By Emeka Obasi

This is a purely academic exercise which will come with attacks from different angles. Let it stir national controversy. Thank heavens I am Igbo. I understand Eagles first choice keeper, Francis Uzoho, shares same local government of origin with me.

Igbo
Igbo

I am also glad that this is football, not politics. Those who will rise against me may not all be Igbo. Even some Fulani herdsmen or Boko Haram fighters could dislike me for this. That is the good thing about soccer. All Nigerians speak one language.

I did a lot of research and discovered that all three times the Eagles won the Nations Cup, those who manned the post were not Igbo. In 1980, Best Ogedegbe, an Itsekiri raised in Ibadan, was our number one.

At Tunisia ’94, Peter Rufai, an Idimu Prince from Lagos, bred in Port Harcourt was in goal. In 2013, it was Vincent Enyeama, the Ibibio man, who earned fame in Aba.

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Now, this is not taking anything away from the great Igbo people. They have given Nigeria the best in football. And they remain the best. The records are there, from the colonial period till date.

The first Nigerian professional footballer, Titus Okere [Swindon Town, 1952] hailed from Imo State. The first Nigerian to coach the senior national team, Dan Anyiam [1954] also hailed from there. The first Nigerian to play in the World Cup, Paul McGrath, is an Igbo man.

Stephen Keshi [Delta] is the only compatriot to have won the Africa Nations cup as player and coach. He is the only Nigerian to have qualified another country[Togo] for the World cup. And with Emmanuel Amuneke [Tanzania] stand out as Nigerians who have led other nations to the Africa Nations cup.

Christian Chukwu [Enugu State], is the only Nigerian who won the Nations cup as captain[1980], and also won a continental trophy as skipper [Africa Winners Cup 1977]. He was the first of our countrymen to be voted Most Valuable Player [MVP] of the Nations Cup.

On top of the Nigerian soccer ladder, is Nwankwo Kanu [Abia State]. Many think he is from Imo, where he was born and bred. Papilo is the lone Nigerian to be named African Footballer of the Year twice.

He is the only Nigerian to have won the World Club Champions cup, the European Champions’ League, English FA cup and to crown it all, the first African captain to win Olympic Soccer gold medal [Atlanta’96].

The Igbo have indeed, produced great national goalkeepers. The country’s best during the colonial days was Francis ‘Magnet ‘ Ibiam. He was in goal for the UK Tourists in 1949.

The Great Emmanuel Anthony Oguejiofor Okala is my hero. He was voted African Footballer of the year 1978, the first Nigerian to be so recognized. His younger brother, Patrick Chuka, also became Nigeria’s number one.

Okala did what no other player from our climes may be able to do. On September 3, 1977, he was in goal for Enugu Rangers against AS Police of Senegal, in an Africa Winners Cup quarter finals game. It ended goalless.

Twenty four hours later, Sunday, September 4, Okala captained the Green Eagles to ECOWAS Games soccer gold with a 2-1 defeat of Ghana. Two international games for club and country, within 24 hours.

And that is where it ends. The surprise is that Okala did not win the Africa Nations cup as number one. Ogedegbe took over in 1980, while the former served as reserve when Nigeria won the Nations Cup in Lagos.

It was strange that even when coach Otto Gloria wanted to introduce the African Giant in the grand finale, with Eagle leading Algeria 3-0, an official of the NFA refused. The Brazilian coach walked away in anger.

However, Okala and Ogedegbe were the best of friends. As second choice, the taller keeper offered very useful tips to his colleague who was never seen as a rival. While fans read ethnic meanings into it all, Okala’s room mate was Segun Odegbami.

Patrick Okala got the opportunity which eluded his elder brother. At the Cote D’Ivoire ’84 Nations Cup, he kept goal for Nigeria in a grand finale. Captained by young Keshi, Eagles got the opener through Muda Lawal. Cameroon woke up from slumber to win 3-1.

Emma Okala won All Africa Games soccer gold in 1973. Curiously, he neither finished the opening nor the final game. In the first match against the Black Stars, the goalie was injured in the 75th minute and replaced by Eyo Essien.

It got worse in the grand finale against Guinea. Twelve minutes into the match, there was a collision with an opposing defender. Okala could not continue. Again, Essien was introduced, and the Eagles won a first African title.

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The Eagles had Okala in goal all through their gold medal defence at the Algiers ’78 Games. He played all 90 minutes in the final. Hosts, Algeria, dethroned the champions with a lone goal victory.

Aloy Agu [Imo], became number one in a funny fashion. Clemens Westerhof dropped Rufai at the airport on the way to Cameroon in 1989. David Ngodigha took over, but was injured. Substitute, Agu, was not prepared at all. He borrowed boots and jersey, but did well even with the Eagles crashing out.

Agu was in goal at the Algiers ’90 Nations Cup. He captained the team to the final. Algeria won 1-0 to lift the cup for the first time. Rufai returned and Nigeria won the trophy at Tunisia ’94.

The Eagles are almost set for the Egypt’2019 Nations Cup. Certainly Uzoho will be in goal. If he does not, there is Ikechukwu Ezenwa. Both are Igbo. Can they break the jinx?

In 56 years, since Nigeria debuted at the Africa Nations Cup, the Eagles have won the cup thrice. On two occasions, they were captained by Igbo players: Chukwu in 1980, and Keshi in 1994. In all three cup victories, the keepers were not Igbo: Ogedegbe, 1980. Rufai, 1994. Enyeama, 2013.

Let us breath, pray and hope. Nigeria broke the almost four-decade CAF Champions League jinx, through Enyimba. That sounds Igbo.

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