By Emeka Obasi
The younger generation of Nigerians do not really know that just like President Goodluck Jonathan wore no shoes as a school boy, the first Nigerian professional footballer, Titus Okere, showed up for trials at Swindon, in 1952,without cleats.
The Brits had seen the colonial Nigerian team, UK tourists, play without boots in 1949. Okere was part of that team. Three years later, it was funny that he still felt comfortable that way.
Okere signed a contract in January 1953 and was expected to break into the first team. On the way to the United Kingdom as a tourist, he scored a goal in the team’s 2-0 victory over Sierra Leone.
British paper, Daily Graphic, expected much from the Nigerian. According to the tabloid: “ Titus Okere is worth 15,000 pounds and a row of houses.”
For a team founded in 1881, The Robins, needed a winger to add bite to their ambition. However, Okere did not live up to expectations. He was unable to break into the first team and after one season, the player moved on.
Okere, from Ngor Okpala, Imo State, was a Port Harcourt boy. From St. Cyprian’s Primary School to Kalabari National College; he ended up at Okrika Grammar School.
When Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe set up the Zik’s Athletic Club[ZAC] Bombers in 1938, it attracted a battalion of exceptional strikers. Okere joined before crossing over to Lagos Railway, a team he captained in 1948.
The attacker was captain of the NIgerian national team, then renamed Red Devils, when Gold Coast came calling in 1951.Three decades later, another Titus Okere, became popular in Owerri playing for P and T Spiders.
In 1955, Teslim Olawale Balogun, followed Okere’s footsteps. Both were in the UK Tourists squad of 1949. In 1955, he signed for Peterborough. The deal lasted till 1956 when Queen’s Park Rangers became the attraction. The romance could not go beyond 1957.
Balogun had played for a Lagos Island team known as Thunder. That was how he got the nickname. His shots were like thunderbolt. Thunder’s shot sent a goalie to the grave during an international game.
What he gained in England was a coaching certificate which enabled him to lead Ibadan to Challenge cup victory in 1959, Balogun also was an Olympian having taken the Eagles to their first Olympic Games, Mexico ’68.
Nigeria did not go beyond the first round, but managed to get a 3-3 draw from Brazil. Bronze medalists, Japan, were also in that group as well as Spain. Keeper Rigogo Inua was dropped before the trip and was replaced by Malam Yakubu Bauchi.
Balogun’s father, Oseni, was a cricketer. His wife, Mulikat, was into Table Tennis. As a rampaging forward , he was known as ‘Balinga.’ Some called him ‘Baba bad.’ And like Okere, Balogun attended Primary School in the Garden City: St. Mary’s Catholic School.
And the soccer star played for teams all over Nigeria: Apapa Bombers, Marine Athletics, UAC, Railway, Jos, Pan Bank , Dynamos, SCOA and P and T. Add these to Skegness, 1956 and Holbeach United, 1957-1958.
Dan Amobi Anyiam once missed an Olympic qualifying duel because he was adjudged to have played professional football in Germany for Viktoria Koln as a trainee coach. Anyiam played for ZAC Bombers and was a UK tourist.
After Thunder Balogun came Elkanah Onyeali. He was born in Port Harcourt although he hailed from Mbieri, Imo State. A product of Holy Ghost College, Owerri, he achieved so many firsts.
Onyeali was the first Nigerian international to score four goals in a Grade A game. It happened on November 29, 1958 in the 10-1 disgrace of Benin Republic [Dahomey at the time].
He was also the first Nigerian soccer star to be invited to the national camp from overseas. He was specially flown in for a Nations cup qualifier against Black Stars of Ghana, from Holy head town in 1961. The result was goalless. The return leg ended 2-2.
Onyeali was in England to study for a degree in Electrical Engineering at Birkinhead Technical College. Soccer took him to Tranmere Rovers as their first black player. He scored nine goals in 16 matches between 1960 and 1961.
Onyeali showed so much love for country over club. He once told Tranmere that sickness kept him away from duty while he rushed back home to play for Nigeria. From him, the country got 11 goals in 11 caps, from 1959 to 1961.
In 1961, the centre forward teamed up with Preston Cables and came out as the club’s top scorer. He was better known as ‘Mercedes’ or ‘Al.’
At Frenton Park, coach Peter Farrell, gave him the elixir needed to excel. In Onyali’s debut versus Bournemouth, his brace helped get a 4-3 victory.
When Port Harcourt Red Devils won the Challenge cup in 1958, Onyeali played a huge role. He later relocated to Chicago, United States. By 1980, he was back in Nigeria.
The man who played good football in England before the trio of Okere, Balogun and Onyeali, was Albert Osakwe. Like Onyeali, he was in the United Kingdom to study. Like Okere, Osakwe played for ZAC Bombers.
In February 1945, Osakwe captained Oxford University against Cambridge at Dulwich Hamlet. It ended 2-1 against Cambridge. He scored the winning goal. And back at his St. Peter’s hall of residence, the chemistry student received a loud ovation.
Ade Coker moved in for West Ham to take over from injured Geoff Hurst in a match against Crystal place that ended 3-0. The Nigerian scored a goal in his debut. He later relocated to the United States. Coker got his USA chance in 1984.
Ibrahim Sunday became the first black man to play in the Bundesliga. Voted African Footballer of the Year in 1971,this Kano man who was born in Koforidua, Ghana spent two seasons at Werder Bremen. Damian Ogunsuyi left Insurance for Egypt.
John Okechukwu Chiedozie was at Leyton Orient between 1977 and 1981. Tunji Babajide Banjo, spent 1977 to 1982. Emeka Nwajiobi was hot at Luton Town. Christian Nwokocha moved from Clemson University, USA to Sporting Lisbon, Portugal. Okey Isima and Sylvanus Okpala followed.