checkpoint in Lagos when he came home from the USA to participate in an athletics meet.
Also in 1979, a clash between supporters of IICC Shooting Stars FC of lbadan and Bendel Insurance of Benin after a Challenge Cup semi-final match in Lagos in which the Benin team lost 0-2 led to the death of twenty-six people.
It was tragic. Another tragedy that hit the soccer world was the death of a patriotic soccer star, Sam Okwaraji who slumped and died at the National Stadium in Lagos during a 1990 World Cup qualifying match against Angola in 1989.
It was a horrifying experience as Nigerians had begun to appreciate not only the football skills of the late player but his patriotic zeal which were unparalleled. Tragedy again struck the country when players and officials of lwuanyanwu Nationale, now Heartland of Owerri returning from a continental engagement were involved in a plane crash.
Two players – Eghomwanre Aimuanmwosa, a.k.a. Omale and Uche Ikeogu with three crew members lost their lives while many others were seriously injured. Kayode Oluyemi, a member of the Nigerian silver winning team at the Barcelona Olympics was involved in a fatal motor accident which claimed his life while Sunday Uti another great athlete is ruled out of sports for life as he had a broken leg.
The sad losses of former Nigeria international Stephen Okechukwu Keshi and former Nigeria coach, Amodu Shaibu were most shocking. Since then Kelechi Emeteole, Sam Ojebode among others have followed..Despite the odds, Nigeria sports remains an attractive brand in international arena.